Opening 2018 with another Akira Kurosawa classic seems like a good way to get started, so here’s Rashomon (1950). An inventive story that retells the same event from the point of view of multiple unreliable narrators, Akutagawa’s storytelling and Kurosawa’s interpretation echo through pop culture – with my personal favourite being the King of the Hill Episode, “A Fire Fighting We Will Go”. The film presents multiple layers of narratives within narratives as a wandering traveller happens upon two other men seeking shelter from the rain in the huge, cyclopean ruin of the titular Rashomon gate.
The two men already inside, a priest and a woodcutter, are reeling from an event: a rape and murder, and the subsequent investigation. They recount to the newcomer the course of the investigation as three different witnesses – the bandit Tajomaru, the raped woman, and the spirit of the murdered samurai channelled through a medium – give their version of events to the police. Each version is contradictory, explaining the course of the ambush and ensuing murder with variations both subtle and extreme.
The film is thick with symbolism and vastly open to interpretation. Not only is each witness’ viewpoint potentially unreliable, it’s not even clear if we’re seeing their stories as told, or only as recalled by the woodcutter and the priest, or even as imagined by the traveller upon hearing the stories retold. Though age and deterioration has diminished the film somewhat over the last sixty-seven years, it’s still incredibly atmospheric, with almost every scene in the ruined gatehouse dominated by a deafening downpour of rain. Despite a relatively short running time at 88 minutes, Kurosawa allows the stories to progress slowly and unhurriedly, letting the camera linger, and incorporating long stretches of near silence and inactivity.
Released in 1950, with Japan still reeling from the end of World War 2, this film also seems to represent the nadir of Kurosawa’s opinion of humanity. Almost every character questions the nature of truth and presents a negative view of human nature – something that stretches the priest character to his limits – and even though the end of the film offers some fragment of redemption, it feels like such a rushed and tacked on conclusion that the overwhelming feeling coming out of Rashomon is one of despair for mankind. This seems to come across in the set design and the costuming, from the inhospitable ruin of the gate, to the squalid rags most of the characters wear. That sense of squalor carries through most of Kurosawa’s period work and it’s unclear whether it’s an attempt to accurately portray the peasant class of the past or if in his own way he’s skewering Japan’s image of its own history after nationalism had surged so high and brought the country so low. As the memory of WW2 fades going into the ‘60s and later, such squalor seems less and less prevalent, but it’s still a big part of Seven Samurai just a few years later.
It was Rashomon that put Japanese cinema on the global map, and for that historical importance alone it deserves attention, but it’s also a well-made film that still holds up. On the other hand, despite the high critical praise and its place in film history, I find myself looking to Kurosawa’s other works – Stray Dog, Yojimbo and Sanjuro, or Throne of Blood – as more enjoyable. As ever, though, Rashomon is an opportunity to watch a master at work.
Rashomon / 羅生門 Rashōmon
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Japanese Release Date: 25th August 1950
Version Watched: 88 min (BFI Restoration, Amazon Video)