Ranking: #38/111

Director: Akira Kurosawa (Japan)

Genre: Period Drama/Crime Mystery

This could be the most influential Japanese film of all. It was the first Japanese film to receive massive international recognition, winning an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, among other accolades. The Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema explains the impact this had on Japan’s film industry in the 1950s: “After the surprising success of Rashomon, the amount of film exports had increased tremendously between 1951 and 1953, and motion pictures rose to prominence among various exports. In 1953 alone, a total of 675 films valued at US$1,030,000 were exported to various countries, primarily in European markets, which was thirty times more than that of 1947.” (Miyao, D, ed, (2014), The Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema, p.230)

Artistically, Rashomon ranks highly in cinema history due to its masterful use of narrative point of view in cinema. The film’s core incident is the rape of a bride and murder of her samurai husband in the woods by a bandit. It is told from four widely differing subjective perspectives, producing contradictory accounts of what happened. The audience is invited by the director to piece the puzzle together and figure out what “really” happened. The difficulty and complexity of doing this conveys the message that reality is much more highly nuanced than we tend to think.

The narrative has an amazing structure. Not only is the same incident replayed four times to visually convey how each person witnessed it, but the director has given the film a circular format, with the beginning and ending shot at the ruins of the Rashomon gate, the outer precincts of a city. The gate becomes a symbol of the way perceptions of reality must pass through filters. In the pouring rain at Rashomon, it looks like nothing about reality seems to be clear or easy to understand.

At the gate, a priest and a woodcutter try to shelter from this incessant rain (which, incidentally, was provided by fire engines hired by Kurosawa). A commoner joins them and starts telling them about the sexual assault and murder that has taken place.  The woodcutter explains that three days earlier he found the body of a murdered samurai while looking for wood in the forest. The priest mentions that he saw the samurai and his wife travelling through the forest that day.

The dappled light in some of the beautiful shots of the forest shown in the narrative flashbacks adds to the sense of mystery as to what really happened. What role do perceptions play in how we see things? And do we lie to ourselves and to others to protect ourselves?

The black-and-white photography is lush, with elaborate interplays of light and shadow in the forest. As a matter of interest, the forest was full of leeches and the actors and crew had to rub themselves with salt. These seminal sequences, where the rape and murder took place, were filmed on location in the Nara virgin forest with very mobile camera work. Kurosawa blended the cinematography in the forest with thematic overtones, with the light and shadow creating “a world where the human heart loses its way” (Kurosawa, A, 1983. Something Like an Autobiography, p. 185).

A court is convened to adjudicate on the rape and murder charges. The captured bandit, a notorious outlaw called Tajōmaru, claims that he tricked the samurai to step off the mountain trail with him to look at a cache of ancient swords he’d uncovered but then ties the man to a tree. He then claims that the bride tried to defend herself from assault with a dagger, but was seduced by the bandit. Ashamed of herself, she then pleaded with Tajōmaru to have a duel to the death with her husband, saying she would then go with whoever the winner was. This was the murderer’s excuse for killing the samurai.

The wife’s account is very different to Tajōmaru’s story.  She tells the court that the outlaw left after raping her, whereupon she cut her husband free from the tree, begging him for forgiveness. But he refused and, overcome with shame and distress, she faints over her husband, waking later to find him dead, a dagger in his chest. Later, she tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide.

Ingeniously, the dead samurai is allowed to give his testimony through a medium. He claimed that after the rape, he was shocked that his wife had agreed to live with the bandit. The wife had then asked Tajōmaru to kill her husband. The bandit, however, had been disgusted by this and had allowed the samurai to choose whether to free her or to kill her. After the wife fled, the samurai, overcome by the deep dishonour he has experienced, killed himself with her dagger.

According to the woodcutter, though, after the rape, Tajōmaru and the samurai had a rather farcical fight, in which the samurai was killed. The bride had accused both men of being cowards, wanting nothing further to do with them, especially after her husband told her he wouldn’t fight over a spoiled woman, effectively blaming her for the rape.

There are no heroes or heroines in this confusing episode and the film doesn’t show what the court’s final verdict is. Nor can the reader work out what really happened in the woods.

Just when faith in humanity is at its lowest, after all the lies in the four different accounts of the rape and murder, there is the sound of a baby crying at the Rashomon gate. The baby has been abandoned in a basket, with a kimono and a protective amulet. The commoner steals the amulet. When the woodcutter chastises the man for stealing from an abandoned child, they fight and the thief accuses the woodcutter of being a hypocrite, deducing that he didn’t testify at the court hearing because he had stolen the wife’s valuable dagger. As he exits, the commoner declares that everyone is motivated by self-interest. In his autobiography, Kurosawa explained his cynical outlook on humanity in these words: “This is probably true of human life everywhere – a light exterior hides a dark underside.” (Kurosawa, A, 1983. Something Like an Autobiography, p.82). In Rashomon, Kurosawa was trying to illustrate humanity’s instinct for self-aggrandisement: “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing…Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem.” (Kurosawa, A, 1983. Something Like an Autobiography, p. 183)

Finally, there is the hint that redemption’s still possible for such a profoundly self-interested and deceitful humanity: the woodcutter decides to raise the abandoned baby as his own, even though he already has six children. The priest is pleased. The film ends with the rain clearing up to reveal the return of clearer skies, a lovely metaphorical touch.