Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashômon has been captivating Western and Japanese audiences alike with its unconventional storytelling of a non-linear narrative. The story structure of Rashômon was considered a breakthrough in cinema for its time, and its influence continues more than half a century on still inspiring modern films and television shows from Star Trek to The Simpsons as well as countless others (Davenport 55).
The main events of Rashômon revolve around disputing accounts of an altercation in the woods involving a samurai, his wife, and a bandit. These accounts paralleled in the plot as they are retold and discussed by a woodcutter and a priest to a commoner while they take cover from the rain under the decrepit Rashômon gate. As their differing stories are told it becomes apparent they are completely irreconcilable, although they all have in common that the samurai is killed. The deceased samurai retells his account through a medium, a segment which encapsulates the brilliance in Kurosawa’s use of mise-en-scène, movement, music and narrative in his films.
Before this scene, we are first witness to the beginning of a progressively more intense debate under the gate between the priest arguing that “men are not entirely sinful” and the commoner arguing against that notion. The rain seems to feed off this moral tension similarly becoming more and more intense. In Kurosawa films, nature is far from a passive backdrop but almost becomes a character itself interacting and reacting to the human characters (Yoshimoto 77). This dramatic tension eventually culminates in a flash of lightning illuminating a close up shot of an Oni figurehead (a Japanese mythological demon) preluding to the film’s encounter with the spiritual world through the medium (Reider 113).
Previous courtyard scenes in which the camera remained entirely static at an eye level angle effectively placing us in the POV of the interrogator. However, this courtyard scene differs through its dynamic content, sound, and camerawork. A deep acousmatic voice moans to a hypnotic drumbeat as the possessed medium rushes towards the camera. These techniques further highlight that a supernatural force from beyond is at play. Kurosawa makes this spirit’s presence and his fury apparent on the screen using nature again with gusts of wind to blow the mediums hair and veil erratically while both the woodcutter and priest are contrastingly unperturbed. Soon after the Samurai’s dubbed voice echoes out of the medium’s mouth and he begins retelling his account, the distortion and emotion in his voice confirms to the audience that he truly is “suffering in darkness”.
The cut from the interrogation scene in Kyoto back to the woods is edited in Kurosawa’s signature style, cutting on the wild movement of the medium’s hair and veil blowing intensely in the wind to a motionless establishing shot of Tajômaru the bandit consoling the samurai’s wife in a medium shot, efficiently communicating the scene change to the viewer. This medium shot zooms out to reveal it is the captured samurai’s perspective we are sharing. Again we see the scene through a murky light obscured by the shadows of overhanging vegetation, which Kurosawa’s cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo established previously in the famous skyward shot directly at the sun which at the time was “taboo in cinematography” (Kurosawa 137). These dim woodland shadows, a specific effect Kurosawa created using natural light and mirrors taken from the costume department (Rashômon -Turner Classic Movies), take on meaning as a visual motif reminding us of the obscurity surrounding the truth. This truth which the three weary travellers (and the audience) yearn for and bicker about stays hidden throughout the entire film remaining concealed within the shadows of deception cast by human weakness. The darkness and shadows cast by each character are as different as their accounts, each creating different fusions of the same sins of pride, jealousy, greed, and rage that condemn every other character but the teller of the tale.
Kurosawa adapts a particular filming style for each of the different accounts and the husband’s account is no different. Here we see the majority of shots are static and filmed at a medium distance for long durations appropriate to the samurai’s passive observing role while he is powerlessly watching his betrayal unfold (Redfern 7). One exception is the big close up used to emphasise the wife’s vileness as she attempts to manipulate the bandit into killing her husband. Ultimately the samurai’s story poses him as a tragic hero and his wife as a Lady Macbeth like character who attempts manipulating the men into killing in more than just this account. Perhaps some would say this is a stretch, however I would argue that Kurosawa was more than comfortable working within the theme of tragedy proven through his successful screen adaptations of Shakespearean tragedies Macbeth (Throne of Blood, 1957) and King Lear (Ran, 1985).
Similar to Macbeth, the dagger carries significant symbolic meaning within Rashômon: in the case of the wife’s account, “it’s claimed as a protector of her virtue,” for the woodcutter, “it is the evidence which would have implicated him in the court case” and as for the husband, “it is the key to keeping his integrity” and honour (Buckeridge). The husband achieves this end through plunging the knife into his chest in ritual suicide bring an end to the segment. His own account of his death results in one of the most beautiful cross-cuts in cinematic history, from the plunge of the dagger back to the possessed medium re-enacting the rest of his death from the exact moment of the cut, all while the hauntingly sorrowful score and wind simultaneously die down as the samurai’s furious spirit dissipates. This is the emotional nadir of Rashômon, leaving a feeling of devastation and utter entangled for the audience in their pursuit of truth.
Although the events in those woods will forever be a mystery, we can still find solace in Kurosawa’s explanation that “Rashômon is a reflection of life, and life does not always have clear meanings” (135). However in the final scene, clear meaning is communicated as the clear sky shines down on the woodcutter and his charitable deed is an example and restoration of belief in simple human goodness for both the priest and we the relieved audience.
Buckeridge, Julian (2013). Film 101: ‘Rashomon’ – A Piece of Modernist Cinema (2/3) | AtTheCinema.net. 2016. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.atthecinema.net/film-101-rashomon-a-piece-of-modernist-cinema-23. [Accessed 13 April 2016].
Davenport, Christian (2010). “Rashomon effect, observation, and data generation”. Media Bias, Perspective, and State Repression. Cambridge University Press. p. 55. [Accessed 12 April 2016].
Kurosawa, Akira (1983). Something Like An Autobiography. 1st Vintage Books ed Edition. Vintage. P. 137 [Accessed 5 April 2016]
Kurosawa, Akira (1983). Something Like An Autobiography. 1st Vintage Books ed Edition. Vintage. P. 135 [Accessed 5 April 2016]
Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, 2000. Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema (Asia-Pacific: Culture, Politics, and Society). First Edition Edition. Duke University Press Books. p.77 [Accessed 9 April 2016]
Rashomon (1951) – Turner Classic Movies – TCM.com. 2016. Rashomon (1951) – Trivia – TCM.com. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/303984/Rashomon/trivia.html. [Accessed 11 April 2016].
Redfern, Nick (2013). Film style and narration in Rashomon | Research into film. 2016. Film style and narration in Rashomon | Research into film. [ONLINE] Available at: https://nickredfern.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/film-style-and-narration-in-rashomon/. [Accessed 12 April 2016].
Reider, Noriko T (2010). Japanese Demon Lore: Oni from Ancient Times to the Present Utah State University Press. p. 113. [Accessed 10 April 2016]