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70 Years Later: Rashomon

25 August 20 words: Jamie Morris

Screen co-editor Jamie Morris offers his perspective on Kurosawa’s unsolvable samurai murder mystery...

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Machiko Kyo
Running time: 88 minutes

Today, Japan’s film industry is considered something of a crown jewel of world cinema, spawning hugely acclaimed classics from Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) to Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001). But prior to the 1951 Venice Film Festival, the nation’s cinematic works were all but unknown to the rest of the world - and it was Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) that made Japanese movies go global. 

Rashomon takes its name from the south gate to Kyo (now Kyoto), and begins with three people - a woodcutter, a priest and a third man - taking shelter under the gate in the 8th century. The woodcutter and the priest, looking forlorn, explain that they have witnessed something terrible: the murder of a samurai and the rape of his wife at the hands of a bandit. Kurosawa explores each of their testimonies through a then-groundbreaking non-linear story structure, offering a hauntingly ambiguous exploration of honesty, deception and human nature.

The film’s approach to storytelling essentially makes it unspoilable. Each watch is equally engaging and mystifying, with each tale swaying the viewer in a different direction and ultimately leaving them none the wiser by the end. Even the film’s most unassuming characters can’t be trusted - how are we to know that anything the two narrators recount is actually true at all?

While Kurosawa’s commitment to obscuring the truth makes for fascinating viewing, it does to an extent work as a bit of a double-edged sword. Audiences are never fully able to emotionally invest in any of the tales due to always remaining sceptical, and there’s no exciting, explosive reveal at the end - which a typical whodunit would provide. Rashomon’s main achievement lies in the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ or ‘why’.

A master director at work on the path to perfecting his craft

All the hallmarks of the director’s subsequent samurai pictures are present here: the striking visuals, immaculate blocking, horizontal screen wipe (often mistakenly attributed to George Lucas) and ever-innovative use of weather effects. The narrators under the gate are surrounded by a dark expanse of rain that seems to isolate them in the middle of nowhere - and in the forest where the story of the samurai takes place, Kurosawa commands the sunlight, having it sparkle from behind the leaves like little fragments of the hidden truth.

Rashomon is Kurosawa’s fifth production starring frequent collaborator Toshiro Mifune, and features what might be the finest acting of his career besides his role in Seven Samurai (1954). Kurosawa once described the actor as being capable of conveying in a single movement that which would take most actors three, and that’s certainly evident here. As the bandit Tajomaru, Mifune is brimming with chaotic energy, from his manic laughter to his piercing stares. It’s the kind of performance that feels as if it truly comes from within, and convinces the viewer that there are hidden depths to this character.

The acting in this film can’t be mentioned without also praising Machiko Kyo, who plays the samurai’s wife. It’s her character that changes the most across each account - from a manipulator, to a victim, to some combination of both - demanding a level of range that she absolutely manages to deliver. She is in many ways the heart of the story, with the way that the audience feels about her swaying their verdict on the entire case.

Rashomon is a movie that’s not exactly easy to love due to its lack of conventional story beats and inconclusive ending, but this is undeniably a master director at work on the path to perfecting his craft. It’s a timeless film and a turning point in world cinema history that can’t be missed - even if nobody’s cracked the case seven decades later.

Did you know? Kurosawa accentuated the appearance of the weather in the film with the use of practical special effects. These included amplifying the natural light in the forest with a mirror, and tinting the water used for the rainy scenes at the gate with black ink.

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