Kurosawa Akira’s Rashômon (1950), a jidai-geki or ‘period piece’, is both a profound examination of the human condition, and a phenomenological meditation about the nature of reality, perception, and truth. The film stars Mifune Toshirô as ‘the bandit’, Tajômaru; Kyô Machiko as ‘the samurai’, Kanazawa Machiko; Mori Masayuki as ‘the wife’, Kanasawa Takehiro; and Shimura Takashi, Chiaki Minoru, and Ueda Kichijirô as ‘the woodcutter’, ‘the priest’, and ‘the commoner’ respectively. The famous Japanese cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo (Ugetsu, Sansho The Bailiff) worked extensively with Kurosawa in the making of the film. In 1950, Rashômon, a film based on two stories by Akutagawa Ryu-nosuke, was screened for and admired by American audiences; it was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and received an Academy Honorary Award at the 24th Academy Awards. Retrospectively, it can be said that Rashômon introduced Kurosawa and Japanese cinema to Western audiences.; it was released in America in December 1951 as a ‘mystery-crime-drama’.
Kurosawa utilizes multiple narrators and flashbacks to tell the story of Rashômon; this storytelling technique serves both the plot and the theme – the second of which I will get into shortly. On its surface, Rashômon is a crime-drama about a murdered samurai and the ensuing trial. The film begins with three men, a woodcutter, a priest, and a commoner, seeking refuge from rainfall in the former gatehouse of Rashômon. The woodcutter, who discovered the body three days earlier, and the priest, who witnessed the man alive that same day, recount the “horror stories” testified by the three supposedly only direct witnesses: the bandit, the samurai’s wife, and the dead samurai himself – who testifies through a medium. With the use of flashbacks, each of them tell their side of the story; the three stories differ significantly, sharing little in common – only that the bandit tricked the samurai, tied him up, and raped his wife. The stories lack conformity in respect to the moods, facial expressions, behavior, and actions of the characters, as well as the murder instrument and the killers identity. Later, the woodcutter reveals that he actually witnessed the whole thing; a flashback of his story is then shown, but, even his story, the one most likely to be genuine, has holes.
While Rashômon is a murder story on the surface, the deeper philosophic themes are remarkably more important. The murder story is utilized as a means for examining the human condition; the contradictions in the four stories reveal a horrifying truth – that the human ego is responsible for their inconsistencies. At the most basic level, each of the four storytellers could be lying, and, to some extent, they likely all are. However, even if they are not lying, even if they genuinely believe they are telling the truth, their stories will still not corroborate. This is because, as Kurosawa reveals with the utilization of flashbacks, each character’s story relies on their subjective experience of the world. However, this reliance is not dependable, given that phenomena, such as reality, perception, and truth, are distorted by the human condition – the ego. Along with all its attributes, such as, emotions, thoughts, and memories, the ego distorts one’s perception, which in turn distorts one’s reality, which distorts truth. The truth is that there cannot possibly be a subjective account of truth – the fallibility of the human condition does not permit this. The two versions of the swordfight between the bandit and the samurai illustrate this notion that the ego distorts perception, reality, and truth. The bandit reveals a story fitted to his liking, while the woodcutter does the same for himself. To some extent it’s because of deceitfulness, but, to some extent, it is because of how they unconsciously choose to perceive things. The bandit unconsciously chooses to believe that he is a powerful warrior because, deep down, he wants to believe it is true. As the commoner states, “it’s human to lie…most of the time we can’t even be honest with ourselves”.
Moreover, in Rashômon, Kurosawa and Miyagawa utilize several camera techniques and aspects of cinematography to help illustrate the story. First of all, each of the flashbacks are shot slightly differently in order to show that reality is different for each person; noticeable differences in camera movement, angle, length of shot, length of take, and image location express that each of the stories are distorted by the characters subjective experience of the world. For the bandit, quick cuts, close ups and lots of action is used., for the samurai and his wife, longer takes are used, and the length of the shot changes formulaically – a good example of this is the long shot of the tied-up samurai that slowly cuts to a medium-shot, which slowly cuts to a close-up – and, for the woodcutter, camera techniques are the least exaggerated. Moreover, Kurosawa often presents the characters on screen in a triangular formation – this is particularly noticeable in the present-day scenes. I believe this triangular formation is implicative of Plato’s tripartite soul – a much earlier examination of the human condition. The three desires can be easily applied in Rashômon – the bandit pursues appetitive desires; the samurai, spirited; and the woodcutter, rational. This understanding also explains Kurosawa’s intentions behind the aforementioned modifications in camera techniques during each of their stories. Lastly, in each of the four flashbacks, there is a recurring shot of the sun through the trees. These shots brought Kurosawa much fame and recognition, but they are not merely used for aesthetic value. The sun through the trees is the only consistent image throughout the four stories; this implies that only nature, all that is non-ego, can be revealed truthfully.
Several years after my first viewing of Rashômon, it remains one of my favourite films. I believe that the philosophic themes within the film are beneficial to the cultivation of any bright mind. Furthermore, Kurosawa’s concise and thoughtful use of aesthetics, characters, and storytelling make the film both captivating for the casual film-viewer and archetypal for the avid cinephile. For these reasons, I highly recommend the film to anyone.