Updated: Dec 21, 2020
Against all odds, Rashomon changed Japanese film forever after!
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Machiko Kyô, Masyuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki
The lost gravity of Rashomon
Rashomon is labeled a classic, but somehow the gravity of Kurosawa's achievement seems lost on many. The film was made only five years after Japan's surrender in WW2. The country was fighting the after-effects of nuclear warfare and adjusting to occupation at the same time. It was a time when most people were struggling to keep it together.
The Japanese movie industry was strictly regulated and censored during and after the war. It went from being utilized for national propaganda, to being used by the allied forces to promote democracy. Meanwhile, Kurosawa fought to realize his vision, but his creative ideas were met with confusion and disbelief by his crew and production company.
Kurosawa went against the grain
and made a film that no one wanted to believe in
When released in 1950, both the Japanese press and the production company (Daiei Film) vastly underestimated Rashomon. The movie did okay at the box office, but was pulled from Japanese cinemas only a few weeks after its release.
Two years later, to everyone’s surprise - especially Daiei, Rashomon won the Academy Honorary Award for most outstanding foreign language feature. The studio executives, the actors, and even Kurosawa himself was absent at the festival. Apparently, they had lost all faith in the film's potential.
As it turned out, the time was exactly right for a film that took the notion of timelines and narrative play to the next level. Rashomon was an instant hit that made audiences all over the world take interest in Japanese cinema.
Rashomon facts for new audiences
Rashomon was made by Akira Kurosawa and released in 1950. It stared Kurosawa's signature actor Toshirô Mifune. Rashomon was the fifth movie that the two of them collaborated on. In 1952 the film won an Academy Award for «most outstanding foreign language film».
Rashomon is a significant part of Japanese film history. Not only did it challenge the filmmaking norms of its time, it made Japanese cinema popular overseas. As such, Rashomon expanded the horizons of Japanese cinema, and the art of moviemaking itself, in one fell swoop.
Pioneering Japanese film production
That the film was misunderstood is just as understandable as the fact that it won the award. Rashomon was decades ahead of its time. Perhaps for this reason it continues to amaze new audiences to this day. The approach to storytelling was so confusing to the film team that it led to quarrels between Kurosawa and his disgruntled production assistants.
The point was just as much about how the story was presented as it was about the content itself. Kurosawa tried to explain that life is not always certain, and that many stories end without a clear cut answer to the questions at hand.
The concept of open-ended storytelling was foreign to say the least, and opposition to free spirited thinking is not hard to imagine in postwar Japan. Film industry was after all just another industry, and the rapidly increasing Japanese capitalism was greased by compliance and rigidity.
Rashomon was an uphill battle from the get-go,
but before long it ended up astounding the whole world
So outlandish did the story appear, that the head of the film studio decided to remove his name from the credits. It probably didn't help much that Toshirô Mifune's acting antics, no matter how exceptional, were unpolished, free-spoken and in stark contrast to the Japanese acting standards of its time.
The cinematography was innovative, the score was unusual, and the narrative had a nonlinear approach. Flashbacks were not unheard-of, but to build an entire movie around them was preposterous.
Four versions of the same incident were presented with essential details changed each time. Each «participant» in the horrible crime tells the story in a different way, it is up to the viewer to decide which details they want to believe or not.
The stories in Rashomon
The story in itself was also controversial for its time. It tells the tale of a married couple who encountered a strange wanderer in the forest. What happened thereafter is a mystery. The only thing certain is that the husband met his demise.
From the very first scene, the audience are given hints about the confusing nature of the tale, as a woodcutter and a priest appears dumbfounded by the «courtroom» trial they just took part in. The woodcutter then continues to tell the entire story from recollection, starting with the discovery of a murdered man.
The layers of time become more intricate when the characters in the woodcutter's story also start to give their respective testimonies in retrospect. The thief, the wife, the witness, and the deceased husband (through the voice of a medium) retells the story from their point of view. Each person tries to bend the truth in order to lose as little honor as possible.
Reading between the bamboo trunks
Time appears to be a key concept in Rashomon. It is never addressed directly, but it fuels the tension throughout the movie. Suspense is built by jumping back and forth in time. Discussions get heated by different perceptions of time, and timelines offer subjective points of view, which in turn challenge the viewers to take an objective stand.
Between the lines is a commentary on the human condition. None of the testimonies are similar, all of the stories are subjective, and the truth lies hidden in the past. It will never be revealed. All stories are distorted by personal opinions or self-serving motives. Can we even trust our own judgment, or is it also colored by our experiences and viewpoints?
Donald Richie takes this one step further by arguing that that the subjective views of the four witnesses are in fact all true. They are the perception of the situation from four viewpoints who all believe their version to be true. As such, it is reality itself that is questioned, not the human condition, or the obfuscated causality of the heinous crime in the bamboo grove.
The concept of time certainly changed in postwar Japan. The modernization of the war-torn country was faster than any upraise in any country in modern times. Family life was sacrificed, and leisure time was abolished to the benefit of the «common good». The subjective experience of time passing by might very well have appeared as distorted as the timelines in Rashomon.
The influence of Rashomon …
Rashomon's immediate success after winning the Academy Award changed the annals of film history. Kurosawa opened the box and changed move-making trends forever after. Toying with timelines rapidly became the pastime of any director seeking to explore the boundaries of the film medium.
Today the use of retrospective narratives has become mainstream. It is a common cinematic tool for maintaining suspense with unexpected twists and turns . Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999), Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000), Snatch (Guy Richie, 2000), Sin City (Robert Rodriguez, 2005) and Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2009), to mention a few, are all examples of narratives à la Rashomon in modern cinema.
Perhaps the most notable connection is that between Rashomon and Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994). Tarantino has openly acknowledged to be influenced by Japanese cinema. Pulp Fiction made him a household name, and like Rashomon, it definitely played a part in making narrative playfulness mainstream.
… and Kurosawa's influences
However, let's not forget to give credit where credit is due. Kurosawa deserves accolade for bringing international attention to the above mentioned film techniques, but he also openly acknowledged his influences.
Author Ryûnosuke Akutagawa, who wrote the novels that inspired the film (Rashômon, 1914, and In A Grove, 1922), directly inspired the narrative play displayed by Kurosawa. In this sense, he didn’t really come up with anything unique.
That being said, applying such ideas in filmmaking was definitely a tricky process. The job of a director is much more constrictive than that of an author. The filmmaker have to fabricate every visual detail, whereas the author that Kurosawa did more elegant than any director before him.
In addition, it is no secret that Kurosawa was heavily influenced by American cinema. This is arguably part of the reason why many of his samurai films became so accessible on a global scale. It is also the reason why many Japanese film critics voiced their dislike of Rashomon and its non-Japaneseness.
Final verdict for Rashomon
The unique nature of Rashomon stems from the blending of two main sources of inspiration: Japanese traditional literature on the one hand, and American contemporary cinema on the other. In the hands of a truly inspired director, these influences were mixed and made into a film that beat all odds.
At the time, Kurosawa's play with timelines was ahead of its time.
As such, time is arguably the key factor that made the film stand the test of time.
One thing is certain, Rashomon will never go out of style. Against expectations, it grabbed the attention of the world and changed Japanese cinema forever after. It is essential watching for anyone with interest in the history of Japanese cinema. A better introduction to classic Japanese films can hardly be found.
Film-Philosophy: The Radical Capability of Rashomon
Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema: Film style and narration in Rashomon
Prince, Steven: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa
Redfern, Nick: Film style and narration in Rashomon
Sesonske, Alexander: Rashomon
Roger Ebert: Rashomon