Marge: Come on, Homer. Japan will be fun! You liked Rashomon.
Homer: That's not how I remember it!
The Simpsons, "Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo"

rashomon_sp2.jpg


One mark of a truly great and memorable film is the impact upon the culture that has consumed it; many great lines from famous films have become well-known clichés even to those unfamiliar with their origins. Sometimes, however, a film can transcend providing pop culture with one or two snappy witticisms (whether they be as memorable as “the stuff dreams are made of”, or as transient and tiresome as “I’ve got a bag of ‘shh’ with your name on it”); a truly great film becomes a cultural force in itself, and few would argue that Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon has failed to become one, whether in the western world or in its home country. Solely because of the film’s enduring relevance and quality, one simply has to use the word “Rashomon” to instantly conjure up the problem of the film’s plot – that a completely true account of an event can almost never be gleaned because of mankind’s imperfect nature.
The film’s plot is a famous one – a samurai and his wife are attacked by the infamous bandit Tajomaru, resulting in the samurai’s death. After Tajomaru is captured, all present at the incident are separately called upon to give their own account of the events of the incident – leading to several wildly varying stories as to what exactly had happened. The framing device is that of a priest, a woodcutter, and a commoner discussing the incident outside the titular gates. Even with a testimony gained from the dead victim of the incident, gleaned through the use of a medium, and with a testimony from the woodcutter, supposedly unbiased due to his lack of involvement in the events, the truth of the incident is never explained, and indeed cannot be explained, due to the folly and dishonesty that is core to human nature.
rashomon-intro-01.jpgRashomon didn’t spring fully-formed from Akira Kurosawa’s head, however – it is actually an adaptation of two different stories by author Ryunosuke Akutagawa. The story from which it derives its memorable premise of an account of a crime as given by several conflicting viewpoints is actually taken from a differently titled story, “Yobu no Naka” (which translates to “In a Grove”). All of the film’s characters are from this story, including Tajomaru, the infamous bandit and only named character in the film. The events of the film follow this story fairly closely. The story from which the film gains its title, “Rashomon”, is actually a mostly unrelated tale, from which the film derives its grim setting. The gate Rashomon is a dilapidated ruin, a mere shadow of the place it had used to be, often a hideout of bandits and a dumping ground for corpses. The gloomy atmosphere surrounding the gate and the unrelenting rain serve neatly to highlight the story’s overall bleak tone.
James F. Davidson argues that this was a conscious decision on Kurosawa’s part, switching the setting of the “In a Grove” story to a more bleak, hopeless setting, in order to have it coincide with attitudes of pessimism in Japan at the time, as it had just come off a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Allied forces in World War II:
“Why was an atmosphere of gloom and decay, of physical and spiritual misery, chosen as a background in the film? The original story of the crime contains no such atmosphere, no linking of the event to the conditions of the times. Its effect is all the more striking because of this. … the picture opens on the ruined Rashomon: once the great architectural symbol of the capital of Japan, now the crumbling reflection of a devastated city whence the sear of power has moved.”
The film simply would not have had the same sort of impact had it not adopted the ruined gates of Rashomon as its setting, especially upon the Japanese audiences of the time, which would have had little trouble equating the once-grand ruin with their own culture and society following their defeat in the war.

rashomon0.jpg

Perhaps something that is most noticeable about Rashomon, or perhaps immediately noticeable in any Kurosawa film, is the photographic elegance of his shots. Kurosawa communicates his views with stunning, almost painterly images, composed with the utmost care and deliberation. It is something that I like to say about Kurosawa films in general that one could pause the film at any given point and immediately receive a work of art worthy of printing and hanging in one’s home. Akira Kurosawa is undoubtedly as fluent in the language of film as he would have been in any written or spoken language, and understood that there were ways of communicating that could only be accomplished that way – he would famously refuse to talk about his work, on the grounds that if he had been able to express the meaning of his films in words, he would not have created them.
Perhaps one of the most incredible things that Kurosawa does with Rashomon is tie in each character’s story with a distinctive style of cinematography. If we take to the notion that filmmaking is itself a language, we can consider the different points of views of the different characters as each being in their own unique “voice”, as told through the language of film. While using a spoken language, people speak differently – they use different inflections, take to using different turns of phrase or different words, and use or misuse words, each developing their own distinctive vocabulary. Kurosawa takes this idea of each individual’s voice and applies it to the idea of film as a language – Tajomaru’s account of the events are overblown and dramatic, the fast cuts and tense music matching perfectly with his own nervous, twitchy disposition and frantic arrogance. The woodcutter, however, is unassuming and relatively humble and shy, and his accounts of the events are similarly realistic, accompanied by no music or dramatic editing, using long, distant shots to show his detachment from events and his lack of dramatic flourish in his narrative.
This use of cinematic language is used as gracefully and seriously as Rashomon’s only very uncommonly; the idea of different characters’ points of view having different cinematic styles is usually used in an exaggerated fashion in relatively “low-brow” entertainment such as cartoons, where an immature character’s take on events might be accompanied by crude crayon drawings, or a serious and dramatic character’s view may be rendered in an overblown parody of film noir. Kurosawa’s use of the film medium, however, is extremely subtle – only a careful viewing of the film reveals this usage of cinematic “voice”, and yet the impact of this use is not lost on those who watch the film with an untrained eye. It is a simple, elegant device for telling the story, and Kurosawa employs it in a way that has been unmatched since.
The amount of subtlety on the part of the actors is also only apparent in retrospect – there are only a few characters in the film, but almost every one of those characters (excepting the woodcutter, commoner, and priest) must portray themselves as told through the lens of one of the other characters’ telling of the incident, and even deliver a different performance for each one. Toshiro Mifune, who plays Tajomaru, the infamous bandit, must also play Tajomaru as viewed from the perspective of all the other characters. He is Tajomaru as hrashomon1.jpge sees himself, the undefeatable, untamed warrior; there is also Tajomaru as viewed by the samurai, a cruel but worthy foe, and the Tajomaru that the woman sees, the menacing and powerful yet somehow sensual, and lastly, Tajomaru as the woodcutter sees him, the frantic and cowardly thief. Every one of these characters has the work required of them multiplied fivefold, as they must not only play themselves as they actually are, but must also play themselves as they are seen by three other characters, as well as how they see themselves.
The overarching theme of Rashomon, as most critics see it, is that it’s impossible to glean the truth when human arrogance comes into the equation. The truth of the events that occurred on the road on that fateful day are never revealed, even the final testimony, the one given by the supposedly unbiased woodcutter, is all but proven to be untrue or even the closest version of the events. All of the stories told by the characters are colored by how they want to be perceived, rather than an accurate account of events. Tajomaru wanted people to believe that he was a fearless, daring swordsman. The samurai wanted to be seen as noble, taking is own life in shame. The woman wished to be seen as vulnerable and emotional, unable to be blamed for her part in the events of the story. Finally, the woodcutter wanted to be seen as fair and impartial, not embellishing his story but leaving out key details that would implicate him.
Overall, it’s unsurprising that Rashomon had entered the public consciousness the way it had. It’s consistently rated one of the best films of all time, even by those who do not care for it personally. Kurosawa’s genius and understanding of the language of film are highly visible in Rashomon, and it will likely endure for many years to come as his legacy.






Works Cited
Barbarow, George. "Rashomon and the Fifth Witness." The Hudson Review 5.3 (1952): 420-22. Print.
Davidson, James F. "Memory of Defeat in Japan: A Reappraisal of "Rashomon"" The Antioch Review 14.4 (1954): 492-501. Print.
Higham, Charles. "Kurosawa's Humanism." The Kenyon Review (1965): 737-42. Print.
Rhoades, John D. "The "Rashomon Effect" Reconsidered." American Anthropologist 91.1 (1989): 171. Print.