When the truth of a murder is about more than who killed who…
From the moment we see the sun-dappled tree line of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon with Takashi Shimura moving energetically as the Woodcutter, we have to take what happens as fact. It’s presented in such a matter of fact fashion. Because the camera doesn’t lie, right? Well, here it does. Kurosawa even tells us so at the very beginning of the picture; his dialogue between the monk, the woodcutter and the commoner who happens upon the other two, tells us that someone is lying. We are being set up for the first time in cinema with the idea that everyone will be an unreliable narrator. It’s up to us to decide, much like the commoner, who is telling the truth.
Telling the story of the death of a man (Masayuki Mori) and the rape of his wife (Machiko Kyō) by a bandit (Toshiro Mifune), the film is segmented into sections with each side telling the tale: the bandit, the wife, the dead man (through a spirit medium) and finally closing on the woodcutter. The local court hears the evidence, off camera, so the audience is hearing the evidence in its place. It’s a wonderful trick and Kurosawa omits the court’s dialogue and has his actors repeat the courts “lines” so we know where the trial is going.
But where other films might go into the characters motivations or talk about how one person is lying, Rashomon goes completely into the rabbit hole. Here, the film is informing us that each telling is markedly different with only the man’s death the most common thread. The wife’s story changes wildly from one of abject shame at being attacked in front of her helpless husband to actively egging both men to duel each other. Tajomaru (Mifune) is also depicted as being vain, helpful, honourable, savage at all times. Depending on whom you believe even the dead man’s reason for being dead changes. Is it any wonder that Bryan Singer used the concept of a story untold unreliably by multiple people for his masterpiece, The Usual Suspects?
The film attacks two concepts simultaneously: there’s no such thing as true intentions in people and secondly, the memory can be clouded by what a person thinks they saw, not what they actually saw. In the manner we meet the monk (Minoru Chiaki) and the Woodcutter, both profess that they don’t understand how the story could change so wildly but in truth, both of them are hiding from the fact that people lie for all kinds of reasons, none more important than how they appear to themselves. The monk thinks that people are good at heart but this case tests his resolve. How can people lie about a murder in the telling not that the murder never took place? For the woodcutter, his resolve is tested by the fact that the commoner has everyone in the story dead to rights: they all looking out for each other and they are all lying and telling the truth (or a version therein) at the same time. When the woodcutter reveals more of what went on than what he told the court, we finally understand the revelation at the heart of the story and of Kurosawa’s intent: maybe nobody can truly know the truth of a matter even if they possess other perspectives? Perhaps it is better to simply say that someone died, someone is guilty and leave the rest to others to decide.
Rashomon was a film I had so earnestly wanted to see ever since I watched an interview with Bryan Singer on the old MGM special edition of Usual Suspects where he described the plot of Kurosawa’s film as being integral to the construction of his film. Since both films have a crime, a suspect, an authority figure digging into the truth and a revelation at the end, it’s amazing to see how Suspects came to be. Rashomon offers a stiller version of a crime told from multiples angles with a more emotional depth to it because of the crisis it triggers in both the monk and the woodcutter. Can you survive in a world where people can’t even be honest with themselves? Without spoiling it, Kurosawa does have an answer, one that I find gives us hope but not a proper resolution, and it takes the entire length of the picture for him to properly tell it.
The cast here is top notch with high praise going to Takashi Shimura for his amazing performance as the woodcutter who goes from passerby to a crime to completely involved in the aftermath over the course of the film. Toshiro Mifune acts up a storm as the amoral rapist Tajomaru. He is either an opportunistic, debased criminal or a brigand with a faulty conscience. It depends on which version of Tajomaru you believe is the real one. Finally, Machiko Kyō as the wife is the standout performance that you won’t see coming. I like to think that each version of her is each other character’s version of who she really is. In each version she is attacked against her will, her husband dies and her attacker gets away but gluing each facet together runs the range of human emotions that a person has. Whereas the other characters stay the same in terms of their entry and exit from the story and how they are emotionally, her character changes the most and at the end, you can’t tell if she’s happy or sad her husband died nor if Tajomaru being caught will bring her any solace. The other cast members are excellent as well and Kurosawa knows how to pick them. The music by Fumio Hayasaka is sparse and dispersed with the opening and ending getting the most emotionally resonance while Kazuo Miyagawa’s cinematography makes amazing use out of three (just three!) locations as we disappear dreamily into the forest for a maddening tour of the crime scene and languish with the woodcutter, the monk and commoner under the remains for the gate that the film takes its title from while the rainstorm to end all rainstorms lashes them in more ways than one.
To say that Rashomon baffled audiences when it first came out is a bit of understatement. Even Kurosawa’s producers and staff didn’t understand what he was getting at. The general consensus from domestic audiences seems to be “Yeah, nice film but I didn’t understand a lick of it.” It did however win over enough people to win the inaugural Blue Ribbon Award in Japan for Best Screenplay. But overseas, it was a bit different. With film about to undergo a sea change with the French New Wave around the corner, the studio system coming to an end and independent filmmakers coming into their own, Rashomon arrived and changed audience perceptions. Here, the action was fluid, the characters were dynamically charged and the story never holds your hand once. It won an honorary Oscar for, and I quote, “the most outstanding foreign language film released in the United States during 1951” and was nominated the next year at the Academy for Best Art Direction for a Black and White film. Meanwhile, it scooped the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. All in all, it caused a sensation with cinemagoers and allowed Kurosawa a certain amount of wiggle room when it came time for his next picture The Idiot (1951), savagely cut by the releasing studio and Ikiru (1952), warmly received by all. Finally, it allowed him to make the film he would be judged on for the rest of his career, Seven Samurai (1954). Not bad for a film with a confusing plot.
Rashomon is the film that keeps on giving, allowing you to decide every time if this time you’ll figure it out, if this time you know who is telling the truth. Truly, films like this happen rarely and for good reasons.
Rashomon is available on US Blu-ray from Criterion Collection, and UK Blu-ray from BFI.
Home media details
Distributor: Criterion (US)
Edition: Blu-ray edition (2012)
My delve into Kurosawa at Criterion continues with no end in sight, especially after sampling their efforts with Rashomon. While not as voluminous as their Seven Samurai release, the film gets a complete restoration thanks to the Academy Film Archive (US), the Kadokawa Culture Promotion Foundation (JPN) and the Film Foundation (US) and looks stunning. The contrast and brightness levels are so well done that only the camera lenses and the style of shooting reveal its age. The same goes for the audio. Criterion tends to leave the audio as close in perception to how it was originally listened to and while I might disagree with them on certain titles, here it is warranted. Audio is monaural in Japanese with English subtitles and while it can never be claimed to be digitally perfect, the entire hiss, pops and damage aberrations have been removed to get it as close to how it once sounded.
On the extras side, we get a highly informative commentary from the late Japanese film historian and Kurosawa biographer Donald Richie, recorded originally for Criterion in 2001 plus an audio only interview conducted in the ‘50’s in Europe with Takashi Shimura, translated by Mr. Richie. We get a booklet with essays by film historian Stephen Prince and Kurosawa himself; it also contains the two stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa upon which the film is based. While I have been enjoying Criterion’s use of Toho’s documentary about Kurosawa (It’s Wonderful to Create) on other releases, here instead we get an appreciation of the film by the late director Robert Altman, an excerpt interview with Rashomon cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa and a sprawling documentary, A Testimony as an Image, with interviews with surviving cast and crew who talk openly and warmly about the film’s difficulty in getting made, its release and what the film and Kurosawa meant to them. I was enjoying the documentary but at the end felt my heartstrings get pulled when one crew member who got drummed out of the Daiei Studio during the Red Purge in Japan after Rashomon was made told of how in the depths of his despair, he received a postcard from Kurosawa who knew of his difficulties and wanted to lend some support. Kurosawa had a reputation of being a bit of an ogre making films but not toward his juniors and this is a prime example of the man in action. The disc is wrapped up by both the original trailer (which has a story behind it which you will only learn watching the documentary!) and Criterion’s own trailer.