Rashomon – 1950

Director Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijiro Ueda, Noriko Honma, Daisuke Katō

It’s one of the most revered and discussed films of all time. At our worst, we casually mention “The Rashomon Effect” for movies like Star Wars The Last Jedi, and leave it as two different points of view. Rashomon really encompasses more than different viewpoints. At stake in this story about an ambush, a rape and its ramifications, is the faith of a priest (Chiaki). As he and a woodcutter (Shimura) describe the events of the story to a listener (Ueda) as if it were the very heart of humanity being discussed. The two are explaining the story from (eventually) four points of view. These perspectives are those of a Samurai (Mori), his wife (Kyō) and the bandit who changed everyone’s lives with his unbridled passion.

The bandit sees the wife, stirring his passion.

The bandit (Mifune) is a whimsically menacing legend, and when he sees the wife being guided atop a horse, he sees the light of her goodness and he wants to consume her entirely. He deceives the husband, ties him up and makes him watch as he attacks and rapes his wife. This taking place in the 8th Century, the sin becomes the woman’s at the moment she is taken. If one gets lost in this obvious injustice, they risk the chance at understanding a deeper concept.

The exceptional cinematography collaboration with Kazuo Miyagawa allows the viewer to see the events through light, dark and the coming storm. The lone drawback is that he had not yet begun to take advantage of widescreen. The perspectives change within the tales, depending on whose perspective is revealed. The woodcutter, priest and commoner sit at the Rashomon Gate (outside of today’s Kyoto) are in the midst of a downpour. The clouds and rain represent the attack on the priest’s faith, which is not improving with each version of the events that is expressed.

Commoner begins to build a fire.

A film score by the great Fumio Hayasaka that completely matches the feelings evoked is one of the best of its time. One has no choice but to go along with the incredibly intricate plot, and wonder how much of what we’re being pushed into feeling from moment to moment. The mind is driven to wander through concepts that seem a sure thing when watching at first, then are shaken through each subsequent viewing .

Rashomon is director Kurosawa in absolute peak form in his translation of older stories into parables for all time. This time, he takes the story from “In a Grove” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa and breaks it down for the viewer to ponder the greater idea of faith in man. We are being asked, like the priest, to determine who, if anyone, is the innocent version of mankind. Time and again, the answer appears to be that no one is innocent.

The bandit Tajōmaru seems to agree with the Samurai that the real problem for the story is the weak nature of the woman. This seems ridiculous, because she did not initiate any of the events. If anything, she is the purest form of the victim. In the end, everyone has a chance to look like an aggressor in some capacity and everyone shows a weak nature.

This is a master in top form, showing humans, potentially at their worst. What does Kurosawa want the viewer to take from this? There are stories that he was waiting for a cloudy sky that never came to bring even more doubt on the ending of the story. I choose to find the same hope that the priest is searching for through a simple act.

Every actor in this story is on point. The story is deceptively simple, as if to show that simple human emotion and frailty is enough to mess up even the most straightforward events. Everyone takes their own version based on how the outcome can benefit them.

Of these, Shimura is the fulcrum of the story. He seems to be unaware of the power he possesses. He’s been excellent in so many roles, but there is no way to hide his incredibly powerful humility.

For Mifune, this is a great leap forward. He’s able to express insanity, passion, power, fear and weakness and somehow make it all of a piece. His rocket is heading straight up.

The medium speaks for the Samurai, as the woodcutter and priest look on.

The two women in the story are exceptionally powerful, given their roles. Kyō’s portrayal of the wife stretches from the innocence of Ophelia to the deviousness of Lady MacBeth. Of all people, we feel her lack of power acutely. It’s a remarkable thing how she turns the audience’s sympathy on it’s ear and forces the viewer to reconsider what we’re seeing. She has more power than anyone would guess.

As the medium Miko, Honma is breathtaking and haunting. She’s asked to give the words of a dead man life, and she brings it all through with a shining finality. In viewing, it feels like this word, from one who has no more to gain, just must be the truth. It’s not the first or last time the viewer has this feeling. Each time is more remarkable than the previous.

The feeling of Rashomon is that of being on a ride we’ve been on before, but still not knowing what is around the next bend. We are being manipulated, but it all feels so real and genuine. If nothing else, we have the certainty of the downpour, from which all of these stories emanate. Humanity seems to be without hope, until the tiniest gesture.

Rainstorm at the gates of Rashomon.

It’s hard to describe how great Rashomon is without just having someone experience the events as they unfold. This is storytelling at its best. It’s at once thrilling and uncomfortable. It’s a dark cloud over a seemingly trouble free life, then a ray of sunshine over the most doomed of innocence. Rashomon stands as a gateway to our existence. It is one of the greatest films ever made, and should be viewed by anyone seeking insight through true artistic achievement. It should be used as a template for those wishing to begin to understand the ever contrasting nature of humanity.

(***** out of *****)


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