It just occurred to me that I hadn’t written up Rashōmon, which is pretty much impossible. Rashōmon is one of the most famous films ever produced in Japan; it was the breakout international success for Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese director of a generation — or a century.
Writing this film up seems almost unnecessary because almost anyone that knows Japan and anyone that knows film well has already seen it. I was 17 years old before I saw it, though, and if you haven’t seen it it’s not too late. Here’s the trailer of the Janus Films re-release.
Now that you’ve seen the trailer, I can tell you that it isn’t much more than that. That is to say, the only three settings in the entirety of the film are gate in the rain, the courtyard and the forest. That isn’t a spoiler at all, though — when I say “it isn’t much more than that,” I’m trying to say that the settings in this film are just context through which you view the story itself. And what a story.
The film opens at Rashōmon, the run-down gate that marked the entrance to Kyoto years ago. Three men are sitting under the gate to stay out of the pouring rain, and two of them begin to relate a story to the third [standing on the left in the picture above].
The story — again, not giving away anything that wasn’t in the trailer — is about a rape and murder committed three days prior as viewed through testimony of those involved. There are four people to testify: a woodcutter, the woman who was raped, the accused murderer, and the spirit of the murdered man, speaking through a medium. Each tells the story differently, with major discrepancies in details surrounding the incident. That’s as far as I’ll go on plot. Now for the acting.
The acting focus in this film was Toshirō Mifune as the character Tajōmaru, the bandit. It’s really hard for me to find a film [especially a Kurosawa film] with Mifune in it where he doesn’t steal the show, and this is no exception. He plays the character flawlessly. The most difficult part about this film [and why I believe the acting is on its own level] is that the actors needed to play their roles a bit differently for each separate account of the story. The effect is stunning; the characters are the same, but the way they act is just different enough to make the circumstances plausible.
That brings me to the theoretical contribution of this film. The “Rashōmon effect,” as it’s known, is the phenomenon of a story being told by several people in such a way that there is no plausible way to discern the truth. Each telling of the story must negate the others, while at the same time being realistic enough to be true. This only comes from half of the Rashōmon story, though.
Rashōmon is actually two short stories blended together as one. The first, Rashōmon, by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, is the basis for the storytelling portion in the rain and gives the film its title. The second, Yabu no Naka [In a Grove], also by Akutagawa, provides the story of the crimes and the testimony. Coincidentally, the “Rashōmon effect” actually comes from the short story Yabu no Naka, not Rashōmon. But it’s named for the film, so whatever. Akutagawa’s stories have two separate but related themes. How do you discern the truth when there isn’t a clear answer? And when, if ever, is crime justified? Kurosawa brought these two stories and themes together in Rashōmon, making it a thoroughly thought-provoking masterpiece.
I usually say something here like, “I recommend checking this movie out,” or, “It’s a great flick if you’re interested in this sort of thing.” Not this time. If you haven’t seen this movie, watch it. Now. It is one of the best films you’ll ever see in your life. As per usual with Japanese classics, it’s available on the Criterion Collection and Netflix for instant viewing or rental. If you have seen it, watch it again. And I’m not James Lipton, so I don’t just say that all the time. Don’t just ‘watch’ it, though. Think about it. Which story do you believe?