Updated: May 26
Japanese cinema was never the same again after Rashômon!
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Machiko Kyô, Masyuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki
When released in 1950 Rashômon was underestimated by both Japanese press and its production company, Daiei Film. The movie did okay in Japan, but was taken off the cinema bills quickly after its release. Two years later, to everyone’s surprise - especially Daiei, the film won the Academy Honorary Award for most outstanding foreign language feature.
The studio executives, the actors and Kurosawa himself was absent at the festival, since they had no faith in the film's potential. As it turned out, the time was just right for a film that took the notion of timelines and narrative play to the next level. Rashômon was an instant hit that made audiences all over the world take interest in Japanese cinema.
That the film was misunderstood is just as understandable as the fact that it won the award. Rashômon was eons ahead of its time. Perhaps for this reason it continues to amaze new audiences to this day. Not to forget the exceptional performance of Toshirô Mifune. His antics was very unusual and in stark contrast to the Japanese filmmaking norms of its age.
The cinematography was innovative, the score was unusual, and the narrative had a nonlinear approach that astonished everyone. Flashbacks was not unheard of, but to use it in this way was unique. Four versions of the same incident are presented with essential details changed each time. It is up to the viewer to decide which details are true or not.
The story in itself was quite controversial for its time. The stage was set when a married couple encounter a strange wanderer in the forest. What happened from there on out is a mystery. The only thing certain is that the husband met his demise.
From that point on the story is told 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.
Between the lines
Time appears to be a key concept in Rashômon. 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 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. Perhaps 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?
The concept of time certainly changed in postwar Japan. The modernization of the war-torn country was faster than any uprise 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 was possibly just as distorted as the timelines in Rashômon.
Rashômon'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 a mainstream norm. It has turned into 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 ala Rashômon in modern cinema.
Perhaps the most notable connection is that between Rashômon and Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994). Tarantino openly acknowledges to be influenced by Japanese cinema. The film made him a household name and it definitely had its part in making narrative playfulness mainstream.
However, giving credit where credit is due is important to remember. Kurosawa deserves accolade for bringing international attention to the above mentioned film techniques, but he also openly acknowledged his influences.
The narrative play was directly inspired by the author Ryûnosuke Akutagawa who wrote the novels that inspired the film (Rashômon, 1914, and In A Grove, 1922). 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.
The unique nature of Rashômon stems from the blending of two main sources of inspiration; Japanese traditional literature on the one hand, and American contemporary cinema on the other. 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 for certain, Rashômon will never go out of style. It presented Japanese film to the world. A better introduction to classic Japanese cinema could hardly be found.