Rashomon (1950)

Rashomon (1950), directed by Akira Kurosawa.

The setup is appealing: two ragged men, a priest and a woodcutter, shelter from downpouring rain at a ruined city gate. What just happened? They are shocked by a recent experience and relate the story to a third, cynical listener.

In flashbacks to the events and trial afterwards (the judge never seen or heard) we get accounts from several viewpoints, differing not only in the events but in the character of the people involved.

We begin with the woodcutter, venturing deep into the woods, where all fairy tales go. This is a dark one: the center of the story is a sadistic crime, a woman raped while her husband is forced to watch. He is later killed. Unexpectedly, more than one participant wants to confess to the crime. Not just the wife and bandit, but the dead man himself, testifying via a spirit medium -- a spooky scene.

This is the sort of story, like The Birds (1963) or Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), where we come to understand that the mystery is not going to be solved. We will never know what actually happened, only what people claim. Sometimes they lie, but mostly they believe their own versions. These films approach but do not cross a line which would make them much less enjoyable: they do not become purely experimental or demonstrations of cinematic virtuosity at the expense of story.

The final act breaks out of the constant retelling, back to "now" where the characters have to consider a grim prospect: Is this world Hell? That was perhaps too bleak for the director and he sends us out on a kinder, more optimistic note.

Kurosawa always delivers dramatic cinematography, but this goes into a whole new realm. The light and shadows of the forest scenes are fantastic, and the editing was like nothing seen before, making it a world-famous picture from the beginning. To me it looks less like John Ford this time and more European, maybe like Bergman. They started making pictures about the same time.

I've recommended the director's Something Like an Autobiography before. It ends around the time of this movie and the chapter on Rashomon is included in the booklet for the Criterion Blu-ray. His assistant directors pestered him about the script, claiming they couldn't understand it at all. He finally told them:


Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings -- the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood going beyond the grave -- even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium.

Egoism is a sin the human being carries within him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem. This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego. You say that you can't understand this script at all, but that is because the human heart itself is impossible to understand.

If I had a film review blog I'd call it "Strange Picture Scroll".

Criterion Blu-ray. The film source seems in better shape than The Seven Samurai (1954). Commentary by Kurosawa scholar Dennis Ritchie.