Great Films: Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950)

Famously, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon has given its name to any situation where differing perspectives of the same event contradict each other, and this device has since been used in several much lesser films, such as Bryan Singer’s flashy, overrated The Usual Suspects. While this is the most obviously startling and challenging feature of Rashomon, after repeated viewings this is almost forgotten in favour of gawping at Kazuo Miyagawa’s incredible cinematography, certainly ranking the film with the likes of The Third Man, The Seventh Seal and Citizen Kane as one of the greatest monochrome films of all-time.

The film begins with three characters sheltering from a storm in the ruins of a gatehouse, two of whom, a woodcutter and a priest, are recounting to the third, a commoner, the details of a dramatic recent event: the murder of a samurai, and rape of his wife. We then are told the story through four differing viewpoints, each differing significantly in detail with each other. While these varying accounts are being told to the commoner, what the viewer begins to do is piece together a picture of the various motivations, interests and prejudices of the story’s protagonists. However, once we are invited to question these accounts, the viewer naturally then begins to question the woodcutter and the priest: what are their motivations? The extension of this, of course, is to ask the same question the filmmaker.

As mentioned above, while the viewer is considering all of this, it is easy to miss what the camera has been up to during this time. For a start, some of the shots of the forest where the flashbacks take place are breathtaking; hot and sticky compared with the rain-sodden ambience of the gatehouse. Light creeps through the branches onto the actors’ faces seemingly naturalistically, though this effect actual required great ingenuity from cinematographer Miyagawa. Also, witness the use of quick editing; 407 separate shots in the film, according to Kurosawa scholar Donald Richie, ranking it alongside the last Michael Bay film in terms of fast cutting. This miraculously passes the viewer by on first viewing, as perhaps do some of the more complicated and innovative camera movements and pans.

Rashomon sent a shockwave through the film world on its international release in 1951, though it garnered some criticism from the domestic Japanese critics who labelled it ‘too western’. Nevertheless, it can be seen as the film which opened up the world to Japanese cinema, as well as announcing the arrival of what would become one of cinema’s greatest directors onto the global stage. Its stars similarly would go on to greatness; Toshirō Mifune, the bandit, would star in many more of Kurosawa’s films, most famously in Seven Samurai, whilst Takashi Shimura would memorably go on to play the ageing bureaucrat in Ikiru, my personal favourite in the Kurosawa canon. DP Miyagawa would go on become Japan’s preeminent cinematographer, and work with other greats such as Ozu and Mizoguchi.

Rashomon remains a great statement about the potential of cinema as an artform, a meditation on the subjective nature of truth, as well as being one of the most visually dazzling films of all time.

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