Rashomon (1950) - Akira Kurosawa
For many this was the first Asian film. At age 40, Akira Kurosawa introduced the western world to not only his work, and that of his country, but of an entire continent. The film that did it, would remain for years the most popular Japanese film, and truly among the most influential pictures ever made. All this came out of pure chance. Although Kurosawa did make the picture, it wasnt he who introduced it to the rest of the world.
Venice sent an invitation to Japan for a film for their film festival. Prior to this Japan practically never participated in foreign festivals of this sort, another change brought upon by Rashomon. Although somewhat popular in Japan, Rashomon was not among the front runners. After Guilliana Stramigioli who was the head of Italiafilm in Japan, saw the film, she recommended it. After much debate she eventually won out, and the film ended up winning first prize in the 1951 festival. Perhaps without the intervention of Ms. Stramigioli, the West may have never noticed this film, and perhaps all of Japanese films would have stayed at home.
As it was though things worked out well for the film, and its director. Kurosawa became one of the most popular directors in the world, although his Japanese audience was modest. Yet dont by any means think that this is the first Kurosawa film, or even the first excellent Kurosawa film. He had maid roughly ten films beforehand, of which Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949) were the best and most readily available today. Watching those films, or some other previous pictures of his, one might notice quite a lot of familiarity in a film apparently so new.
Kurosawa had wanted to make the film for a number of years. The source of the stories comes from Ryunosuke Akutagawa, something of a Japanese Edgar Allen Poe. A tragic figure whose work remains deeply special to his culture. The title is from one of his stories, but that is about all Kurosawa took from that one. A little more of the plot is taken from another Akutagawa story, In a Grove. After signing a one year contract with the Daiei company, he managed to get the picture through. It was a risk, and the company boasted that they had no idea what their film was about. Of course they had no trouble taking credit for it once it became successful.
The essential plot seems relatively simple. A commoner, a priest, and a woodcutter are standing under a gate in the rain. The priest and the woodcutter keep repeating It doesnt make any sense. After the commoner inquires, they proceed to tell him a story, four times over. There are a few things agreed upon. First, there is a bandit who rapes a woman and then confesses to killing her husband. Then there is the woman who says that she killed her husband, after he shunned her following the rape. Through a little imagination, we are then shown the story from the side of the dead husband, who also claims to have killed himself. Then we get the eye witness account, from the woodcutter. He says that the two fought a duel after the rape, and the bandit won. Herein lies the confusion.
If we went by consensus then it appears as though the bandit was the murderer, but why would the other two lie? After all it isnt as though they are trying to protect themselves, the husband is already dead anyway. This is where Kurosawa really makes you think, and think, and think some more. In the end there is no solution. In order for any story to work, a great deal of exceptions would have to be made. Although Donald Richie, author of the Films of Akira Kurosawa, makes a good case for the woodcutter to be the possible murderer, he too admits that there really is no solution.
So knowing this it is safe to say that this isnt some impossible murder mystery. The killer is completely pointless to know, or even the details of each story. There is something else at the heart of this film and that is mankinds impossibility to tell the truth. He contends that is in our nature to lie, as the priest says, But it is because men are so weak. Thats why they lie. Thats why they must deceive even themselves. Here we have the thesis statement if you will for the film.
Like all impossible films, this one was still attempted to be figured out. Many offering their own interpretations, or solutions. It seemed though that even the harshest critic couldnt have kept this film down. Venice was just the starting point, it would even receive Academy nominations in 1952, for best Art Direction. Critics, although some picking at the flaws, still regard it quite highly. It was selected by the National Society of Film Critics as one of the 100 Essential films, along with Seven Samurai (1954).
What are those flaws that everyone complains about? Well the usual one mentioned is the acting. Everyone is large and grand, almost to an irritating extent. Then there is the usual boredom found in sitting through the same essential story four times in a row. The picture is short and after awhile it gets a little redundant. It seems as though Kurosawa was stretching to get the length up. One of his added scenes proved to be perhaps the most effective. This comes at the end when the woodcutter picks up a crying, abandoned baby, after the commoner took its clothes. He decides to take it as one of his own, figuring another mouth wouldnt make or break him. This act restores the priests, and therefore our faith in mankind. The saving grace of an entire species coming with just this gesture. Proof that Kurosawa wasnt all pessimistic.