Toshirô Mifune, Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyo
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
A samurai and his wife meet a bandit on the road. Shortly thereafter, the samurai is dead and his wife violated, and the bandit is under arrest for his murder. Four different people (the bandit, the woman, a woodcutter who watched the incident from a hiding place, and--through a medium--the dead man himself) tell four very different stories about what happened, each of which is dramatized for the benefit of the audience. Who's telling the truth? Perhaps no one. Perhaps everyone.
A very small number of films become so associated with their subject matter that their names become part of the common language. To gaslight someone is to make her believe she's going insane. When a politician undertakes a popular action to distract public attention from an unpopular situation, he's wagging the dog. And a Rashomon scenario is one in which different people have very different recollections of the same event. Though its central conceit has since been copied in countless movies and TV shows, Akira Kurosawa's classic picture, the first Japanese film to become popular in the United States, remains the definitive exploration of the fallibility of memory, the ways in which truth itself can become unknowable as our own minds betray us.
Rashomon furnishes what may be the definitive cinematic dramatization of the literary concept of the unreliable narrator, in which the reader is forced to conclude that the character relating the story may be unconsciously or intentionally coloring the truth. (Humbert Humbert, the pedophile protagonist of Nabokov's Lolita, is a signature example--his story is so internalized, and his obsession with the title character so severe, that it becomes unclear that there's anything to it at all.) Kurosawa elaborates on this concept by suggesting that there is no such thing as a reliable narrator, that every person has beliefs, prejudices, and life experiences that color his or her every perception and makes pursuit of an objective truth literally impossible. Rashomon is notable in that the stories the participants tell don't seem to line up with their own best interests--shouldn't the bandit, facing punishment, at least try to deny responsibility for the samurai's death? And although the woodcutter is the only disinterested witness to the incident and should therefore logically be closest to the truth, after watching his story dramatized the viewer is left with the unsatisfying feeling that his story is no more trustworthy than the others'. Every witness tells the story as he or she remembers it, with no apparent attempt at subterfuge, and yet at the end we are left with four irreconcilable versions of an event that, one would think, should have made a big enough impression on everyone involved to mark it accurately in their minds.
Rashomon is in Japanese with English subtitles.
Points to ponder:
- The film is named for the Rashomon Gate, which was the largest entrance to Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. In the picture's framing device, three men (one of whom is the aforementioned woodcutter) take shelter under the ruined gate during a fierce rainstorm, whereupon they relate the different versions of the incident to one another.
- One thing that often jumps out at people who haven't seen Rashomon before is the highly formalized, almost overwrought acting style employed by the participants; they shout and gesture wildly, telegraphing every emotion with an abundance of performance. This style of acting borrows much from traditional Japanese kabuki theater, from which some of Rashomon's themes originate.
- The bandit is played by Toshirô Mifune, Kurosawa's favorite actor and the Japanese performer who is probably most familiar to Western audiences. Mifune would go on to play Kikuchiyo, the commoner who wanted to be a warrior, in Kurosawa's 1954 masterpiece The Seven Samurai. (Horst Buchholz would later play the equivalent character in the film's American remake, The Magnificent Seven.) Mifune also starred in Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo, appearing in 16 of the director's films in total. Later in life he would occasionally play parts in American films like Inchon and 1941. The 1999 Danish film Mifune was named for him.