In 12th century Japan, a samurai and his wife are attacked by the notorious bandit Tajomaru, and the samurai ends up dead. Tajomaru is captured shortly afterward and is put on trial, but his story and the wife's are so completely different that a psychic is brought in to allow the murdered man to give his own testimony. He tells yet another completely different story. Finally, a woodcutter who found the body reveals that he saw the whole thing, and his version is again completely different from the others. Who is telling the truth?
This film is often sited as one of the top films ever from Japan.
Subtitles: English (hard-coded)
This fabulous work was years and years ahead of its time when it was made in 1950, being a work of art that engages the eyes and the ears, but most essentially, the brain. The film is both aesthetically beautiful, using amazing camera techniques, extensive periods of silence and a very limited cast to deliver the action, and the story is typically Japanese...ostensibly amazingly simple, but complex to the point of sending you cross-eyed!
The basic tale is this: a woman and her husband, a Samurai, are travelling through a forest when they meet a bandit. The bandit has sex with the woman and the Samurai ends up dead. That's it. This tale is related to us through the woodcutter and a monk who saw the protagonists give their evidence to the police (the dead Samurai through a medium), but unfortunately the three tales conflict with one another. Each confessor says that they killed the Samurai, and then we hear from the woodcutter who in fact witnessed the event, who gives us a version of events that borrows from each individual account, and is still less credible!
The conclusion presented by Kurosawa seems to be firstly that individuals see things from different perspectives, but secondly, and most importantly, that there is no objective truth. There is no answer as to what took place in the forest, and Kurosawa offers us no way of knowing what went on. Each story is as credible as the other, and so no conclusion about guilt can be reached. We even have to think at the end that as the whole thing is reported to us by the woodcutter and priest, was there any truth in anything we heard at all?
This film leads to an especially tricky conclusion for a movie-goer! Your eyes are supposed to show you objective truth, but they don't. The camera is supposed not to lie, but it does. I feel that the simple message is that subjectivity lies at the heart of life, and this subjectivity needs to be recognised before any attempt is made to understand events.
Akira Kurosawa was one of those directors, the first from the Eastern hemisphere, to develop the form and structure of cinema in ways it hadn't been. The story he used for Rashomon is now, like Seven Samurai, Hidden Fortress, and Yojimbo, a near archetype that at this point in the history of film has become formula and common knowledge for writers and directors. In that sense, Rashomon is as important and entertaining as a film as Citizen Kane, Battleship Potemkin, Rear Window, or Open City. Tee basic premise- Four different people give four different accounts on the rape and murder of a couple in the woods. A key ingredient to the success of Rashomon, is that the recollections given to the courts by the woman, the bandit, the as well as the four in discussion, is that their emotions reveal their humanity, even if their details reveal nothing, or everything. It's difficult to say whether character goes over story here, or if they have equal importance to understand Kurosawa's psychology with these people.
The opening shot of the house is a perfect representation of the mature of the picture, something that has fallen apart over time due to disasters that go beyond control of individuals. The man who heard the testimonies of the trial says "I don't understand". This has been a discussed line, since essentially he's saying the point right up front. All the information won't ease his puzzlement. The three who discuss the details of the crimes and confessions are crucial- they speak for us, what our opinions might be, and we listen to each version of the story, the characters, the fears, the pride, the shame, and the search for judgment and/or truth in the situation.
Along with being director and co-adapter, Kurosawa's mastery is revealed heavily in his use of editing- there are short, fleeting moments that hint, or rather pronounce, emotions and thoughts. For instance, when we first see Tajomaru, the bandit, played by action-legend Toshiro Mifune, he is looking up at the sky, bound in straps to keep him from moving, and for a second, or less than a second, there's a shot of what he sees in the sky, then back to his face which reveals an expression that borders on skeptical, and a bit crazed, or more. Mifune's part is of a barbarian, but all the more believable as a human barbarian since he acts as such with animal desires- he sees the woman in the woods, and knows he wants her, and while he reflects that he didn't have to have killed the man, he did as a last resort as a man with an urge. This is intensified by a sadistic flee with his actions.
What's intriguing about that first description/recollection of the battle between him and the other man, is that it seems like it could be the truth, and to one viewer it could, and to another it seems like it could all be apart of his hyperactive and trapped imagination. And in the attack of the bandit on the woman, at first to him, it's like a game, then in later descriptions, he feels a little more un-easy, then later, it's of neither pleasure or discomfort, it just is. This kind of technique later happens with the woman who was victim (who has conviction, though is herself an archetype of Lifetime women), the presence who saw it "all", and with the man who in the beginning didn't understand. In each telling the expressions, the cut-aways, the lighting and movement by Kazuo Miyagawa, it's equally startling, exhilarating.
That the film gives off such a hypnotic aura isn't surprising, or perhaps it is for those in the grips of the emotion of it all- the dead man's story is like the hook ripping into a twelve foot bass. The final accouter of the tale proves the most accurate to the common observer, yet Kurosawa knows that's not the point- if he made it as such to be bold AND had a definite concrete point, the ending would be as poignant when revealed is the truth, or what one could believe as the closest thing to it is. We know why that last person didn't want to get involved with the courts with what he knows: his story is no more a revelation, of any comfort or consolation to the listeners, than the others. I highly recommend this to anyone, and to those who have distaste to foreign films should view it once anyway- it's certainly not a long movie, and it won't loose its grip on anyone willing to give itself to the tale(s). For me, it's another to add to my top 50 of all time.
* Even during high noon the parts of the forest that the crew needed to shoot in were still too dark. Rather than use a regular foil reflector, which did not bounce enough light, Kurosawa and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa opted to use a full-length mirror "borrowed" from Daiei's costume department. The crew bounced light from the mirror through leaves and trees to soften it and make it look more like natural sunlight. Miyagawa later called it the most successful lighting effect he had ever done.
* In the downpour scenes showing the Rashomon Gate, Kurosawa found that the rain in the background simply wouldn't show up against the light gray backdrop. To solve this problem, the crew ended up tinting the rain by pouring black ink into the tank of the rain machine. The ink is clearly visible on the Woodcutter's face towards just before the rain stops.
* This film is often given credit for the first time a camera was pointed directly at the sun. In Kurosawa's biography, he gives credit to his cinematographer for "inventing" it and himself for using it, but years later, during commentary that preceded the TV showing of the film, the head of the studio claimed credit, which Kurosawa bitterly denies.
* During shooting, the cast approached Kurosawa en masse with the script and asked him, "What does it mean?" The answer Kurosawa gave at that time and also in his biography is that "Rashomon" is a reflection of life, and life does not always have clear meanings.
* Often credited as the reason the Academy created the "Best Foreign Film" category.
* In the wife's vision, the music used was only available during post-production. Kurosawa and his editor was amazed when they found that the music corresponded almost perfectly with the action on the screen, and thus they didn't need to change the scene to make it match the music.
* The title "Rashomon" actually refers to the wraparound segments, from a Akutagawa story set at the Rashomon Gate of Kyoto. The actual story related in the film instead comes from another tale by Akutagawa, "In a Grove".
* Kurosawa asked Toshiro Mifune to model his character's movements after wildlife, particularly the lion. Kurosawa's vision of how a lion was supposed to move was heavily influenced by the wildlife documentary work of husband-and-wife team Martin E. Johnson and Osa Johnson.
After training as a painter (he storyboards his films as full-scale paintings), Kurosawa entered the film industry in 1936 as an assistant director, making his directorial debut in 1943.
After working in a wide range of genres, he made his breakthrough film Rash?mon (1950) in 1950. It won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, and first revealed the richness of Japanese cinema to the West. The next few years saw the low-key, touching Ikiru (1952) (Living), the epic Shichinin no samurai (1954) (Seven Samurai) and the barbaric, riveting Shakespeare adaptation Kumonosu j? (1957) (Throne of Blood), the later two showcasing the magnetic personality of Toshir? Mifune, who also starred in the two samurai comedies Yojimbo (1961) and Tsubaki Sanj?r? (1962).
After a lean period in the late 1960s and early 1970s, though, Kurosawa attempted suicide. He survived, and made the Russian co-production Dersu Uzala (1975) and, with the help of admirers Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, the samurai epic Kagemusha (1980), which was in many ways a dry run for Ran (1985), his second Shakespeare adaptation.
He continued to work into his eighties with the more personal Dreams (1990), Hachi-gatsu no ky?shikyoku (1991) and Madadayo (1993). Kurosawa's films have always been more popular in the West than in his native Japan, where critics have viewed his adaptations of Western genres and authors (William Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Maxim Gorky and Evan Hunter) with suspicion - but he's revered by American and European film-makers, who remade Shichinin no samurai (1954), as The Magnificent Seven (1960), Yojimbo (1961), as Per un pugno di dollari (1964) and Kakushi-toride no san-akunin (1958), as Star Wars (1977).