In the second part of our month long look at Akira Kurosawa, we discuss the landmark Rashomon.

The Rashomon Effect

Odds are even if you’ve never seen Rashomon, you’ve seen the works it’s inspired. There’s even a lazy term, the Rashomon effect, named for the influential way the story is told. But beyond influencing cinema’s narrative styles for years to come, Rashomon is about a director looking backwards, as much as he is forwards.

Rashomon starts with a handful of characters taking shelter from the rain (there’s that trademark Kurosawa weather again). Huddled under a gate, someone begins recounting a story they heard, something that disturbs them deeply. The consensus is that a samurai was killed in the woods and his wife was raped, but the details of the story are different for everyone who recounts them.

Discovering the cinematic truth is at the heart of Rashomon. What follows is the same story told from four different vantage points – the bandit, the woman who was raped, the samurai from beyond the grave, and a fourth party who observed the events from afar. Each person recounts a different tale, much to the frustration of the people listening to the story.

Where most movies would leave you with the final truth, in this case the woodcutter who saw what transpired while he was hidden in the woods, this is not the case with Rashomon. Just when you think the woodcutter’s story is likely to be the most accurate, he is accused by another of wanting to steal from the dead, throwing his entire narrative into question.

The reality is we never know what exactly happened in the woods. Kurosawa lies to us, four times over, which is incredulous. After all, we’re watching the events on our screen. Clearly they happened in one form or another. Yet we’re told there is no collective truth. Selfishness, the need to save face, and pride are all reasons why someone would choose to conceal what really happened, and Kurosawa doesn’t shy away committing to this theme.

rashomon kurosawa review

The Rashomon effect is something you’ve most likely seen in one form or another. Vantage Point, Gone Girl, and plenty of TV episodes have played with the idea of multiple characters telling the same story in different ways. It all stems from Kurosawa. Unreliable narrators are nothing new to storytelling, but to physically see events unfold, only to be told it’s false, throws us off balance. It speaks to the power of cinema beyond the movie theater, and shows us how the image has a staying power that lingers on even if we know it to be false.

Despite progressing narrative styles for years to come, Rashomon actually has more in common with an older era of cinema: silent films. Kurosawa’s brother, Heigo, worked as a benshi in the 1930’s. He provided the narration and sound effects for silent movies at the industry’s height. The two became very close while they lived together, with Kurosawa exploring his desire to be a painter. Despite achieving acclaim for his work, Heigo wasn’t immune to the collapse of the silent film era, finding himself battling unemployment and depression until his eventual suicide. Needless to say, this left a remarkable impact on a young Kurosawa.

His love and personal relationship with silent film culminates in Rashomon. Kurosawa sought to scale back everything, until there was nothing left but the story and the raw emotion of the actors. This is all bolstered by the cinematography, which pioneered new methods of filming, such as pointing the camera at the sun, and reflecting natural light with mirrors to create a dappled lighting effect on the actors.

The bandit, played by frequent Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune, is another example of silent film influence. He’s overly emotional, speaks with his expressions more than his words, and acts in an exaggerated manner. You could turn the sound completely off and still understand the gist of what was happening. In fact, there are great stretches of the movie that play out like a silent film, featuring no dialogue at all. Kurosawa relied on the image more than anything else, using shadows and weather to convey emotion and meaning, backing up the expressions of his actors.

The resonating effect of the film isn’t just because of a new narrative style and its tribute to the past. Rashomon is an extremely important film for Japan, as much as it was for Kurosawa. Despite being unpopular domestically, it won the Academy Award for best foreign film in 1950, exposing the world to the wonders of Japanese cinema. It speaks to the importance of media in helping to bridge cultures, aiding in repairing the rest of the world’s view of Japan in a post World War II era.

Kurosawa’s work spans many genres and themes, which we’ve seen already. If you’re a fan of unconventional storytelling, or even silent films, it’s easy to recommend Rashomon. Next week is the deeply personal Ikiru, and then we’ll finally get into some of his more bombastic epics.

Steve kind of likes James Bond films now, too. Follow him on Twitter.  

Steve Dixon

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