The film that launched Japanese cinema into serious international reckoning, and quite simply one of Kurosawa’s very best.
Dir. Akira Kurosawa
1950 | Japan | Crime/Drama/Mystery | 88 mins | 1.33:1 | Japanese
PG (passed clean) for mature theme
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori
Plot: A heinous crime and its aftermath are recalled from differing points of view.
Awards: Won Golden Lion (Venice); Won Best Foreign Language Film & Nom. for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Oscars)
Subject Matter: Moderate – Philosophy, Truth, Perspectives
Narrative Style: Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
First Published: 13 Sep 2014
It is somewhat frightening to think that Rashomon nearly did not secure a release. The studio involved did not like the final product, but nearly everyone else did, particularly the Western critics.
Showered with the Golden Lion from Venice, and a belated Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Feature, such was Rashomon‘s impact in 1950 that it heralded not just the international recognition of the massive talent that was Akira Kurosawa, but officially ushered in the rise of Japanese cinema, shining the spotlight on filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu, Kon Ichikawa, Masaki Kobayashi, the veteran Kenji Mizoguchi, and many others.
It also changed our perception of film art, of style and narrative structure. In some way, it had a similar impact, perhaps even greater, to Antonioni’s game-changing L’Avventura (1960).
Rashomon runs at a modest 88 minutes, but it packs a lot in that time. Exploring themes such as Man’s greed, selfishness and lust, alongside his inability to articulate the truth, and how obscure truth really is, Kurosawa’s film revolves around four key eyewitnesses to a heinous crime, all giving entirely different accounts of the event.
Who is telling the truth? No one knows, not even Kurosawa himself. There is no convincing answer, but that is not what Rashomon is driving at. It does not wish to seek clarity through resolution; rather it is concerned with the complexity of Man’s inner makeup, his mystery, and ultimately his very own enigma.
“They are common stories these days. I even heard that the demon living here in Rashomon fled in fear of the ferocity of man.”
Rashomon, the half-wrecked gate sheltering the characters from the seemingly eternal rain, becomes the site where Man meets his enigmatic double, and has his faith in humanity questioned.
Through the lens of legendary cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, who with Rashomon became the first person to point the camera at the sun, and Kurosawa’s creative direction and clever use of the flashback technique, the film captures vividly the elements of nature, of sunlight, rain, shade, the thick woods etc., thus evoking unique time settings of past and present, of stark reality and multifarious memories.
The cast give mesmerizing displays, especially Toshiro Mifune and Machiko Kyo, who carry forth a balance of viciousness and sympathy. The use of clever flashbacks by Kurosawa, and the courthouse sequences in which we do not hear the judge speak become innovative film techniques.
This experimental narrative, if you will, by Kurosawa is a must-see work of Japanese cinema. It is an influential masterpiece that is timelessly challenging, philosophical, and ultimately highly rewarding.