The Western World’s Introduction to Japanese Cinema: ‘Rashomon’

Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is such an important film historically—it introduced Japanese cinema to the Western world, and its title has entered our common vocabulary to describe a situation where conflicting eyewitness accounts make it difficult or impossible to determine the truth—that the sheer artistic excellence of the film itself sometimes gets overlooked. Philosophical riddles aside, Kurosawa displays such mastery of the fundamental elements of film in Rashomon that it’s worth repeated viewings, and rewards the attentive viewer with the equivalent of a master class in film aesthetics.

The story, set in 12th century Japan, opens in a pouring rainstorm. A woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) have taken shelter in the ruins of the Rashomon Gate, the southern gate to the city of Kyoto. Like everything else in this film, the setting (besides being in ruins, it’s a hideout for criminals and a place where unwanted babies are dumped) and the weather are both meaningful. The first words of dialogue set the tone for the film, as the woodcutter says, several times, “I just don’t understand.”

The main story of Rashomon is given in a series of flashbacks, as we are presented four different versions of events that took place in the nearby woods: the rape of a woman (Machiko Kyo), the murder of her samurai husband (Masayuki Mori), and the disappearance of a valuable dagger. Sometimes these events are described as the witnesses give testimony in court, sometimes they are told visually to the accompaniment of Fumio Hayasaka’s evocative score, and sometimes the verbal and visual methods of storytelling overlap. In between each version of events, the film returns to the group gathered at the Rashomon gate, who add their own commentary and interpretations and draw various conclusions about what it all means in the larger scheme of things.

First comes the tale told by the bandit, the self-dramatizing Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune, in the most memorable performance of the film). To hear him tell it, after seeing a veiled woman passing in the forest, he was simply compelled to have her (“I thought I saw a goddess,” he says by way of explanation), even after she tries to defend herself with a dagger. However, he claims that he’s not a murderer—he did kill the samurai, but only in self-defense, after the woman insisted that the two men fight a duel (and a very dramatic duel at that, which Tajomaru won by dint of his superior skill).

The woman speaks next, and presents herself as a pitiful figure rather than the fierce fighter described by Tajomaru. She agrees that Tajomaru raped her, but claims that he ran off and left her alone to face her husband’s merciless stare. Temporarily mad with grief, she passed out, and awoke to find her husband dead. The deceased samurai gives his version of events next, speaking through a medium (Fumiko Honma, in a fierce and vivid performance). He claims that, after being raped by Tajomaru, his wife agreed to go with the bandit, and asked him to kill her husband. Tajomaru refused, and the samurai killed himself.

The woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) tells his story last, and only to the little group huddled in the shelter of the Rashomon gate. He claims that following the woman’s rape, she shamed both men and goaded them into a reluctant and exceeding unspectacular duel, which Tajomaru won through a stroke of luck.

The ruling aesthetic of Rashomon is the opposite of the “invisible” style of storytelling perfected by Hollywood by the ’50s. Instead of telling a story so seamlessly that it seems to be real, Rashomon draws attention to the fact that it is constructed from elements that lead to no obvious resolution. Unlike some more recent films that tease you with multiple versions of a story only to resolve the mystery before the final credits roll (Edward Zwick’s 1996 Courage Under Fire comes to mind), Kurosawa embraces ambiguity and suggests in the film’s final scene that the quest for absolute truth in human affairs may not only be futile, but also beside the point.

This DVD of Rashomon was created from a beautifully restored version of the film that allows you to appreciate Kazuo Miyagawa’s cinematography without having to look past the wear and tear evident in earlier prints. As is usual with Criterion releases, this DVD comes packed with extras, including a feature commentary track by the American film scholar Donald Ritchie. Other extras include a brief interview with Robert Altman, excerpts from a film about cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, a documentary featuring members of the film crew, an audio interview with actor Takashi Shimura, and the original and Criterion Collection trailers.

As the original trailer is not restored, it gives you an idea of what Rashomon looked like before restoration, and should help you appreciate this version even more. Finally, the DVD comes with a booklet including the two source stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (“Rashomon” and “In a Grove”), an essay by film scholar Stephen Prince, an excerpt from Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography, and notes on the restoration and transfer.

RATING 8 / 10