In the pouring rain a Woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a Priest (Minoru Chiaki) sit in bewilderment underneath the shelter of Kyoto’s Rashomon Gate. The Woodcutter repeats to himself “I just don’t understand”, but what puzzles him is not clear at first. It is only when a third man, a Commoner (Kichijirô Ueda) emerges in the shelter that it becomes known that a murder has taken place. On the surface the facts are simple, a husband lays dead, his wife has been defiled and a bandit stands accused of the crime. Of course, in life, rarely are things as we perceive them to be. What actually took place on the day of the murder? Well, that all depends on whose version of the events you wish to believe.
Keep in mind though, just because the person telling the tale believes it to be true, does not necessarily make it so. It is this examination of perception that makes Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, such a wonderful cinematic experience. The film’s narrative is told through witness testimonies during a trial. Kurosawa frames the trial scenes in such a way that the audience becomes both interrogator and judge. The witnesses seem to be answering all the questions that the audience would ask of them if given the chance. The problem for the audience is that each of the four witnesses have vastly different accounts of what happened.
The only thing that is consistent among the various versions are the people involved. It is clear that Takehiro Kanazawa (Masayuki Mori) and his wife Masako Kanazawa (Machiko Kyô) were traveling along a road when they encountered the bandit Tajômaru (Toshirô Mifune). A known womanizer, Tajômaru is immediately taken by Masako’s beauty and is determined to have her. From there the events get a little murky as Tajômaru , Masako, the Woodcutter and even the deceased Takehiro, who speaks through a medium (Norkiro Honma), all have testimonies that directly conflict with the each other. The one thing that remains constant in each tale is that Takehiro dies at some point during the encounter Takehiro dies.
So who is ultimately telling the truth? In essence they are all telling the truth and no one is telling the truth. Each time the audience is shown a new version, the images in that particular account rings true. Yet their tales are also filled with lies and embellishment, though the reason for their lies is never clear. What do they have to gain from their deceit? As the Commoner points out, “you cannot understand the things men do.”
Rashomon has been hailed as one of the great cinematic masterpieces and it is easy to see why. The film helped to revolutionized how stories were structured after its release. A number of films, and television shows, owe a great deal to Rashomon as many still continue to incorporate Kurosawa’s style to great effect. The fascinating thing about Rashomon is that, although the multiple versions of the same story technique have been used repeatedly, the film still manages to feel original sixty-two years later. It is a testament to both Kurosawa’s direction and the performances in the film. At no point does Kurosawa make it easy on the audience. He consistently forces them to question their beliefs and how they interpret both information and the people who provide it.
In discussing Rashomon with some other film bloggers last week, a question was raised about what it must have been like for audiences in the 1950s to experience it on the big screen? Especially since Japanese cinema was not as wildly coveted as it is now. One can only assume that the audiences were filled with excitement and awe with what they were witnessing. I know that is how I felt when taking in the splendor that is Rashomon.