Rashomon (1950)

Akira Kurosawa | 1hr 28min

Akira Kurosawa has never shied away from the cutthroat cynicism of Japanese history and mythology, but as dark rain beats down heavily upon the dilapidated city gate that we return to all throughout Rashomon, one might feel as if he is sinking us deeper than ever into an apocalyptic world of total ruin. Even with half its roof caved in and an array of broken wooden beams exposed to the elements, it remains an impressive piece of ancient architecture, obstructing frames inside its walls with the debris that has accumulated over the years.

The sombre mood of the woodcutter and priest sitting silently under its feeble shelter equally suggests a decay that has taken over the land, though as they begin to explain the reason for their dismay to a passing commoner, it becomes evident that the form of degradation they are concerned with is more that of a senseless, moral corruption. Both have just observed the trial of a bandit who assaulted a woman on the road and seemingly killed her samurai husband, though what initially seems like a clear-cut case of truth and justice soon gets muddled as three conflicting stories emerge.

An impressive piece of dilapidated Japanese architecture drenched in rain, setting the scene for the narrative’s almost apocalyptic framing device.

By containing these flashbacks within the larger flashback of the trial, Kurosawa keeps us at a significant distance from each version of these events, recalling them not necessarily how they unfolded, but rather how the individual witnesses would like to believe they happened, presenting them to an unseen, silent judge. Each seated centre frame, the bandit, wife, and a medium channelling the spirit of the deceased samurai present their case directly to the camera, cutting any representation of lawful judgement out of the equation to position us, the viewers, as the sole arbiters of truth. This is not such an easy task though, we soon discover. While each witness agrees that the bandit confronted the travelling couple, tied up the samurai, and raped his wife, the renditions of subsequent events see each respective storyteller curiously frame themselves as the true murderer.

The witnesses in the centre foreground, the priest and woodcutter off to the right in the background as spectators to their recounts.

Despite this, each recount still sees its own narrator come out looking the most honourable among them, or in the case of the bandit, the bravest and smartest. Only in unlocking the fourth perspective of the woodcutter who secretly bore witness to the whole thing do we discover what we might assume is the truth, bookending the trial flashbacks with two of his own. We initially have no reason to doubt the first, which explains how he discovered a trail of strewn possessions leading to the samurai’s body while venturing down the road, though by the time we reach his final confession of how the confrontation really went down, we have been thoroughly conditioned to question the words of anyone with some connection to it.

Sure enough, the woodcutter admits he lied in court to cover up the fact that he stole the jewelled dagger from the scene of the crime. In his final version of events, the samurai humiliated his wife after she was raped by the bandit, and it is only after she challenged their masculinity that they were provoked into a pathetic, clumsy fight, proving that neither were particularly skilled with their weapons. The bandit’s win was not secured by skill or bravery, but sheer luck, and frightened by what just took place, the wife ran away in fear.

A master of blocking at work in static shots and action scenes alike, using his deep focus to draw our eyes around each composition.

Within their conflicting fabrications, all three witnesses are being sincere to some extent, and the only common lie among them is the presence of some courage, honour, and moral conviction in each narrator. Now with the woodcutter going back on his initial story, one has to wonder whether what he proposes is actually the objective truth, especially given that there are still holes in his tale – how did the dying samurai know the dagger was stolen if it was simply taken from his side and not drawn from his chest, for instance?

The point of Kurosawa’s complex structure here is not to lead us towards a single, definitive answer, and neither is it to simply reveal the difficulties in our search for truth. More than just being a bold exercise in narrative form, Rashomon is a meditation on the nature of storytelling itself, recognising it as an inherently subjective form of communication through which we understand the egos, insecurities, and shortcomings of other humans, and following on from that, our own as well. Framed within the meeting of three men whose identities are distributed across a spectrum of spiritual faith and nihilism, Rashomon even more broadly applies this study to the dramatic conflict between them, watching the priest’s faith in humanity dwindle right next to the commoner’s pessimistic taunts.

The beams and debris of the Rashomon gatehouse obstructing these frames, throwing off their balance.

Significant to the thread of despair running through the modern-day storyline is that angry storm which continues to pelt down around them, as if dolefully conjured up by the moral failings of the four dishonest witnesses. Kurosawa is unquestionably of a master of using weather formations to bring rich depth to his characters and an effervescent energy to his cinematography, but it also serves a formal purpose here in marking a striking contrast between the present day’s gloomy rain and the recurring low angles of the sun in the flashbacks, rendering the canopy’s branches as dense, black silhouettes. When he isn’t turning our eyes upwards, he will often instead cast the forest’s shadows across the faces of the bandit, samurai, and wife, setting up an intriguing conflict of light and darkness in both his scenic landscapes and intimate close-ups.

Formally recurring shots of the sun poking through the trees, brilliantly tying style to narrative.
And of course, Kurosawa extends this motif to the faces of his characters, casting shadows across their faces like a battle between truth and darkness.

Even within Kurosawa’s screenplay, the impact of weather is quietly influential, with the bandit claiming that the only reason he awoke from his nap and noticed the passing couple was the cool breeze ruffling the leaves above him. In this way, these atmospheric conditions become forces of a volatile, chaotic universe, shunning any belief that there may be a higher power guiding humans along a single true path by splitting itself into multiple realities, each one born in the dishonest minds of its inhabitants.

A real influence from John Ford with shots like these – the placement of the horizon and the inventive use of legs to frame characters in the background.

Kurosawa’s dextrous camerawork and editing are particularly integral to our navigation of these uncertain worlds, both working in tandem to offer multiple spins on the bandit and samurai’s thrillingly choreographed sword fights, and expertly blocking each narrator as the heroes of their own stories. Especially remarkable is the agile camera movements which nimbly adopt the perspectives of the individual storytellers, often moving in close on their faces before rapidly swinging the camera around to view the objects of their focus. It is no surprise that between the multiple characters who claim our attention with these superb close-ups, it is Toshiro Mifune’s bandit who transfixes us the most, pulling off wild mood swings, fits of manic laughter, and eventually an emotional strain which sees beads of sweat cling to his long, black hair and beard.

Inspired camera movements taking on the perspective of each character.
He’s just one part of a larger ensemble, but Toshiro Mifune is by far the stand out as the bandit. Kurosawa’s close-ups serve him well here – we can see every drop of sweat on his face and in his beard.

Whether he really did kill the samurai or not amounts to very little in the end. It is not so much the murder than the cowardice and duplicity of the entire ensemble which stokes Rashomon’s cynicism, and the discovery of an abandoned baby in the gate house at first simply seems to confirm the inherent evil of humanity. But just as the violent storm is not a permanent fixture here, neither is corruption an inevitability for those possessing the self-awareness to reflect on their own fallibilities. Along with the emergence of the sun from behind the clouds comes the woodcutter’s decision to take the baby in as his own, marking what might be the first truly selfless act in the film. There may not be any undisputed truths to uncover here, but for Kurosawa, the next best thing is to at least use the imperfect perspectives of others to reflect on the self-serving lies in our own. It is only with as daring a narrative structure as the one which he builds here that Rashomon’s ruminations on subjectivity, truth, and storytelling can find such peaceful resolve in the acceptance of an uncertain, chaotic world.

The baby emblematic of humanity’s potential for either good or evil, and for all his cynicism, Kurosawa doesn’t falter ending Rashomon on a hopeful note.

Rashomon is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

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