Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Rashomon (1950)

”Rashomon” is one of those movies that keep buzzing around in your head for a long time after you have seen it. I am still trying to make sense of it and I cannot say that I fully understand the movie. Well, that seems indeed to be the intention of the movie, to make us doubt what we see and suspend our judgment, yet it still feels as if I am missing something towards the end of the movie.

“Rashomon” is a concept movie in the sense that it explores and idea rather than an actual plot. The idea here being that truth is subjective and that each person has his own interpretation on reality. Today we are not unfamiliar with this angle. There are a number of films that has used it as part of the plot or as way to tell a story. Most famous is probably “The Usual Suspects”, but it has been done so often that it has a name. It is called the Rashomon-effect (it is true, try Google it!).

The story is simply enough. Three men, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a… hobo, I suppose, (Kichijiro Ueda) are taking shelter from the rain in an old, dilapidated gate building. The woodcutter and the priest has just witnessed an inquest in the court and are in a state of shock. They tell the story to the hobo. A samurai (Masayuki Mori) was murdered in the forest. Present was a bandit, Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune) and the samurai’s wife (Machiko Kyō).

But now it starts getting complicated. We are told the story in four different ways. From the bandit, the wife, the samurai (through a medium) and through the woodcutter, who, it turned out, watched the whole thing from hiding. Each person has his or her own take on the story. You would think that they all plead not guilty, but it is not so. In fact all of them except the woodcutter claims to have done the killing, but in a manner where killing the samurai was the honorable thing to do.

Tajomaru wanted the wife who after a bit of resistance gave in and kissed him back. Then he fought the samurai in worthy and honorable battle and bested him in the end.  

The wife claims that Tajomaro raped her and that her husband, tied up as he was, looked at her with such coldness and disdain that it freaked here out, she fainted and must have killed the samurai in the fall.

The samurai claims that he saw his wife being raped, but that she after the rape asked the bandit to kill the samurai because she could not belong to two men. The bandit however did not kill him so the samurai killed himself in shame.

The woodcutters story however is different. In that one all three are pitiful creatures. The wife is pathetic, the fighting between the bandit and the samurai is more a brawl than a fight and nobody acts with any sense of honor.

Which of these stories are correct? We do not know and we are not told. Instead these are the stories that fit the persona. This is how they see themselves and want the world to perceive them. The bandit is a badass, the wife is unfairly judged by men, the samurai is shamed, but takes the honorable way out after being deceived by both wife and bandit and the woodcutter is a coward and a simple person who see other people in the same light.

In a sense it does not matter what really happened there in the forest. The point is to show how subjective truth is.

Then comes the end of the story and this I do not entirely understand. The three men in the gate finds a crying infant left alone there. The hobo immediately steals the kimono used as wrapping while the woodcutter is infuriated at the hobo for doing that. The hobo calls him a hypocrite because he has guessed that the woodcutter stole the dagger in the woods. The priest meanwhile holds the child and when the woodcutter asks to take the baby he refuses. Then the woodcutter tells him that he has six children already and a seventh will not make much difference to which the priest replies that now he has regained his faith in humanity.

Clearly I am missing something here. Is it that despite the woodcutter is a coward and a thief he is willing to help and save an infant in need, an extra expense when he is clearly poor and has already six children depending on him? Maybe. This is as far as I got, but it seems there should be something more to it.

Despite this confusion in the end this is a very impressive film. Not just for founding a concept that has become so popular, but to make a movie so radically different from anything else in its time and do it so convincingly. The closest thing I can think of is “Citizen Kane” where a story is told in retrospect by different people, each giving their own angle. But in “Rashomon” it is the same story that each person is telling. The issue of subjective truth is boiled down so this is at the core of the story.

Much have been said about the exaggerated acting style that seems to hark back to the silent era, but it does not disturb me. That kind of acting, as well as minimalist acting, is integral to Japanese culture (kabuki) so it seems quite appropriate. This is also the first movie in what seems to be quite a series with Toshiro Mifune and that is certainly an interesting acquaintance.

All in all Akira Kurosawa makes quite an entry on the List. I can hardly wait for the next one to show up.


  1. You sure have a lot of absolutely fabulous films to look forward to! My interpretation of the ending is that, in spite of everything, there is still hope. Or maybe the "truth" about the woodcutter as uncovered by the hobo is not the whole truth after all? People can be both thieves and incredibly generous?

    I absolutely love this film. I think the different versions of the fight are wonderfully staged. Also the long tracking shot where the woodcutter walks through the forest is exquisite. Kurosawa was the first to shoot into the sun, I think.

    1. While I think I have always known Kurosawa I have only seen The Seven Samurai and Ran, so I am really excited about all the Kurosawa stuff I am going to see over the coming years.
      You are probably right about the ending. This is more or less where my own analysis have taken me. Something about that truth and humanity is a personal and individual thing and not something absolute and universal.

    2. The next one on the list is Ikiru! No Mifune and no samurais but it is one of my favorites.

    3. Yes, I saw it is coming up soon. Looks very promising.

  2. Ask me about a given director, and I can probably point to a favorite film. With Kurosawa, my favorite of his films is the last one I watched, whatever that might be (Yojimbo at the moment). Even the films of his I haven't loved (like Dersu Uzala) I've at least liked a lot.

    Marie is right--you've got a lot to look forward to. And a lot of great Mifune, too.

    1. I may well end up in the same place. If Rashomon is typical for what is waiting for me I can hardly wait.
      Curiously, in the nineties there was a Danish movie that referred to Mifune, called Mifune's Last Song. That guy had quite in impact far outside Japan.

  3. The next three Kurosawa films on the list are all in the 1950s and I consider all of them to be better than Rashomon, as good as that film is.

    And Mifune was the first Dogme 95 film I ever saw - before I even knew what Dogme was I happened to see it. And I couldn't figure out where I had seen the actress from Mifune and when I finally realized she had been the love interest in High Fidelity I was surprised because I had not even realized she wasn't American.

    1. That sounds promising indeed! I see you are also reviewing some of his movies these days.
      Mifune's Last Song is not my favorite movie and Iben Hjejle is not my favorite actress, but then again it has been many years since I saw the movie, so maybe it is worth a rewatch.