Rashômon brought postwar Japanese cinema to international attention.* ** Based on stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Akira Kurosawa’s film portraying multiple views of a single criminal event won the top prize at Venice. It is a bold, fascinating, visually entrancing piece of work.
There is scarcely anyone who loves movies who hasn’t seen this film more than once. Let me be brief as possible, then, as to the story. In twelfth-century Japan, there is a trial. (Because the judge(s) remain(s) invisible, and because witnesses face the camera, it is we who are urged to assume the judging role.) The bound defendant, a bandit named Tajômaru, is accused of murdering a nobleman, Takehiro, after waylaying and binding him deep in the woods and raping his travel companion, his wife, Masako. All the participants in the crime—the widow, the accused, and (through the agency of a medium) the deceased—prove conflicting witnesses, each insisting on his or her own responsibility for Takehiro’s death. A fourth witness is a simple woodcutter who chanced across whatever it is that happened. His recollection disputes the others’ biased testimonies, although his disinterested standing may conceal fault lines of bias of his own of which he is unaware. To Kurosawa, as critic Andrew Sarris has pointed out, we are all liars. (People “lie in order to deceive themselves,” the priest declares early on.***) “I don’t understand, I don’t understand,” the woodcutter laments as he ponders the discrepancy between his own recollection of the central event and the testimonies given by the others.
The irreconcilable versions of the crime are presented as flashbacks—a familiar cinematic technique, but here, unusually, attuned to the subjectivism of each individual witness. (The same year as Rashômon Alfred Hitchcock made his Stage Fright, a much maligned film with a flashback much disputed because it’s attuned to a character’s lying account of an incident.) Moreover, these really are flashbacks inside a flashback,**** since the woodcutter is recounting the event of the trial to a Buddhist priest and a servant who, like him, have taken refuge from a downpour under the gateway to Kyoto, presumably the city where the trial has unfolded. (By contrast, the crime and the subsequent trial take place in brilliant sunlight.) The gateway is a shambles: a sign of current civil war. The poverty of the three men hiding from the rain, as well as, perhaps, Tajômaru’s appetite for Masako, refer to the famine that is a byproduct of war. The trial and these dire circumstances surely refer to Japan’s demoralization as a result of its defeat in the Second World War and the U.S. occupation. The resonant, complex script, by Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto, won the Blue Ribbon Shou in Tokyo.
Those familiar with Victorian literature might liken Kurosawa’s film to Robert Browning’s phenomenal 1868-69 The Ring and the Book, which also centers on a murder case and competing trial testimonies. (The Ring and the Book is more than 21,000 lines long, and everyone should read every word of it.) Indeed, part of the reason I adjudge Rashômon as a tad lesser thing than do most film critics is that, in my estimation, it falls short of the psychological density and the rich reflections on creative process that distinguish Browning’s masterpiece. Rashômon rivets one’s attention, without a doubt, but Browning’s poem strikes me as a far vaster and more profound thing. Both works, however, finely burrow into human nature; here, as in Kurosawa’s next film, Hakuchi (1951), based on Dostoievski’s The Idiot, we feel the claim that Dostoievski made on Kurosawa’s mind and soul. (I am not aware that Kurosawa read Browning.)
Some critics interpret Rashômon as cinema’s premier engagement of relativism, that is to say, the idea that objective truth either does not exist or is impossible to determine and that individual, subjective “truths,” competing perceptions of reality, occupy its space. Critic Stanley Kauffmann, in a penetrating remark, though, finds Kurosawa’s film going further; according to Kauffmann, Rashômon doesn’t merely display relativism but, rather, shows up the “element that generates the relativism: the element of ego, of self.” The various characters each testify according to his or her need for reality to conform to requirements of self-image. There is potent irony in the fact that, given the context, this impels each to embrace responsibility for Takehiro’s violent death. For example, consider the case of Takehiro himself, whose spirit speaks through the medium. The rape of his wife, coupled perhaps with his inability to do anything to prevent it, disgraces him, calling upon his noble nature to lead him to take his own life. Tajômaru insists he murdered, then, a man who insists he committed suicide; the reality of a bandit, whose profession is to do the wrong thing, is irreconcilable with the reality of a nobleman, who is driven to do the right, that is to say, honorable thing.
Still, the character of the medium channeling Takehiro’s spirit from the regions of the dead, as well as a good deal of the film’s resplendent black-and-white imagery (Kurosawa’s cinematographer is the great Kazuo Miyagawa), shifts our attention from human nature to the nature of cosmos. Consider the beauteous early passage in which Tajômaru strides aggressively through the woods. Fierce sunlight, at moments caught by a camera facing directly upwards, pierces through thick branches and foliage like a blade, creating a dappled effect; the light of truth is unable, then, to establish a clearly discernible identity. It flickers—not like a dying candle, but robustly, as though teasing us with the possibility of a clarity that nevertheless never materializes. This is the same unfathomable universe of Kurosawa’s Kumonosu jo (Spiderweb Castle, a.k.a. Throne of Blood, 1957), a transcription of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth to medieval Japan. One gets a good idea of the elasticity of Kurosawa’s expressiveness from the very different way in which he portrays this same cosmos in the later film. Instead of sputtering sunlight, Kumonosu jo gives us impenetrable mists and fog. For me, the artistic superiority of Kumonosu jo, partly the result of the Shakespearean source material, is another reason why I cannot rank Rashômon as highly as others do.
The acting in this film is tremendous: Toshirô Mifune as Tajômaru; in her greatest role, Machiko Kyô (best actress, Mainichi Film Concours) as Masako; Masayuki Mori as Takehiro; Takashi Shimura, whom I named the year’s best supporting actor, as our confounded, humble surrogate, the woodcutter.
* Allied bombing during the war all but wiped out the archives of silent Japanese cinema.
** During the occupation of Japan following the war, Americans blithely destroyed all but a few Japanese films made during the war.
*** At the last the priest professes having lost all faith in humanity as a result of the woodcutter’s disclosures. Really? It seems to me, given the earlier remark of his, he never had such faith to begin with.
**** John Brahm’s Hollywood The Locket (1946) contains flashbacks inside flashbacks inside flashbacks!
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