Akira Kurosawa has become kind of a regular point of interest on this blog, so why not go back to another one of his works and give it the ol’ once over? This time we’re going be looking at what many consider to be one of the greatest movies ever made, but also one of, if not the most, important films of Kurosawa’s entire career. That film is Rashomon. It did a lot for the film world other than making Kurosawa’s and Mifune’s name known to the rest of the world, and even after 64 years of existence, it still holds up very well.
On a rainy afternoon at the Rashomon City Gate, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), a priest (Tabi Hōshi), and a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) hide from the downpour in a dilapidated temple. The woodcutter and the priest reveal that they came from the courthouse to testify in a case about a murdered samurai (Masayuki Mori) who was killed three days ago. The story of the bandit Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune) raping the samurai’s wife (Machiko Kyō) and the possible murder/suicide is told by multiple people in court, each with their own views on what happened. With all of this confusion, it seems next to impossible to discover the truth.
Rashomon is really incredible for a number of reasons. It’s true saying that this isn’t the first movie to tell a story through flashback. Just look at Citizen Kane, made in 1941, and pretty much told all through flashback. This is, however, the first film to utilize multiple different versions of the same flashback and a strong use of unreliable narrators. Knowing this, it’s easy to see Rashomon‘s influence on other films that came after it, like the more modern films The Usual Suspects and Vantage Point. It really is an amazing way to tell a story, and it scared the producer who thought that audiences wouldn’t understand it.
The story of Rashomon and its influence doesn’t end there, however. At the time this movie was made, western audiences weren’t quite savvy to the powers of the great eastern film makers like Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, and others. More focus was on the European side of things. Luckily for the eastern powerhouses, Kurosawa gave them due recognition was Rashomon. This film wasn’t just a hit in Japan, but also at the Venice Film Festival, and also received an honorary Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, before that category was even established. It’s safe to say that this film is the reason why that category even exists.
Technically speaking, this is a beautiful movie. Kurosawa and his DP, Kazuo Miyagawa, know how to shoot weather and forests very well. The rain looks powerful and ominous while the forest looks like a beautiful place to hide a murder. Kurosawa and Miyagawa are also the first people credited with pointing the camera at the sun for a lens flare, and this is the movie where you see that for the first time. The way the camera dollies through the trees and foliage is surprisingly smooth and everything is lit so well and dramatically, it certainly couldn’t have been easy.
What you should take away from this review is the power that Rashomon and Akira Kurosawa have in film history. It’s true to say that without this movie, things in the film world may have been a lot different. It also shows that to really appreciate some of the great modern movies, it is also essential to look at the past to see where and how film makers of today got their inspiration. Rashomon really is, objectively, one of the greatest films ever made and rightly deserves its place in film history.