70 years after it first dazzled audiences in the cinema, we take a look back at Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, a masterpiece of storytelling.
Rashomon is an interesting story, though somewhat confusing at first glance. It’s set in the 8th century during the Heian period of Japan. The story is bookended by a woodcutter, a priest, and a commoner taking shelter under Rashomon gate during a rain storm. The first two tell a story to the commoner about a crime that happened a few days previously, namely the murder of a samurai and the raping of the samurai’s wife. It’s this story that takes up the bulk of the film, as Kurosawa has each character recount the events from their perspective.
This a clever way to tell a story in a film, as having each character present their version of “the truth” makes it very difficult to know what actually happened. This technique actually still exists to this day and is known as the “Rashomon effect.” You usually see it in crime shows where suspects are interviewed and told to recount what happened before the “truth” is revealed at the end of the episode (I specifically remember seeing this several times in episodes of CSI). It’s a conventional technique now, but 70 years ago audiences hadn’t seen anything like it, and that’s part of what makes Rashomon such a great movie.
Another great standout of Rashomon is the performance of Toshiro Mifune, whose legendary career was partially defined by his long collaboration with Akira Kurosawa. In Rashomon he plays the slightly insane bandit Tajōmaru, who is accused of killing the samurai and raping the samurai’s wife. I say slightly insane because Mifune’s acting in this film has always led me to believe that Tajōmaru is not fully there, and so may not be entirely responsible for what he is accused of doing. That’s what makes Rashomon so interesting, there are a number of ways to interpret this film and all of them could be considered correct because the film is so open to interpretation by the audience.
At the same time, 70 years hasn’t altered the fact that the ending of Rashomon is very frustrating. If you watch this film hoping to find out the absolute truth as to what really happened, then you are going to be disappointed. As mentioned before, much of this film’s story is left completely open to interpretation. Even when you are told “no, THIS is the truth” you’re not quite certain if you can believe it. This can make the film hard to watch if you want a definitive ending (because there isn’t one) but it also doesn’t change the fact that Rashomon is one of the most brilliant films ever made. One is tempted to watch the film several times just to try and figure out what the “truth” actually is.
70 years later, even though Rashomon can be frustrating to watch at times, it still stands as a reminder that Akira Kurosawa was one of the greatest film directors of his generation and his films remain must-watch viewing to this day.