Rashomon starts with three people who taking shelter from a rain storm under the Rashomon gate. While they wait out the weather two of the three, a priest and a wood cutter, tell the third about a trial they were involved in.
A Bandit was accused of raping a woman and murdering her husband. Over the course of the trial the audience is told the same story from the perspective of the bandit, the wife and the husband (through a psychic medium), each one subtly different.
The Narrative structure of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is perhaps the most talked about element to the film. Three characters tell three stories about a singular event. Each one different, either affected by misremembering or told in a way that benefits the teller. The film invites the audience to participate in judgment of the story. There is no voice for the judge and the bandit, the wife and the medium, as well as the priest and the wood cutter relay their testimony to camera. So the audience become the judge and are asked to formulate their own conclusions.
However what most people forget is that the story of the trial is being relayed to a third
party. Even this memory is called into question through the confrontation between the woodcutter and the thief at the end of the film over the location of a valuable knife. This throws the narrative into more question, due to the fact that unreliable narrators have been central to the films plot.
Obstruction of truth is not just represented in the narrative, rather the setting and mise-en-scene reflect the themes. The use of light and shadow for example seems to accentuate the feeling that not all is being revealed. This is most obvious in the forest, where leaves and trees dapple the light creating an air of mystery. Similarly branches and trees block and divide the frame creating a fragmented shot that reflects the fragmented narrative. Furthermore, the courtyard where the trial takes place is also half in shadow, extending the symbolism outside of the forest and the testimony of those involved.
One could argue that this questioning of narrative could reflect attitudes of a post-World War Two Japan. A time of great uncertainty for many nations involved in the conflict. Using a fragmented narrative Kurosawa reveals multiple perspectives to historical events, like battle and also comes to terms with the imperialistic propaganda world governments use to insight their citizens to fight. The rain storm symbolic of the turbulent times that Japan and the rest of the world are facing after such a traumatic event, dwelling, like the three travellers do, in the ruins of the old world trying to make sense of what has gone before and to see if there is hope for the future.
Rashomon reflects Kurosawas own understanding of history and memory. In some of his other films like Throne of Blood or Hidden Fortress he questions traditional top down perspectives of history, either by introducing lower class characters as audience surrogates, or inverting bushi-do tropes. Kurosawa asks his audience to challenge the status quo, we must always question authority, ask who is telling the narrative, even if they are the one asking us to question.
Credits and Stats
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Produced by Minoru Jingo, Masaichi Nagata (executive)
Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto
Based on Rashomon and In a Grove by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura and Minoru Chiaki
Music by Fumio Hayasaka
Cinematography Kazuo Miyagawa
Edited by Akira Kurosawa
Production Company Daiei Film Co., Ltd.
Distributed by Daiei Film Co., Ltd.
Release Date August 25, 1950
Running Time 88 Minutes