Image source. Copyright Daiei Film Company, 1950.
The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is best known for his 1954 swashbuckling action hit Seven Samurai. But it was with his 1950 release Rashomon that Kurosawa first found his footing with an international audience. And for good reason too. Few movies say so much in such little time.
Based on a pair of short stories by the Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Rashomon looks at the aftermath of the murder of an unnamed samurai (Masayuki Mori) in 17th-century Edo Japan. Four people, we learn, witnessed the event: the samurai himself, his wife (Machiko Kyo), a notorious bandit named Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), and a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) who happened to witness the whole incident. What everyone agrees on initially: the samurai and his wife were traveling through the woods when Tajomaru, having lain eyes on the wife and instantly fallen for her, tricked the samurai into following him into the undergrowth, where he managed to tie him up against a tree stump. Tajomaru then ran back, convinced the wife to follow him as well, and raped her right in front of her husband’s eyes. The wife resisted at first, but eventually consented to Tajomaru’s advances.
From there, what should be a simple case of who-dun-it gets trickier. Each of the three gives an entirely different account of what happened next. Tajomaru claims he killed the man honorably after a prolonged duel. The wife claims her husband killed himself out of shame. When the court uses a spiritual medium to talk to the samurai’s ghost, he asserts that he actually killed himself out of defiant pride. The fact that the samurai is now dead is about the only thing their diverging stories agree on.
With just this setup alone, Rashomon would be a very good film. Kurosawa’s development of each story-line, juxtaposed with shots of each character appearing at the trial, keeps you engaged. He compels you to turn over each person’s story in your head, to try and deduce for yourself who’s right and who’s bending the truth. The cinematography, which brilliantly creates a stark, sinister atmosphere with contrasting lights and shadows, makes us feel like we’re watching the movie version of an iceberg, where what we see is only the obvious 10%. 90% of the subtext, implied through looks, gestures, and scores of unknown thoughts and motives, remains submerged, a puzzle to be deduced. Special kudos to the particularly haunting way Kurosawa portrays the samurai’s story from beyond the grave.
Then we hear the woodcutter’s story, and Rashomon earns its spot in the pantheon of the greats. All three of them lied, husband, wife and bandit alike. Their encounter, we learn to our shock, was actually a rich display of human pettiness. Tajomaru couldn’t sword-fight for his life. The wife goaded the two men into fighting for her hand. And the samurai died whimpering and begging Tajomaru for mercy. The stereotypical images we’ve come to associate with each of these characters – the barbaric bandit, the submissive wife, the honorable samurai – all get flipped on their heads. But lest you think that was it, Kurosawa still has one final twist: even the poor, humble woodcutter has his foibles. His traveling companion points out that he has mysteriously refused to detail what happened to the samurai’s jade knife, which inexplicably vanished from the scene after the crime.
And with that, Kurosawa caps off what has now become a thoughtful examination of the way human self-interest subconsciously, instinctively shapes how we behave. There’s an underlying gloomy message, of course, the indictment of human selfishness and the do-or-die attitude we all adopt when push comes to shove. But Kurosawa doesn’t keep it so black and white. Yes, human self-interest can be obstructive and harmful – the wife’s completely false depiction of her behavior unfairly shifted loads of responsibility off her shoulders. But the funny thing is just how…harmless it can also be. Nobody was hurt by the woodcutter’s decision to keep the knife, for example, and Tajomaru’s over-inflated boasting didn’t detract from the fact that he still tricked and killed the samurai. Human self-interest isn’t always nice, but it’s not always so blatant or heavy-handed. The woodcutter’s decision to take the knife, compared to the far more extravagant lies of the others, feels almost instinctive, the right, normal thing to do.
Rashomon acknowledges the pervasive existence of human selfishness. And it reads as a stern warning to never forget it. At times, it’s easy to assume the position of a sanctimonious critic, to criticize others for shortcoming or perceived bad deeds. Here, Kurosawa reminds us that we’re all adulterers at heart. He baldly exposes just how dangerous it is to presume human justice can ever truly overcome petty human desires, to presume that our justice systems, by dint of the values they embody, will automatically compel honesty. They’re only as consistent and honorable as the people who use them. To forget that is to be wearing that blindfold at all the wrong times.
We in the West should be grateful Rashomon gave us two things: first, Kurosawa, and second, this bombshell analysis of human behavior. If Seven Samurai is Kurosawa at his most epic and dramatic, Rashomon is Kurosawa’s introspective, thought-provoking side. That it feels so true and meaningful 60 years from its premiere speaks to its strength as a movie and a portrait of humanity. In the most ordinary of petty crimes, Kurosawa has discovered a treasure trove of ringing truths.
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Takashi Shimura, Masayuki Mori
Running Time: 88 minutes
Rating: Not rated
Produced by: Minoru Jingo
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto
Based on two of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short stories, “Rashomon” and “In a Grove.”