I’m a huge fan of Akira Kurosawa and his films; when I found out that this site had just recently posted its first Kurosawa film review, I thought “what the hell?” So I was very excited for the chance to write a review of the film that first introduced Western audiences to such a brilliant filmmaker, as well as the Japanese film industry in general.
Kurosawa began working as an assistant director and screenwriter in 1936 before directing his first film in 1943, Sanshiro Sugata. He would direct thirty films in his long career, including Seven Samurai (1954), Kagemusha (1980), and Yojimbo (1961), which was remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Kurosawa summarily sued Leone for this remake, as he was given no credit for the original screenplay. Akira Kurosawa was originally hired to direct the Japanese sequences for Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), but he ran over budget and time and was subsequently fired. Sadly, only about thirty seconds of what Kurosawa filmed has survived. In 1990, Kurosawa was honored with a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy Awards.
Rashomon opened in Tokyo in 1950, and in 1951, it played the Venice Film Festival where it won the Golden Lion Award. In that same year, the film won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Kurosawa’s film is based on two short stories by Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa—“Rashomon” published in 1915 (title and moral aspect) and “In a Grove” published in 1922 (the main story).
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The next portion of this review has story spoilers, so if you have not had the opportunity to watch Rashomon and do not want to know what happens, we urge you to stop here or skip the next six paragraphs]
Rashomon is a crime drama told from four different perspectives, each version different. The core story centers on an incident in the countryside involving a samurai (Masayuki Mori), his wife (Machiko Kyo), and the bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune). A woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) finds the body of the samurai in the woods and runs off to alert the authorities. Tajomaru is arrested and the samurai’s wife is brought to court, along with the woodcutter and a medium so that the dead samurai can tell his story. The movie opens during a downpour and the woodcutter and a priest are sheltered at Rashomon gate. Another man joins them, a commoner, and the story of the trial is told to the man by the woodcutter and the priest. The priest had seen the samurai and his wife travelling together prior to the events leading up to the crime in the woods. The stories of the bandit, the wife and the dead samurai are shown in flashbacks.
Tajomaru tells the court that he lured the samurai into a clearing where he then ties him to a tree. The bandit then brings the wife there and she attempts to defend herself with a dagger, but is instead seduced by Tajomaru. The wife begs Tajomaru to duel to the death with the samurai to save her from shame of being “known” by two men. The bandit says that he unties the samurai to do the honorable thing; they duel but the samurai loses his life and the wife runs away.
The wife’s story is that Tajomaru raped her and then ran off. She untied her husband, begging him to forgive her, but the samurai just looks at her with disgust. In her grief, the wife asks him to kill her so she can be at peace. The samurai’s coldness disturbs her so much that she faints with a dagger in her hand. When she comes to, the samurai is dead with the dagger sticking out of his chest.
The medium is then called to the court to summon the spirit of the samurai so he may tell his story. According to the samurai, Tajomaru raped his wife and then asked her to leave with him. She agrees but tells the bandit to kill her husband. Tajomaru is surprised by her request so he gives the choice to the samurai—let her go so she can leave with Tajomaru or kill her for her shame of being raped. The wife runs off and after failing to find her, the bandit releases the samurai. The samurai then kills himself with the dagger. This same dagger ends up missing. Now it’s the woodcutter’s turn to tell his story and as he begins, we learn that he did, in fact, witness the samurai’s murder but did not want to get involved.
According to the woodcutter, after raping the wife Tojamaru begs her to marry him. She instead releases her husband and then berates the two men for not fighting to defend the woman’s honor. They reluctantly duel, with the bandit killing the samurai with a bit of luck and the wife fleeing in terror. Tojamaru takes the samurai’s sword and leaves the scene.
Back at the gate, the men are interrupted by a crying baby abandoned by its mother. The commoner is chastised by the woodcutter for stealing a kimono and amulet left with the baby, but the commoner is no dummy and calls the woodcutter out on his theft of the missing dagger at the crime scene. The commoner leaves and the woodcutter tells the priest he will take the baby and raise it as his own with his other six children. The priest understands the reason for the woodcutter’s theft of the dagger. The men leave the gate, the rain having stopped and the sun shining.
Rashomon is beautifully shot with a minimalist feel. The entirety of the film takes place in the clearing in the woods, at Rashomon gate and in a courtyard. Kurosawa worked closely with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa to have the scenes shot the way he wanted them. Kurosawa was a perfectionist when it came to his films. Kurosawa also liked to film each scene with multiple cameras from various angles so he could edit as he wished. Film historians have argued over the symbolism of Rashomon: the use of light, the slow dismantling of the gate for firewood, even suggesting that the film is an allegory of Japan having lost WWII. What I know from the story is that the priest’s faith in humanity had been shaken until the woodcutter took the baby home with him. The rain could be seen as the darkness of the human soul with the clearing skies and sunlight reaffirming the priest’s faith. A horrible crime was committed but there is still goodness in the world. As to the WWII allegory I can only say that the source material was written well before the war so if there is any symbolism it’s from Kurosawa’s directing and editing. It’s nothing like the blatant symbolism of the later kaiju movies from Japan.
The acting is superb. Toshiro Mifune is one of my favorite actors, regardless of language or country of origin and I love him as the bandit Tajomaru. He plays the bandit through all four tellings of the story with such amazing body language to depict first his strength and arrogance and then ultimately his reluctance to fight and his lack of confidence in himself. The notorious and fearsome bandit may not be so sure of himself after all. Masayuki Mori’s portrayal of the samurai is astonishingly realistic. He is a trained soldier, taught to kill but his reluctance to duel the bandit for his wife’s honor shows a very real man who is not necessarily ready to die, as is historically the code of the samurai. Takashi Shimura (the woodcutter) is another actor who would easily make my top ten actors list and he gives a compelling performance. You just know he is a good man who is motivated by wanting for the well-being of his children….even for that of a stranger’s child. Machiko Kyo plays the wife as the most selfish character of all….concerned with her own well-being above all else. This is understandable in a time period in which women were subjugated. The wife’s self-interest is loud and clear, regardless of who is telling the story but it is not done in a misogynistic way.
So which ultimately is the true story of what happened in the woods that day? The woodcutter’s story seems the most unbiased and plausible as he watched the events from afar. In the end it doesn’t really matter which story is the absolute truth because Rashomon is less about the crime story and more about the people telling their versions of the story; their motivations and the truth of who they are as individuals.