What's the Big Deal?: Rashomon (1950)

Forget Godzilla. The biggest, most important beast to come out of Japanese cinema was Rashomon, a 1950 drama set in the samurai era. It's now famous for its multiple-perspective storytelling device, but it was also the movie that made international audiences aware that Japanese cinema existed. But what about the movie itself? What's the big deal? Let us gather the witnesses, consult a medium, and try to reconcile the conflicting accounts.

The praise: Rashomon won the top prize, the Golden Lion, at the 1951 Venice Film Festival -- the first time it had played anywhere outside of Asia. After opening theatrically in the United States later that year, it won an honorary Academy Award (the foreign-language category hadn't been established yet) and was nominated for its art direction. When Sight & Sound magazine polled directors (rather than film critics) on the best films ever made, Rashomon made the top 10 in both the 1992 and 2002 surveys. At the Internet Movie Database, it currently ranks as the 86th top-rated film. Empire magazine's top 500 list, based on a survey of readers, filmmakers, and critics, placed it at #290.

The context: Japan's film industry was extraordinarily prolific before World War II -- but, like almost everything else about Japan, no one in the West knew about it. In the 1920s and '30s, the Japanese studios were cranking out as many as 500 films a year, almost none of them distributed outside the country. What's more, Japan was one of the few nations whose local cinema wasn't overshadowed by American imports.

World War II wasn't exactly a positive experience for Japan, but it did result in the Western world becoming increasingly interested in what the country was up to, both politically and culturally. This was demonstrated in September 1951, when Rashomon -- which had played in Japanese theaters a year earlier and received little local attention -- appeared at the Venice Film Festival and walked away with the grand prize. Suddenly this exotic new thing called "Japanese cinema" -- they have movies in Japan?? Since when?? -- was all the rage.

This was perplexing to Japanese film critics, who hadn't particularly liked Rashomon. Masaichi Nagata, head of the film's production company, hadn't even wanted to make the movie -- he considered the script incomprehensible -- let alone send it to Venice to represent Japan. Many Western viewers, not having been exposed to Japanese cinema before, wondered if Rashomon was typical of the country's output. The answer was no, it wasn't -- another reason Nagata had been reluctant to submit it to Venice. (After the film was an international smash, of course, Nagata took credit for its production, a misremembering of events that reminds me of this movie I saw once, called Rashomon.)

The movie: The time: several centuries ago. The place: the ruined gatehouse of a city, where three men wait for a rainstorm to pass. Two of them, a woodcutter and a priest, have just heard astonishing testimony at the courthouse regarding the events of three days ago, when a woman was raped by a bandit and her samurai husband killed. They tell the third man what they heard.

The film is thus divided into three -- and only three -- locations and times. One is now, in the rainstorm, at the city gate. In flashback, we see the second location: the courthouse, earlier today, where the witnesses gave their testimony. And then we flash back from there -- flashbacks within flashbacks! -- to three days ago, in the woods, where we see the events unfold from each witness' point of view. Back in the rainstorm, the three men contemplate what the act itself and the varying accounts of it say about society.

What it influenced: As I already mentioned, it was Rashomon that alerted the Western world, and in particular the United States, to the existence of Japanese cinema. Would another Japanese film have opened the door if it hadn't been Rashomon? Yeah, probably. But it wasn't another film. It was Rashomon. Respect, yo.

Akira Kurosawa made his directorial debut in 1943, at the age of 33, and worked quickly: Rashomon, released in 1950, was his 11th film. It was also the fifth time he'd worked with Toshiro Mifune, who plays the bandit in the film and would soon become the most famous Japanese actor of his generation. (He would appear in another 12 Kurosawa films, too.) Mifune and Kurosawa both achieved tremendous international success with Rashomon, followed by collaborations such as Seven Samurai (1954), The Hidden Fortress (1958), and Yojimbo (1961).

Rashomon was remade as The Outrage (1964, starring Paul Newman) but has directly inspired dozens of other movies, books, and even sitcom episodes. Whenever multiple characters offer contradictory accounts of the same events, you can be sure the writer was thinking of Rashomon at some point.

The key, however, is that the accounts are contradictory. It is not possible for all of the stories in Rashomon to be true: at least one witness must be lying or misremembering. Many films show the same events from different points of view, with each perspective filling in new data -- Pulp Fiction, for example, or the 2008 potboiler Vantage Point. But it's not truly Rashomon-esque unless there are contradictions in those accounts, as in Courage Under Fire and The Usual Suspects.

This is called the "unreliable narrator" device, and Rashomon was one of the first films to make good use of it. Usually, whatever a filmmaker shows us is intended to represent objective truth: In the fictional world of the movie, this stuff you're seeing really happened. Even when it takes the form of a story being told by one of the characters, or the depiction of someone's memory, the very fact that the director has gone to the trouble of filming it -- rather than just having the character describe it to us -- usually implies that the story is meant to be taken as accurate.

For example, consider the CBS police drama Cold Case. In each episode, people are questioned about a crime that happened some years earlier, and their accounts are shown to us via flashback. Cold Case has established that these flashbacks are never lies: If it's shown, it happened. If it's not shown, we can't be sure whether the person is lying or not.

But on CSI, we're given visual depictions of what the investigators think might have happened. Unlike with Cold Case, the CSI dramatizations often turn out to be incorrect, and the viewer understands that just because we're seeing it doesn't necessarily mean it happened that way. Over the course of the hour, the wrong theories are discarded, leaving us with one final objective flashback that shows what actually happened.

On each series, the truth is eventually discovered and presented to us in a satisfying, this-is-how-it-really-went-down fashion. Rashomon, however, doesn't do this. Not only are we jarred by seeing contradictory testimonies presented -- itself a rarity -- but we don't get an authoritative decision on which (if any) is accurate, either. The four witnesses' accounts cannot all co-exist, yet each of them is presented to us not as a fantasy or a dream but as reality.

This messes up the natural order of things. We expect our narrators to be reliable, and it's always alarming to discover that we've been misled. It's not a case of people offering different interpretations of the same events -- they're describing different events. Rashomon tinkered with this basic element of movie storytelling more thoroughly and creatively than just about any movie before it. And it became so famous for it that the device has been copied numerous times since then.

What to look for: You probably already knew that the movie is about four people's differing accounts of the same events. This might lead a first-time viewer to assume that in the end, the "real" story will be identified. Such a viewer would be disappointed. The first line in the film is, "I don't understand" -- and that's coming from someone who witnessed the events in question. As Roger Ebert put it, "If an eyewitness who has heard the testimony of the other three participants doesn't understand, why should we expect to?"

The point, therefore, is not to discern what "really" happened, but to consider why everyone's stories differ. Memory is inherently subjective; any trial lawyer will tell you that eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable, even when they're genuinely trying to tell the truth. Rashomon is about, among other things, mankind's self-serving nature.

One of the ways this film is different from the typical Japanese movie of that era is that much of the acting is exaggerated. There isn't an abundance of dialogue, either. Kurosawa loved the minimalism of silent movies and sought to replicate that simplicity here.

It's interesting to see how movies of yesteryear addressed the subject of rape without using the word "rape." In his testimony, the bandit uses terms like "capture her," "have her," and "take her," and of course there is no graphic depiction of what happens. And notice how the bandit reacts when he first sees the beautiful woman -- or, rather, notice how his sword reacts. Metaphors!

Finally, a word on the title. It comes from a 1915 short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, who used the name of an actual ancient city gate, now in ruins, to symbolize the decay of Japanese culture and morals. However, Kurosawa used the short story "Rashomon" only for its title and setting. The actual plot of the film was from another Akutagawa story, "In a Grove."

What's the big deal: Rashomon is the rare film that can claim two major impacts on the world. One, its narrative style, almost unprecedented at the time, gave filmmakers a new tool to use, expanding the storytelling possibilities. Two, it introduced Japanese cinema to the rest of the world. Japan's subsequent international successes -- as well as the countless American films influenced by them -- owe a lot to Rashomon for getting the ball rolling. And on top of all that, it's an engaging and technically proficient drama -- a really good movie, in other words, not just one that did some important stuff.

Further reading:

Here is Roger Ebert's essay, which goes into some detail about the film's visual style.

Bosley Crowther's review in The New York Times calls the movie Rasho-Mon and freely admits that the reviewer doesn't know enough about Japanese life to say whether the film is representative: "Whether this picture has pertinence to the present day -- whether its dismal cynicism and its ultimate grasp at hope reflect a current disposition of people in Japan --is something we cannot tell you."

The unsigned review in Time magazine, from early 1952, accurately predicts that "U.S. film importers will be looking hard at Japanese pictures from now on."

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Eric D. Snider (website) can be viewed from several different angles.