Review: Rashômon (1950)

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Perspective and the truth are not one and the same!

Written By: Shinobu Hashimoto & Akira Kurosawa
Directed By: Akira Kurosawa

I have developed the trend of pointing out simplicity in movies that I review, and no film is more deserving of the simple moniker than Rashômon. It is full of complex ideas and thoughts. But it is presented in a simple fashion, although in its simplicity it ends up being very complex. It’s core message is also very simple. As you can tell, that’s a whole lot of simple. But, don’t confuse simplicity with mediocre or bad, because Rashômon is a great movie and an all-time classic.

The story of Rashômon is its message and its theme. A rape has possibly occurred while a murder has definitely occurred. What follows is the events as told by four different individuals; the accused murderer, the wife who was raped, the murdered, and an innocent bystander. Each tale is different from the previous and therein lies the message of Rashômon. Humans are inherently unable to tell the truth about themselves and thus the truth behind the possible rape and murder will never be known. Each person has their own take on the events and we are left with a sense of bewilderment because each story borrow elements from the other three and they all sound like they could be true. It is in our nature to accept what is told to us, especially on screen, as the truth and in that way Rashômon assaults our sensibilities by presenting us with four different truths. Not telling us which one is reality and which ones are fiction. Rashômon is not about what happened, it is about what happens afterward and how humans embellish what happens. Doing so only to look out for themselves and save face. A lot of Akira Kurosawa’s movies deal with the idea of community, but Rashômon deals with the idea of the individual and takes a very cynical outlook on the individual within humanity.

However, when all is said and done even Akira Kurosawa’s most cynical work offers a hopeful outlook. By taking in the orphaned child the Woodcutter provides us with the hope that humanity can look out for others. Even when it has been shown to be at its worst we are given a final image that reaffirms our belief that people are good, kind, and not the selfish beasts we are shown for the previous hour and fifteen minutes of Rashômon.

Of note as well would be the brilliant camera work, including the innovative technique of pointing the camera at the sun or using mirrors to create better sunlight. The use of the forest was also a nice touch, it created a claustrophobic feel and accompanied the manic nature of the murder/rape scenes. The actual storytelling method of various flashbacks was innovative at the time and years later it has not lost any of its luster in Rashômon. The acting was also a big drawing point for Rashômon. Toshirô Mifune is incredibly manic as Tajômaru the bandit. He is an animal, not in control of anything that happens around him yet at the same time perfectly in control because of the chaos he creates with his manic nature. Takashi Shimura is measured and controlled as the Woodcutter, he is the character we relate to throughout Rashômon. Machiko Kyô gives a thoroughly complex performance as the wife. She has to be crazy with rage, hurt with grief, cold, callous, and fragile in different scenes. She pulls off every emotional turn with brilliance.

Rashômon is perhaps the best introduction to the works of Kurosawa-san that one will find. It is isn’t long or epic like some of his other works and it plays on basic human traits that we can all relate to. It goes without saying, but I’m redundant so I’ll say it anyways, that Rashômon is a film that everyone needs to see. Introduce yourself to Kurosawa-san with this film, or to the incredibly talented Mifune-san. If you have already been exposed to those two then watch them again in one of their finest works.

Rating:

****

Cheers,
Bill Thompson

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