Rashomon (1950)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Starring Toshiro Mifune (Tajomaru), Machiko Kyo (Masako the wife), Masayuki Mori (Takehiro the samurai), Takashi Shimura (The woodcutter), Minoru Chiaki (The priest), Kichijiro Ueda (The commoner), Fumiko Honma (The medium), Daisuke Kato (The policeman)
Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto
Cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa

Daiei Company, 88 minutes
B&W, 1.37:1 Academy ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

Rashomon arguably beats out Seven Samurai as the most famous jidai-geki film worldwide, because even people who've never seen it know that its title represents the narrative device of characters recalling the same events in contradictory ways. I'm pretty sure "the Rashomon effect" makes this the solitary jidai-geki classic to score a reference on The Simpsons. In the episode where the family takes a trip to Tokyo, Marge says, "C'mon Homer, Japan will be fun! You liked Rashomon." To which Homer grumbles, "That's not how I remember it."

The common take on Rashomon is that it's a meditation on the elusive nature of truth. A samurai has been murdered and his wife has been raped. At the trial of the bandit responsible for the crime, we hear the testimony of the bandit, the wife and the slain man (through a spirit medium), as well as a woodcutter and a priest who were witnesses. Each account of the events is incompatible with all the others. As the movie's framing device, a woodcutter and the priest relate the whole confusing affair to a passing commoner as they take shelter from a rainstorm at the Rashomon gate. The audience anticipates that eventually the truth of the story will come out, and indeed it seems that the final version told will be the most reliable one. But Kurosawa pulls that certainty away from us by calling the integrity of that storyteller into question, so in the end the real story of what happened remains a mystery.

Truth, deception and reality are absolutely among the core concerns of the film, but I think it's more to the point to say that Rashomon is a story about storytelling. This is driven home most forcefully by the responses of the commoner listening to the stories at the gate. He is the surrogate of the viewer, happening by and hearing the woodcutter and the priest marveling about the astounding puzzle they have been party to. Intrigued, the commoner asks them to share their story. Before starting the narrative, the priest goes on at length about the profoundly unsettling significance of the events, what it all suggests about the depths of the human soul, yadda yadda yadda. The commoner's interest wilts, and he protests that he wanted to hear a juicy story to pass the time but has no patience for a sermon.

Human communication can be divided into two broad categories: dry recitation of information, or interesting narrative stories. Like the commoner, a movie audience wants to hear a good story. A sordid tale of sex, violence and murder is the very stuff that compelling narratives are made of. Like the three figures involved in the crime, we all communicate in our daily lives by constructing stories. We take events that happen to us and things we hear about, then weave them together into tales that we can pass along to each other in order to express our thoughts, to entertain, to persuade, and to get what we want from others. This process frequently requires deviations from the truth to arrive at the stories that will best serve our purposes. We distort the facts to make ourselves look better and cover our asses, but also because that's what a "good story" demands. It's part of our nature inherent in the way we share information. At the risk of turning this film analysis of mine into a boring sermon, that's what I take away from Rashomon.

Another key element in the story is the deep misogyny depicted in the events and Kurosawa's commentary against it. The particulars of the man's murder are not given as much scrutiny as the woman's response to being raped. In the bandit's version of the story, she enjoys his sexual advances and wants to leave her husband to go with him. In the other versions, the husband is disgusted with the wife and disowns her for having been with two men. Women were terribly vulnerable and helpless in such a culture where rape destroyed a woman's worth and virtue, as if the crime were her own fault. The wife is dutifully submissive and accepting of her fall from grace in her version of the story, and yet in the woodcutter's account she stands up to her husband and the bandit for condemning her. She says neither of them is a real man, and she chides her husband that he has to take vengeance on her rapist before being entitled to take action against her.

Though it was revolutionary in 1950, Rashomon's structure of subjective flashbacks and divergent narratives has become familiar to modern audiences. But two other dramatic aspects of the movie remain fully bizarre to today's viewers. First is the device of the witnesses at the bandit's trial speaking directly to the camera. The officials at the trial are never shown – we the audience are put in the place of the judge and jury. The other weird thing is having the dead man testify at his murderer's trial. This was necessary for the story to cover all the perspectives of the participants, though it tests our suspension of disbelief to have a priestess dance around chanting to make a ghost take possession of her. The medium speaks not with the actress' voice but with the dubbed voice of the dead samurai, which seems to be Kurosawa's signal that her seance is legitimate. The audience just has to accept these devices, which give Rashomon the feeling of a stage play, although it was actually adapted from two short stories.

Rashomon is such a masterpiece that people often feel compelled to separate it from Kurosawa's other jidai-geki works and elevate it to a higher level. "Rashomon isn't a samurai movie," is a statement you'll often hear. "It's got a samurai in it, and there's a swordfight, but still it's not a samurai movie." Some critics might even get so carried away as to pronounce that Rashomon isn't even jidai-geki, that its greatness somehow transcends all trappings of genre and thus it exists on a rarefied plane of pure cinema.

Poppycock, I say. Rashomon is a damn samurai movie! To deny that fact is to place an arbitrary and arrogant restriction on how good a "samurai movie" can be. True, Rashomon isn't so much a movie about the particular doings of the samurai and their struggles, and it's extremely unusual in its structure and content. But if you take a look through the corpus of jidai-geki works, from the classics to the clunkers, you'll find that the same thing can be said of countless other samurai movies. Samurai movies can be a great many things, and in the case of Rashomon, that includes supreme magnificence.

There's definitely a lot to be gained from comparing Rashomon to the traditions of chambara films. A duel between the bandit and the samurai appears in two accounts of the crime, presenting a fascinating study in contrasts. Early on we get the bandit's version in which the two men clash swords with honor and dignity. There are fancy stunt moves, heroic poses, sweeping camera movements all set to an exciting musical score. It's an exact reproduction of the traditional chambara action scene, extremely cinematic and romanticized. This is the bandit's overblown depiction of how he sees himself, like a valiant rogue from folklore, or what we would call a movie star.

No swordfight takes place in the tales of the wife or the dead man. But it recurs in the woodcutter's version at the end, in a completely different fashion. The bandit and the samurai are reluctant to fight, only doing so in desperation after the wife goads them by challenging their masculine pride. The duel that ensues is beyond pathetic. Both men lumber about awkwardly, they swing and miss, they trip and roll around on the ground like dogs. Crucially, there is no musical soundtrack for this fight, only the grunts and heavy panting of two miserable fighters out of breath. This spectacle, which goes on for quite a long time, might qualify as the lamest and silliest-looking swordfight ever shown in serious jidai-geki. But it's also probably one of the most realistic. This is much closer to what it would really be like to watch two men try to kill each other with swords than all of the coolest and most exciting chambara battles. Which brings me back to my point that Rashomon is all about our innate preference for a good story rather than the truth.

The Jidai-Geki Knights