Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
A heinous crime and its aftermath are recalled from differing points of view.
If I remember correctly, Rashômon was the third Kurosawa film I ever saw back in 2002, right after Yojimbo and Sanjuro and just before The Seven Samurai. Since then I saw most of his well known films, some classics I have yet to discover but I can certainly advance that Kurosawa is one of my favorite directors of all time. Choosing which film is his best is an impossible task. Listing The Seven Samurai in my Top 10 doesn’t discredit the reach of Ikiru, Ran, Throne of Blood, High and Low, or Rashômon. It is a deliberate choice of one cannon instead of another one. In the case of my favorite directors it is a really tough choice to pick a movie and let all the others down. My relationship with Rashômon is very particular because I always thought that it was a lesser film compared to the aforementioned epic The Seven Samurai.
Since hundreds if not thousands of reviews have been written on the meanings and subtexts of this film, I would like to discuss of the place of it in Cinema History. First, it is a very Japanese movie set in traditional Japan involving samurais. A trademark of Kurosawa is the samurai stories. He is automatically related to those sword men. Then you have his greatest lead actor: Toshiro Mifune. Kurosawa was the director who gave him his first opportunity and he detected the talent of the intense and shy actor.
Shot within only three different locations, it gives a very theatrical aspect to the film. Theatre in Japan is a thing of tradition and to learn that Rashômon was the first real breakthrough of a Japanese film is interesting. We also feel that Kurosawa learned from his previous directorial credits and Rashômon was the hatching of his talent. The restriction of location is also palpable in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, a film freely inspired by the subject of this piece. The constant rain also refers to the dramatic opening of the movie.
Then, you have the structure of the story which is told by four different witness of the crime: the victims, the witness, and the accused. The retelling of the story by the numerous characters is more or less cinematically linked to the Everest of cinema itself Citizen Kane where we are on a journey to discover who or what is Rosebud. In fact, Rosebud is the subtext for us to try to find who Charles Foster Kane is and we discover bits and parts of the character by the testimonies of the people who lived with him. In some way Rashômon is the Japanese Citizen Kane. This structure is also reused with vibrant colors in the wire-fu poetic Hero directed by Zhang Yimou.
The coming release of the Blu-Ray by Criterion Collection will bring back some attention on the masterpiece of one of the most gifted filmmakers from Japan. This honest and sometimes raw film about reality, crime, and storytelling deserves to be amongst the great titles Criterion gathers in its selective collection. A masterpiece I highly recommend.