The Greatest films of all time: 5. Rashomon (1950)(Japan)


Imagine the art of cinema without “Kurosawa”, his influence on this medium and “Rashomon”. Akira Kurosawa who is more known in the western world and perhaps anywhere else in the world for his great film “Seven Samurai” that has been well adapted by the American cinema as “Magnificent Seven”, entered the film industry as a painter. Then after a few years of working as an assistant director, he made a few feature films such as “Sanshiro Sugata” (1943), “The most beautiful” (1944, when at the set met his actress wife), “Drunken Angel” (1948) and “Stray Dog” (1949), before becoming world wide popular with his masterpiece “Rashomon”. With this film, Kurosawa not only made himself known, but the whole Japanese cinema and quite a few other great directors who were introduced to the world of cinema such as “Yasujiro Ozu, “Kenji Mizogushi”, “Shohei Imamura”, and “Masaki Kobayashi”.   Although Yaujiro Ozu was Kurosawa’s predecessor, but became more known with his later films to the west, such as his “Tokyo Story” (1953) and “Floating Weeds” (1959), all thanks to Rashomon.


Kurosawa who took him quite a few years until coming up with his great creation (Rashomon), he could not repeat another masterpiece, despite unrelenting movie making every year. Despite the well receptions of a few of his later works such as “Ikiru” (1952) and “Seven Samurai” (1954) specially in the west, cinema had to wait for another few years until he comes back with a few other masterpieces such as “The Hidden Fortress” (1958), “Yojimob” (1961), “Sanjuro” (1962), “Red Beard” (1965), “Kagemusha” (1980), “Ran” (1985) and finally “Dreams” (1990).    


Why Rashomon?

Kurosawa with Rashomon, like De Sica with “Bicycle Thieves” took the art of cinema to another level, and that’s why his film Rashomon, jumps to the number 5 in our greatest films of all time list. But like his role model and master, John Ford who after making “The Grapes of Wrath” in earlier years, and got caught up in his American patriotism to depict the American history of becoming in his westerns, Kurosawa also got caught up in his cultural samuraism!  Kurosawa who apparently descended from a samurai family generation, perhaps felt to depict that part of the historical culture of Japan in his films. He first showed the dark side of the samurai who were simply knights or fighters for the rulers of the time, from 12 to 16thcenturies in Japan, in “Rashomon”, a story of one samurai like many others who became bandits. Later on in his “Seven Samurai”, he attempts for redemption of samurai, by showing their heroic characters in helping the poor assaulted farmers of a village by other bandits.

Despite the well reception and hails of “Seven Samurai” all over the world, Kurosawa could not achieve a great masterwork as he did with Rashomon. In “Seven Samurai”, Kurosawa getting stuck with the heroism and altruism of the samurai to create an epic, but at the end he made a good and commercial film to be hailed by westerners who adapted him with “The Magnificent Seven” in their own American Western style. Since “Seven Samurai” was made four years after “Rashomon” and has been regarded as Kurosawa’s greatest film by some, this later film of his will be briefly critiqued here, in contrast with Rashomon.


“Seven Samurai” despite being called as an epic, it is not much so in comparison with the earlier epic films in cinema, such as “Intolerance” of D.W.Griffith as early as 1906, or “Battleship of Potemkin” of Eisentstein in 1925 and even not as epic as its American copy, “The Magnificent Seven”. The story of selecting seven poor and hungry samurai to help a village from the next looting of the bandits, takes one hour or one third of the film, with the final and major battle in the film being less than half an hour, despite its lingering going back and forth into a few small battles before the final one. The film and specially the role of Toshiro Mifone as “Kikuchiyo”, is more of a comedy than a drama and epic.


The villagers are looked down upon, degraded, ridiculed and even spanked by the samurais. The preparation of the battle takes too long like the whole film that could be summarized more efficiently. Moreover the battles and the fights do not seem to be real, as there are no wounds or bleeding by the swords as if they are wooden ones. There are no unique technical, visual, acting, cinematography or even rich dialogues, except a few here and there, like the final scene when the farmers replant after recuperation, that is visually and cinematographically beautiful with rich dialogue, when the leader of the samurais, Kambei (Takashi Shimura) admits “At the end we lost again, as the villagers are the true winners”. Although the film is a good one, but it has been over-rated, except for its score and soundtrack composed by “Fumio Hayasaka” that stands out above all the other elements of the film. The film, four years after “Rashomon” has none of its innovation or elements of excellence in cinematic art as Rashomon that will be discussed in the following.       

So what is in Rashamon, that has taken the art of cinema to another higher level? Rashomon like “Bicycle Thieves” and the other top great films in our list, is not just about a story telling and entertainment on the screen, but about how to tell a story, proper for the medium of cinema, with emphasis on the visual aspects. In Rashomon, Kurosawa who was influenced earlier in life along with his brother who finally committed suicide, by the great Russian novelist, Dostoyevsky and perhaps by Shakespeare, depicted well the story of a samurai transgressed to a vagrant bandit and rapist “Tajomaru” (Toshiro Mifune). In fact this was the first time in cinema, when a filmmaker in a Shakespearean style, telling a different story and not an adaptation of the English playwright on the screen. So buckle up and lets see how Kurosawa from Japan in his early career could do such and achieve the highest in the cinematic art.


Three men, a woodcutter, “Kikori” (played by Takashi Shimura), and a priest, “Tabi Hoshi” (Minoru Chiaki), and a commoner (Kichijiro Udea) under pouring rain on a deck of a deserted and torn down city gate of “Rashomon” discussing their witness of a situation that we as the audience will not know what it is for a while. This scene of the three men in the pouring rain is the opening scene, but stays the main scene of the film until we are taken to their recollection and recitation of the event that all three are bedazzled about, in a garden court and in the woods when the incident had happened. First of all this main scene of the film in the downpour is a rarity in cinema, except Hitchcock’s ‘”Rope” that happens all in one scene and in a room. The downpour like a background in a painting adds a special visual power of cinematography to the film that is another rarity in cinema and a major element of the greatness of the film and hard to ignore.    


The woodcutter and the priest in total shock, start the story of the film by saying “I cannot understand it”! of an incident that he had witnessed three days before. Then the commoner running in the pouring rain, entering on the deck and questions him what had happened. The priest who has been another witness, continues that despite of many disasters year after year by earthquake, famine, fire, plague, and the killings and wars, fallen on them by the bandits, he cannot believe what he had witnessed, that soon he may lose his faith in the human soul. Finally the woodcutter starts telling his eyewitness of the event, when he was going to cut some timbers in the woods.

Here the rain scene is left and the next scene accompanied by a soundtrack follows the woodcutter in the woods. Until now the score of the film in the first scene and whenever afterwards the film goes back to the base scene of the Rashomon’s deck in the rain, is the sound of the rain. The wood cutter tells that while walking in the woods, first he noticed a woman’s hat, then a samurai’s cap and finally a dead body that frightens him to flee the scene and report to the law. In the next scene, as a witness in a monologue without the scene showing any judges or police, he reports to the camera, what he had seen.


In the same scene of a court garden, the priest, while the woodcutter sitting in the background again in a monologue reports his own version of what he had witnessed about the incident, while walking in the woods. He sees a lady (Machiko Kyo) on a horse, with covered face along by a walking samurai who seemed to be her husband (Masayuki Mori) pulling the horse, carrying a sword, bow and arrow, passing by him. The next scene in the courtyard, while the woodcutter and the priest sitting behind in the background, a tight up man in ropes, the accused Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) is presented to the court by a law officer, who tells how he had caught him. The officer finds him on the edge of a river bank, lying down wounded by a few arrows on his back and more arrows scattered around, with a bow and a horse.


At this point Tajomaru tells his version of the story. He tells that while sleeping under a tree in the woods, he wakes up seeing a lady on a horse with his man walking by. At a brief moment, the bandit feels that he has seen a goddess and needs to capture the woman for himself, even if he had to kill her husband, another samurai. So he ran after them, stops them and fools the man to take him to a place up in the woods where he has found many nice treasure swords and mirrors. He takes the husband up in the woods away from the wife, then along the way attacks him and ties him up. Then the bandit goes back to the wife, taking her to the tied up husband. But the wife fights him back with a dagger, but she finally gives up and is raped by the bandit. The bandit laughs in the court while telling his story that he was able to capture the wife without killing the husband. As after the rape, he is about to leave, but the woman runs after him and demands the bandit to fight with her husband, so she choose to go with the survivor. The bandit unties the husband to fight and finally manages to kill the husband.

The wife who after rape,begged her husband to forgive her, but he simply looked at her coldly and with a look of loathing, then freed him and begged him to kill her so that she would be at peace. His expression disturbed her so much that she fainted with dagger in hand. She awoke to find her husband dead with the dagger in his chest. She attempted to kill herself, but failed in all her efforts. In the courtyard, thewife caught up in her guilt of being taken by another man who has killed her husband, through a ritual in the court house and running around herself, takes in the soul of her husband, becoming him and tells his version of the story through her mouth.


The wife with a change in voice to her husband’s, while looking very different and frightening as possessed by her dead husband tells the court again in a monologue that the bandit was cunning to his wife, while he helplessly tied up in the corner of the woods. He could not believe what his wife asked the bandit to take her away with him wherever he wishes. His souls was shaken for what he heard and witnessed that the bandit was taking her away. But more disturbing to him was that his wife turned back and asked the bandit to kill him as well, since she would not rest in peace to have had love by two men alive.

The dead husband states that his body and soul has been thrown in the deepest darkness for what his wife’s request to the bandit, that made him even pale and in shock. She kept begging the bandit “Please kill him”! The bandit in surprise of what is hearing from the wife, throws her down on the ground, and asks the tied up husband what he demands him to do to her. But here the wife in a struggle with the bandit runs away and the bandit after chasing her for a little while, returns to the husband and declares that he had lost her and now unties and frees the man to go. Here the dead husband’s soul through the body of the wife tells how he killed himself with his wife’s dagger as he could not live with what he had witnessed. Later, somebody removed the dagger from his chest.

Back at the Rashomon’s deck in rain, the woodcutter objects in anger that there has not been a dagger but the man was killed by the sword of the bandit and not by his own hands. The other man who does not believe in the woodcutter story, demands him to tell the truth. Now he tells another version of the story that the bandit after the rape and while the tied up husband is watching, on his knees asks the woman to be his wife and if she does, he would even stop being a bandit and will work like a normal man. The woman while face down on the ground weeping, says that is impossible as she cannot accept to have slept with two men. The bandit unties the husband to fight for the woman, but the husband refuses to fight for the wife whom he calls “whore” and shameless and not worth to die for. Then the woman in a frenzy laugh at both men, calls them weak as they cannot fight for her and possess her by sword, the way a man should earn love of a woman. So like a demon, the woman provoke the two men to fight for her and one gets killed that ends up to be her husband. The two men start to fight, but both all of a sudden in shaking fears as they have lost their souls and being possessed by demon and they fight not in their free will. After the samurai is killed, the woman runs away and the bandit after a while leaves the scene limping.

Back on the Rashomon’s deck in pouring rain, while the three men arguing about the incident and the priest states that he has lost faith in men, the cry of a baby is heard. The woodcutter runs towards the cry and finds a young child lying in a corner in the back of the torn down city gate in a rap crying. He steals the baby’s shawl that the woodcutter and the priest approach and stop him. The woodcutter calls him selfish to steal a baby’s shawl and he responds that what is wrong to be selfish, everybody is including him who had stolen the precious dagger from the scene of the murder, and now a bandit calls another bandit, selfish. The man leaves the Rashomon’s gate in the rain, and the woodcutter and the priest with the baby in his arms are left in the scene while the rain stops now. The woodcutter asks the priest to give him the baby to take home and raise him as he has six of his own and one extra does not make much difference, but at least he has done something good as a man. Finally the priest has his faith back in man by seeing the nice gesture of the woodcutter, who walks away and the film ends.

The Birth of a New Style in Cinema:

Kurosawa with Rashomon brought a new style to cinema that after sidetracking for a while, repeated in his later years masterpieces until to the last one, “Dreams”. This style that later on partially or more was adapted by others internationally, is a visual or cinematographic (totally so in “Dreams”), artful and poetic in story-telling or theatrically Shakespearian, very Japanese in setting and acting, that all started with Rashomon. 

 Rashomon in Japanese meaning “disambiguation” or clarification, that refers to the theme of the story of the film, to clarify the conflicting perception and eye-witnessing a situation from different perspectives, in fact became a cinematic style of story telling. This style brought the Japan cinema out of its stagnant and slow cultural shell that was seen in the films before Rashomon and after, even in “Ikiru” of Kurosawa himself.  Kurosawa who always admired the silent films, in Rashomon tried to restore some of this beauty and its simplicity, but adding the sound, as simple and natural as the downpour to the gripping score of Fumio Hayasaka, and rich dialogue, and monologue written by Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto, to perfect a cinematic style, on a superb visual or cinematographic background mastered by Kazuo Miyagawa.

The film is a combination of different stylish pieces, from the title and setting that was borrowed from Akutagawa’s short story of the same name, to the story and plot that was actually based on another short story of Akutagawa, titled “In a Grove”, to the Shakespearian style of monologue. But as a whole the film is totally Kurosawan and an invention of cinematic style. The story them, the subjectivity and relativity of the truth, is perfect for such depiction and the application of such cinematic style on the screen. A simple but tragic incident of the rape of a married woman in the woods of 11-12thcentury Japan, where some samurais were digressed to bandits, in the film is transformed into different interpretations of the reality.

The rape incident that is emotionally tragic is understood, witnessed and interpreted on five different accounts, but most importantly internally by the samurai husband, the wife and the bandit who were directly involved. The woman who is raped in front of her tied up husband, feels guilty, but at the same time has expected him to stop the incident and had fought for her honor. The husband obviously in rage, but could not prevent the event as he was tied up, is shocked later on to see his confused wife willing to go with the bandit and even worse to have him killed. Finally the bandit after the rape, shaken by the beauty of the woman or her guilt and innocence, falls in love with her and is willing to have her as wife, change his life style and go with her.

Instead of the usual revenge story of western style seen in such films like “Straw Dogs” of Sam Pakinpah and after, Kurosawa in Rashomon masterly applies Shakespearian method of probing into the emotional and psychological internal world of the three involved characters. Rape, lust, love, murder, guilt, helplessness, revenge, hate, surprise and more are the psychological theme that the film beautifully deals with from different perspectives. The masterful scene of the possession of the wife’s body by  her dead husband, willingly by the guilt ridden woman so to tell the story from his perspective, is the ultimate point of exploration and analysis of the incident.

The emphasis on the subjectivity of truth and the uncertainty of factual accuracy in the film has also been interpreted as an allegory of the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II.  The rape and the murder could be seen as the two atomic bombs dropped by the Americans, that could be judged and justified in different opposites by the two nations. Symbolism running rampantly throughout the film and much has been written on, could be interpreted differently as well beyond the film’s story.

The cinematic techniques that many was contributed by the cinematographer of the film, Kazuo Miyagawa in addition to Kurosawa himself, such as series of single close-ups of the bandit, the wife and the husband to show their triangular relationships, and the use of contrasting shots make the film powerful in conveying its message(s). The camera shots directly into the sun and using mirror to reflect natural light instead of using artificial light; directly filming the sun through the leaves of the trees to show the light of truth becoming obscured are other techniques that Kurosawa introduced to cinema in emphasizing story telling.

 Perhaps Kurosawa brought his skill and talent as an initial painter into his film making to enrich the visual aspect of his films, started with Rashomon such as tinting the rain with the black ink to capture the downpour, that was in fact water pumping through the hoses. His use of dappled light throughout the film to give the characters and the settings more ambiguity; the use of sunlight and the darkness of the clouds in the woods as a contrast between the good and the evil of the desires of the bandit and the wife are other many examples that were used in the film artfully. Shooting of the scenes by several cameras then editing the best short pieces into one to look like a single scene; and finally the score by Fumio Hayasaka, one of the greatest Japanese composers and adding an adaptation of “Bolero” by Maurice Ravel, adds to the atmosphere, the feelings and the message of the film.    


In closing remarks “Rashomon” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality:“Rashomon” is original in a Shakespearian style of story telling without a direct adaptation of the British playwright works. The relativity and subjectivity of an incident from different perspectives, of eye witnesses not directly involved to three characters directly involved was original in cinema. The exploration and analysis of three internal worlds and feelings of the three principal personas and the application such strong screenplay (specially with its powerful monologues), cinematography, camera work and the sound and the score of the film to convey the content of the story are all as original as they can get.
  2. Technicality:The technicality of “Rashomon” that has been written and hailed by critics and other filmmakers start before shooting the film in its screenplay, then up to its cinematographic and camera work, sounds and score. The close-ups, contrasting shots, camera shots directly into the sun, using mirror to reflect natural light on the faces, directly filming the sun through the leaves of the trees to show, all masterfully were used to show the obscurity, subjectivity and relativity of the situation. The main repeated scene of the downpour on the Rashomon gate deck is so simple, but powerful in creating an atmosphere for the viewer to reflect on deep aspect of human life. More of the technicality of the film has been summarized above.
  3. Impact Factor:The influence of “Rashomon”has been on so many filmmakers across the globe, that its effect has been seen in later on films of others and much has been written on. The film that first was not received well by Japanese critics, but baffled them later on when it was hailed in the rest of the world, introduced Japan into the world cinema as a great contributor. The film impact was so much on the world of cinema that its effect on the industry has been called “Rashomon effect”. The film that was shown for the first time outside Japan, at the Venice film Festival won its Golden Lion award, then an Academy Honorary Award, when there was not best foreign film category, that was only introduced because of Rashomon later on in 1956, and the best director and the best foreign film awards in the American National Board Review. The film has also ranked number 10thon the Directors’ top ten poll of 1992 and 9thin the same poll of 2002 and 7thon Woody Allen’s top 10 films of all time.
  4. Survival:“Rashomon” has survived well to this very day through its influence on other films and filmmakers, and its adaption of style and techniques. The film is also as fresh as when it was made in surprising, enlightening and awakening us.

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