Monday, 9 October 2017

REWIND REVIEW: Rashomon

(M) ★★★★★

Director: Akira Kurosawa.

Cast: Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijiro Ueda, Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori, Noriko Honma, Daisuke Katō. 

"The shop that sells glowing swords is that way."

Sometimes films so fully capture an idea that the title becomes shorthand for the idea itself. Take for instance Groundhog Day, which as a phrase has come to mean reliving the same day over and over again. Or what about Sliding Doors? Everyone knows what "sliding doors" means as a philosophical idea (I still prefer the late great Terry Pratchett's term "the trousers of time"), even without having seen the film.

And then there's Rashomon, the hugely influential 1950 Japanese film which gave us the "Rashomon Effect", which refers to one story being told from different, often conflicting, perspectives.

Rashomon is an amazing film partly because of the psychological phenomenon and storytelling device it now lends its name too. But as much as it sparked a now an oft-emulated narrative technique, Rashomon itself is also an intriguing musing on the nature of perspective, truth, honour, memory, understanding, justice and even humanity itself. And this is what truly elevates Rashomon to those "best movies of all time" lists - it uses innovative and engaging cinematic and storytelling techniques to gaze deeply into the heart of what makes us tick as individuals and as a species. This is surely a sign of a masterpiece, especially if it's entertaining to boot.

But let's first look at its narrative trick. Rashomon's plot is set in the 11th (or possibly 12th) century and recounted by two men who are riding out a storm with a third man in a partially destroyed gatehouse. It could be the set-up to an old joke - "A priest, a woodcutter and a commoner are sheltering from the rain....", but instead it's an opportunity for the priest and the woodcutter to detail a trial they have just witnessed which has left them horrified.

Over the next hour or so they relate four versions of the same story - of the rape of a samurai's wife and the samurai's subsequent death. First we hear from the prime suspect (a scenery-chewing performance from the legendary Toshiro Mifune), then the wife (Machiko Kyo), then the dead samurai (Masayuki Mori) as channeled through a medium (Noriko Honma), and finally the woodcutter (Takashi Shimura).

Needless to say, each version of the story is different - sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. And thus we have what is now known as the Rashomon Effect.


(On a side note, two of the best examples of the Rashomon Effect in modern pop culture can be found in two separate X-Files episodes - Jose Chung's From Outer Space and Bad Blood.)

The impact of this narrative choice adds a powerful layer to the story. No "right" version is revealed. As Robert Altman says in the video below, the "proper conclusion" is that "it's all true and none of it's true". It's up to the audience to decide what they want to believe because there is no correct answer - it's whatever you want it to be.

Further evidence of this can be found in the trial scenes. The judge is never shown and the majority of the three testimonies we hear is delivered almost straight to camera - the actors' eye-line in addressing the judge is just above the lens, putting the audience at the judge's feet, effectively making the audience something akin to the old-school courtroom stenographer. In doing so, director Akira Kurosawa is asking us to be there to bear witness, not to decide and pass judgment. But by bearing witness, and being human, it is impossible for us not to decide and pass our own judgment. Kurosawa and the scriptwriter knew this, and it's one of the key points they were making - that we decide our own truths.


For this minor miracle of narrative styling-turned-important thematic device - a rare example of style creating substance - we have a number of people to thank. Firstly, there's Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, who's short story In A Grove provides the basis of Rashomon. Then there's screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, who adapted the short story and took it to Kurosawa.

That initial meeting between Hashimoto and Kurosawa is possibly one of the shortest script discussions in the history of cinema. As Hashimoto described in his autobiography, that first meeting lasted no more than two minutes and consisted of Kurosawa saying the script was too short and Hashimoto suggesting to add the setting from another Akutagawa story called Rashomon. Kurosawa agreed, and that was it. Meeting over.

Despite this shoehorning of two stories into one (Kurosawa further tweaked Hashimoto's final draft), the juxtaposition of the two settings works well. By the film's end, the storytelling in the abandoned gatehouse becomes almost as important as what may or may not have transpired in the woods. Many of the judgments on humanity and what we're left to ruminate on come from what happens in the gatehouse. As such, the film gives us a pretty dark view of humanity that is saved only by a surprising coda.

Of course the other person we have to thank for all this is Kurosawa himself. Outside of its innovative storytelling technique (some people claim Citizen Kane did it first, but it uses different points of view to tell one story, while Rashomon offers different perspectives on the one story), Rashomon is also a beautifully made film. It makes the most of just eight actors and three settings, utilising its locations perfectly in relation to its cinematography and storytelling.


For example, the trial is filmed predominantly with an unmoving camera in stark sunshine, like its under an unrelenting gaze. The incidents of the rape and murder in the forest are a combination of roaming cameras (which must have been difficult in the pre-Steadicam days in a location not ideal for dolly tracks) and multi-camera set-ups, edited between long captivating takes and short Mexican stand-off-style cuts that pre-date Sergio Leone. The crew also utilised mirrors to ensure plenty of natural sunlight in the dappled forest setting, but for the most part the characters in the forest move through the light and shade of the world - another seemingly thematic element amplified by stylistic choices.

And then there's the dark black rain of the gatehouse, and the three men seemingly cut-off from the world. It's as if the men are separated from what has happened, in order to process it in isolation, which only manages to enhance their subjectivity. In all these settings, Kurosawa uses light, shade, camera movement (or lack thereof) and editing to help tell his story in fascinating and intelligent ways.

But like many highly regarded films, Rashomon didn't make much of a splash initially. According to this awesome and wonderfully detailed Kurosawa site, it was "met with somewhat average reviews as many Japanese critics were puzzled by its content". It was "a moderate commercial success" - a fact possibly mitigated somewhat by its low budget - and won a couple of minor film festival awards before it "nevertheless disappeared from public eye fairly soon after its release".

Then it turned up at the Venice Film Festival (at the urging of Giuliana Stramigioli, a representative of the Italian film company Italiafilm) and everything changed, not only for Rashomon, but for Kurosawa and the entire Japanese film industry. According to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, which screened Rashomon this year as part of a Kurosawa retrospective curated by great Australian critic David Stratton, "the West was almost entirely ignorant of Japanese cinema before Rashomon screened at Venice in 1951 and won the Golden Lion".

(This video is outstanding, even if it does have a (legitimate) dig at The Avengers and Joss Whedon:)


In this regard, Rashomon is one of the most important Japanese films from a Western perspective. Though some of its quirks - in particular its acting style - were out-of-kilter with Western ideals at the time, its other elements were startling and influential. Stratton highlighted "its adventurous photography (and) its innovative employment of light and shade" and of course its central "subjective nature of truth" as reasons as to why Rashomon was an "extraordinary breakthrough".

It's interesting to note that the next Japanese director to follow Kurosawa to major Western acclaim was Yasujirō Ozu, who couldn't be more different than Kurosawa. Where Kurosawa's breakthrough features a roaming camera, a fantastical-at-times storyline, and brash narrative and editing techniques, Ozu's introduction to the West - the equally excellent Tokyo Story - is almost the complete opposite. In it, Ozu kept his camera static, often used the same type of shot (the tatami- mat angle), kept his pacing and editing languid, and focused on a more mundane type of event and storytelling.

These two directors, to this day, are probably the best known Japanese directors in Western cinematic culture, and yet they are so markedly different. It's a great indication of the diversity of Japanese cinema. It would be like if Japanese film aesthetes judged all Western film on the output of David Lean and Quentin Tarantino. But Rashomon and Tokyo Story make for interesting comparisons to highlight each other's cinematic strengths, as this absolutely brilliant video explains:


There is much to love about Rashomon. It's fight choreography is somewhat under-rated, especially in the way it changes to reflect the different perspectives of the storytelling. There's also the impressively orchestrated scene involving the medium recounting the dead samurai's tale, which uses some post-production vocal recording and a wind machine to great effect, adding an otherworldly aspect to this strange but necessary moment in the film.

But largely this is a film that demonstrates that how you tell your story is just as important as what that story entails. It's a fairly common yet essential part of filmmaking, yet this remains one of the best examples of that principle even though almost 70 years have elapsed since its release.

Thanks for making it this far. Here's some further reading if you're interested:

The Film Sufi's review
The Criterion Collection notes
The aforementioned excellent and detailed Kurosawa site


I watched Rashomon at a screening hosted by F Project Cinema in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia. Here's what's coming up at future FPC screenings at the Mozart Hall (all screenings are at 7.30pm):

The Bicycle Thief - October 11

Amy - October 25

Closed Circuit - November 8

Marina Abramovic - November 22

Metropolis - December 13

The Princess Bride - January 10

Waltz With Bashir - January 24



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