Rashomon is a film directed by Akira Kurosawa which was released in 1950 and was awarded in a multitude of western film festivals, so much so that the film is considered to have single-handedly projected Japanese cinema on the international market. Rashomon is epic to say the least and it’s very modern. It had, and continues to have, a significant influence on cinema and on culture in general (just think of the so-called Rashomon effect when there are multiple versions of the same story – although perhaps we should talk about the Pirandello effect since his Right You Are (If You Think So) was published in 1917…)! But let’s start from the plot of the Kurosawa film.
Three people meet under the ruins of a city gate (which in Japanese is called rashomon) to find shelter from the torrential rain. Two of them, a religious (Minoru Chiaki) and a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), are shaken by a recent event. When a third person joins them (Kichijiro Ueda), they narrate such event which apparently includes a murder (or a suicide?), and even rape (or was it consensual love?).
The story is told by a criminal (Toshiro Mifune), then by the dead man’s wife (Machiko Kio), and then by the dead man himself, a samurai (Masayuki Mori), through the words of a visionary, and finally by the woodcutter who completes his initially incomplete version of the facts. The story changes depending on the narrator and therefore, essentially, there are four stories in total (there were seven in the original story written by Riunosuke Akutagawa in 1921). Which is the real one? Who knows? And is it important? Maybe it’s not! Basically, everyone can form their own idea, even if perhaps the latest version is the most credible…
It may seem strange (or perhaps not since we are talking about Akira Kurosawa), but this 1950 film is extremely modern. It may not have been the first film to tell a story in an absolutely non-linear way and with the use of flashbacks (previous examples include Citizen Kane in 1941, and Stage Fright of the eternal innovator Alfred Hitchcock, which came out a few months earlier than Rashomon), but here the flashbacks are at the service of the narrative in a unique way. Each flashback outlines the psychology of the character assuming the role of the narrator.
Perhaps today’s viewers will marvel at the theatrical interpretations of the various actors, but in reality they all serve the purpose to give the idea of a brutal and mean medieval Japan. Kurosawa apparently asked Mifune to play his bandit like a lion, for example, and that’s why he used exaggerated mimicry and forced laughter. In a similar way, the woman is passionate when she asks to kill her husband and submissive when she asks that same husband to take her life, while the woodcutter and the religious have only one trait to work on, that is humility and sadness, respectively. Among other things, in the version of the fight between the samurai and the bandit in which they both act like cowards, I’ve seen a lot of the duel between Vittorio Gassman and Gian Maria Volonté in Monicelli’s For Love and Gold, L’armata Brancaleone, 1966. Maybe both Kurosawa and Monicelli had an idea of their respective past which was less poetic than others, but who knows, maybe it was a kind of homage by Monicelli to Kurosawa…
On the other hand, I believe that everyone will be amazed at the cinematography and lights of this film. The forest is beautifully portrayed on screen (and it seems that it wasn’t easy to shoot there because of leeches and snails that haunted the place), and the lights are always in the right places to carry the plot (for example when the samurai and his wife are completely white as opposed to the dark bandit who’s running towards them with shady intentions).
In short, this movie is technically perfect in every detail. Furthermore, the content is also astonishing, with a gray vision of a humanity filled with liars, thieves, and warmongers only partially redeemed by a positive ending in which not only does the sun come out after a torrential rain, but the religious changes his mind on mankind thanks to a father’s love for a defenseless baby.
I recommend anyone who loves cinema to watch this Japanese film shot in black and white in 1950 (by the way, it’s difficult not to see in the ruins of the city a snapshot of Japan just after World War II). These apparently antiquated features will certainly make many people hesitate, and to these people I say: “Let yourself be amazed.” Rashomon is simply splendid, a true masterpiece! Ciao!