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When Akira Kurosawa made Rashomon (1950), he was a forty-year-old director working near the beginning of a career that would last fifty years, produce some of the greatest films ever made, and exert a tremendous and lasting influence on filmmaking throughout the world. Rashomon emerged from the journeyman period in his career after he temporarily left Toho, the studio where he’d begun and where he would ultimately make most of his films. During these years, 1949 to 1951, he made movies for Shochiku, Shintoho, and Daiei. Daiei was somewhat reluctant to fund Rashomon, finding the project to be too unconventional and fearing that it would be difficult for audiences to understand. Those fears proved to be groundless—the picture was one of Daiei’s best moneymakers in 1950.
But the film is unconventional, even radical in design, and these attributes only helped to skyrocket it to international fame at a time when art cinema was emerging as a powerful force on the film circuit. With great reluctance, Daiei permitted the film to be submitted for overseas festival competition. Winning first prize at the prestigious Venice Film Festival in 1951, Rashomon announced Kurosawa’s talents, and the treasures of Japanese cinema, to the world at large. The rest, as they say, is history.
Like most of Kurosawa’s films, Rashomon, based on two stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, is set during a time of social crisis—in this case, the eleventh century in Japan, a period that Kurosawa uses to reveal the extremities of human behavior. As the picture opens, three characters seek shelter from a driving rainstorm (it never sprinklesin a Kurosawa film!) beneath the ruined Rashomon gate that guards the southern entrance to the imperial capital city of Kyoto. As they wait for the storm to pass, the priest (Minoru Chiaki), the woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), and the commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) discuss a recent and scandalous crime—a noblewoman (Machiko Kyo) was raped in the forest, her samurai husband (Masayuki Mori) killed by either murder or suicide, and a thief named Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) arrested.
When Rashomon played in Venice and then went into international distribution, it stunned audiences. No one had ever seen a film quite like this one. For one thing, its daring, nonlinear approach to narrative shows the details of the crime as they are related, through the flashbacks of those involved. Kurosawa gives us four versions of the same series of events, through the eyes of the woodcutter, the thief, the woman, and the spirit of the husband, each retelling markedly different from the others. Kurosawa’s visionary approach would have enormous cinematic and cultural influence. He bequeathed to world cinema and television a striking narrative device—countless movies and television shows have remade Rashomon by incorporating the contradictory flashbacks of unreliable narrators.
But Rashomon is that rare film that has transcended its own status as film, influencing not just the moving image but the culture at large. Its very name has entered the common parlance to symbolize general notions about the relativity of truth and the unreliability, the inevitable subjectivity, of memory. In the legal realm, for example, lawyers and judges commonly speak of “the Rashomon effect” when firsthand witnesses confront them with contradictory testimony.
Furthermore, the film’s nonlinear narrative marked it as a decisively modernist work, and as a part of the burgeoning world art cinema that was transforming the medium in the 1950s. With Rashomon and his subsequent movies, Kurosawa came to rank among the leading international figures of that cinema, in the company of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Satyajit Ray. Like their work, Rashomon was more than just commercial entertainment. It was a film of ideas, made by a serious artist, and with a sophisticated aesthetic design.
For it wasn’t only the film’s modernist narrative that impressed audiences and made it a classic. It was also the tremendous visual skill and power that Kurosawa brought to the screen. Like all his best works, Rashomon is a remarkably sensual film. Nobody has ever filmed forests like Kurosawa. Shooting directly into the sun to make the camera lens flare, probing the filaments of shadows in trees and glades, rendering dense thickets as poetic metaphors for the laws of desire and karma that entrap human beings, and, above all, executing hypnotic camera movements across the uneven forest floor, Kurosawa created in Rashomon the most flamboyant and insistently visual film that anyone had seen in decades. All of the critics who reviewed this picture when it first appeared felt compelled to remark upon the beauty of the director’s imagery.
In Rashomon, Kurosawa was consciously attempting to recover and re-create the aesthetic glory of silent filmmaking. Thus, the cinematography (by the brilliant Kazuo Miyagawa) and editing are incredibly vital, and many passages are composed as silent sequences of pure film, in which the imagery, ambient sound, and Fumio Hayasaka’s score carry the action. One of the best such sequences is the long series of moving camera shots that follow the woodcutter into the forest, before he finds the evidence of the crime. These shots, in Kurosawa’s words, lead the viewer “into a world where the human heart loses its way.” Only Kurosawa at his boldest would create such a kinesthetic sequence, in which movement itself—of the camera, the character, and the forest’s foliage—becomes the very point and subject of the scene. Mesmeric, exciting, fluid, and graceful, these are among the greatest moving camera shots in the history of cinema.
Style for Kurosawa is not an empty flourish. The bravura designs of his films are always carefully motivated—this is why he is a great filmmaker. As in all of his outstanding films, in Rashomon Kurosawa is responding to his world as an artist and moralist. The Second World War had devastated Japan. In its aftermath, he embarked— with moral urgency and great artistic ambition—on a series of films (No Regrets for Our Youth, 1946; Drunken Angel, 1948; Stray Dog, 1949) that illuminated the despair and confusion of the period and offered narratives of personal heroism as models for social recovery, seeking, in his art, to produce a legacy of hope for a ruined nation.
The heroism and desire for restoration that these stories embodied, however, had to struggle with a dark opposite. What if the world could not be changed because people themselves are weak and easily corrupted? Kurosawa’s films have a tragic dimension that is rooted in his at times pessimistic reflections on human nature, and Rashomon was the first work in which he allowed that pessimism its full expression. Haunted by the human propensity to lie and deceive, Kurosawa fashioned a tale in which the ego, duplicity, and vanity of the characters make a hell out of the world and make truth a difficult thing to find. Whose account of the crime is reliable? Whose is correct? One cannot tell—all are distorted in ways that flatter their narrators.
This is truly a hellish vision—the world dissolves into nothingness as the illusions of the ego strut like shadows on a shifting landscape. Such a dark portrait was too much even for Kurosawa (at this point in his career, at least, but not in 1985, when he made Ran). Thus, at the last moment, he pulls back from the darkness he has revealed. The woodcutter decides to adopt an abandoned baby, and as he walks off with the child, the rainstorm lifts (Takashi Shimura always supplies the moral center in Kurosawa’s films of the forties and early fifties).
Compassionate action transforms the world—this was Kurosawa’s heroic ideal. Is it enough, however? Each viewer of Rashomon must 9 decide whether this abrupt turnabout at the film’s end is a convincing solution to the moral and epistemological dilemmas that Kurosawa has so powerfully portrayed.
But whatever one decides about the film’s conclusion, Rashomon is the real thing—a genuine classic. Its greatness is palpable and undeniable. Kurosawa’s nonlinear narrative and sensual, kinesthetic style helped to change the face of world cinema. And astonishingly, Kurosawa was still a young filmmaker—so many treasures were yet to come.
Stephen Prince is a professor of cinema at Virginia Tech and an honorary professor of film and media at the University of Copenhagen. He is the author of numerous books on cinema, including The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2002 DVD edition of Rashomon.