Rashomon, 1950, drama, not rated, in Japanese with subtitles, CCA Cinematheque, 4 chiles Few movies make such an impact that their names enter into the language. Rashomon is such a movie, and “the Rashomon effect” is its contribution to the lexicon. An online encyclopedia defines it as “the effect of the subjectivity of perception on recollection, by which observers of an event are able to produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it.”
Jason Silverman, director of the Center for Contemporary Arts’ Cinematheque, mentioned another word coined because of the impact of this 1950 masterpiece from Japanese legend Akira Kurosawa. “It gets its own adjective,” he said. “ ‘Rashomonic’ is generally used to describe the film’s narrative, which was then daring and postmodern in its shifting perspectives. But it could also be used to celebrate any number of this film’s incredible virtues: its sharp, groundbreaking cinematography; the enormously powerful central performances— this is the moment at which the world is introduced to the Kurosawa-Mifune [actor Toshiro Mifune] partnership, still perhaps the greatest in cinema history; its use of a historical setting to explore contemporary issues (in this case, the volatility of the subjective voice and the problematic nature of applied justice); or the possibilities for one single work of art to impact global consciousness. There’s really been nothing like Rashomon.”
Silverman explained that all copies of the film seen in recent years were compromised. The film that the CCA is showing “has been meticulously cleaned, frame by frame, both by hand and digitally by an international team of restorers. There was no chance of us passing up the opportunity to play it in its newly restored state.”
In Rashomon, four people recount the story of a crime. Three of them are participants in the event, the fourth is a hidden bystander. None of them tells the story the same way. The reason for the disparate accounts may be deliberate lying, it may be subjectivity, it may be self-serving self-delusion. It may be that there is no such thing as objective truth. “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves,” Kurosawa writes in his memoir, Something Like an Autobiography. “They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings — the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are.”
The movie is set in 11th-century Japan; a priest (Minoru Chiaki), a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), and a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) are trapped by a torrential rainstorm in the massive, dilapidated old gate to Kyoto. As they wait out the storm, the first two reflect on a story they have heard that day in court; a story so strange and terrible, says the priest, that “I may finally lose my faith in the human soul.” The commoner, who was not in court, demands to know what they are talking about.
It was a case of rape and murder. The crime took place in a forest — a setting which for Kurosawa represented the wilderness of the “strange impulses of the human heart.” The woodcutter first tells how, wandering through the woods, he discovered the body. He and the priest then recall for the commoner the testimony they have heard in court. The basic story involves a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyo) who are
attacked by the bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) as they travel through the forest. The bandit ties the husband to a tree and has sex with the wife. The husband is then killed. These facts are not in dispute, but in each telling they mutate according to the impulses and self-interest of the teller. Was it rape or consensual sex? Was there a heroic duel or was it cowardly slapstick? Did the bandit kill the samurai? Did the wife kill him? Did he kill himself? Each participant gives a version, even the dead husband, whose testimony is relayed to the court through a medium. Back at the rain-drenched gate, another account comes from the woodcutter, who admits to his companions that the story he told in court was not the whole truth. He then proceeds to give his eyewitness version of the events as he saw them from hiding.
Rashomon won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 and an honorary Oscar for outstanding foreign language film the following year, in a time before the Academy had instituted that as a formal category. “This was Japan’s first huge international success,” said Brent Kliewer, director of The Screen. “It put Japanese cinema on the map.” He described the Japanese mood in that period after the war as “the Sartre view of the hostile world, wondering how we got to this point and whether it’s possible to get at the truth exactly.” He added, “I think it’s the first film that really probes these issues.”
When Rashomon was released in this country in late December of 1951, Bosley Crowther, film critic for The New York Times, also speculated about the film’s relevance to the mood of postwar Japan. “Much of the power of the picture— and it unquestionably has hypnotic power,” he wrote, “derives from the brilliance with which the camera of director Akira Kurosawa has been used. ... Whether its dismal cynicism and its ultimate grasp at hope reflect a current disposition of people in Japan is something we cannot tell you.”
That grasp at hope involves an abandoned baby found at the gate at the end of the film and adopted by the woodcutter. The woodcutter’s act of redemption restores the priest’s faith in humanity. But interestingly, the gesture doesn’t happen until the commoner, the audience surrogate to whom these conflicting tales have been related, has left. It’s as if Kurosawa is saying, this part isn’t for the public; this part is just for me.
Conflicting accounts: Masayuki Mori, left, and Toshiro Mifune
Sex, lies, and restored video: from left, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijiro Ueda, and Takashi Shimura