Today's Kurosawa 101 explores two of the greatest films in Kurosawa's catalog, Rashomon -- the film that made Kurosawa and Japanese cinema known throughout the world -- and Ikiru -- perhaps the greatest film ever made about impending death.
Rashomon was the big one. Released in the United States in December 1951, Rashomon was the total package. Its performances were superb. Its lighting design and technical direction were without peer. Its storytelling structure was genuinely revolutionary, opening whole new doors to the medium. So lasting and influential has this last impact been that sitcoms and TV dramas still have episodes following the structure of it. Rashomon was the movie that put Akira Kurosawa (and arguably Toshiro Mifune) on the maps of cinephiles worldwide. If you’re looking to trace the trajectory of Akira Kurosawa’s career back to a point when it was clear that he was going to be not only just a great filmmaker but an important one, a figure of lasting value to the medium, you could do worse than point to Rashomon.
You could point to Rashomon as a lot of other things, as well. It’s one of the pinnacles of beauty in black & white filmmaking, using naturalistic lighting and sun streaming through leaves to play with light and shadow as remarkably as any film, bringing a stirring beauty to the monochrome palette. The performances are superb, especially Toshiro Mifune’s turn as a bandit who is by turns portrayed as swashbuckler and coward, misfit and criminal, and is ultimately probably all of these things and more.
But it’s impossible to talk about Rashomon without discussing the impact the film has had on cinematic storytelling. Kurosawa’s adaptation of Ryunosuke Akutagawa short stories “In a Bamboo Grove” and “Rashomon” (the former provided most of the plot for the film, the latter the title and the location for the “Rashomon Gate” scenes) isn’t the first film to introduce unreliable narrators and multiple perspectives on the same scene into filmmaking, but 60 years after it’s release, it remains among the most successful examples of the style. Perhaps more impressively, the film also still has much to say about the act and nature of filmmaking, decades alter.
The camera is traditionally seen as an objective tool capable of capturing images, preserving events in a way that gets as close to truth as possible. But as Kurosawa follows the four different stories that make up Rashomon, he calls attention to the inherently undependable nature of the camera. Cameras, like stories, are great tools for communication, but ultimately both are beholden to the figures who wield them. The camera can capture images and preserve them, but what’s not in those images are just as important as their content.
The inability, or perhaps simple reluctance, of Kurosawa’s camera to capture the objective truth at the heart of Rashomon is also a commentary on moviemaking, especially Kurosawa’s own dominating, authoritative style of film. A huge and dominant personality behind the scenes, the singular focus of Kurosawa’s vision is felt throughout his work. Kurosawa’s deliberate, often formal camera shows us only what he wants us to see in the course of his work. There are no accidents, no missteps or room for error in the work of this notorious perfectionist. But in Rashomon, the director grants his audience no guiding pole star, no place to start from with an expectation of veracity; Kurosawa leaves us foundering and uncertain. The film is turned over to the audience for interpretation in a manner that is distinct in Kurosawa’s body of work.
It’s this fact that leaves the ambiguity of Rashomon so strange and compelling in Kurosawa’s hands. Despite seeing the points of view of each character on display, the audience is never allowed anything that approaches the real truth of the matter. We see every point of view presented, sometimes from a variety of angles or in the eyes of different characters. But the muddling of the story is so complete, each character so untrustworthy, none of these angles are any more valid than any other. Whatever we see in the film, the only thing we can have any certainty in is that it is not the pure truth.
After ninety minutes of watching -- careful watching, and often repeated watching that is demanded by Rashomon -- viewers are no closer to understanding what actually happened than they were in the beginning of the work. In this sense, Rashomon represents a rarity in film, a narrative that stands perfectly still. In hearing the stories that make up the film, Kurosawa creates the illusion of narrative momentum. But from the film’s opening scene to its final moments, almost nothing actually happens. Instead, the action consists of theories and deceptions, explanations and vacillations. Tales are related but ultimately, they find us no nearer to a larger truth than we were when we started. Rashomon is a journey with lots of landscape and no motion. Said of any other film that would probably be a slight. But in this case, it is a testament to Kurosawa’s power and talent as a storyteller. It takes quite a story to become iconic without actually saying anything, and Kurosawa’s Rashomon has a strong claim on being the most impressive and influential ninety minutes of nothing happening in the history of cinema.