This film was released in 1950, and directed by the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Ostensibly a murder mystery, it relates the tale of a samurai who has been found dead, his wife raped, and the enquiry into how this happened. The whole story is told in flashback. The framing device is that of three men sheltering from a heavy downpour underneath a ruined city gate (the ‘rashomon’ of the title). Two of the men were involved in the trial, and relate the events to a third man.
During the course of the film we are given four separate accounts of the same events, and they are all different. So we have four unreliable narrators. I am not sure whether this was the first time this was used in film, but it’s certainly an early example. If this were a standard narrative, there would be an investigator who would get to the bottom of things and unmask the true culprit. But “Rashomon” never gives us any idea of what the authorities think. Even in the court scene, we only see and hear the speakers. These scenes are shot in a theatre-like manner, but the effect is intentional – the audience never hears any opinion on the truth or falsehood of what the characters are saying, except from the men discussing this afterwards. We don’t know the outcome of the case or what happened next. That is not the point of the film.
One of the men is a woodcutter, who is involved because he finds the body. His flashback involves a silent extended sequence of him walking through the woods with his axe, and coming across the body by chance. He relates that he ran away and reported the murder immediately. His repeated statements that he doesn’t understand what he has heard eventually become clear. The priest passed the couple earlier in the day, and this is his only reason for being present. He has no story to tell. The bandit, who has been captured in possession of the woman’s horse and the man’s weapons, tells about how he lured them away from the road with a story about buried weapons for sale. None of the other stories offer an alternative explanation for the three characters being in the clearing, so this is the only version of the events leading up to his overpowering the samurai and tying him up. After this is where events change. The wife has a different version of events, and they summon a medium to call up the spirit of the dead man, who tells another story again. Finally the woodcutter, who knows more than he told the authorities, has a fourth version. You would be forgiven for thinking that this must be the true version, as the woodcutter would have no rason for changing things. Not necessarily.
So what’s confusing? The bandit says he killed the samurai. The woman says she killed the samurai. The samurai says he killed himself. Of course they can’t all be true. Why would people implicate themselves in murder if they’re not guilty? Well, in this story several motives spring to mind as you watch.
In each version of events, it is intriguing to see each character acting in a subtly different way, depending on who is telling the story. The actors are excellent in conveying different emotions and characteristics for each version. Toshiru Mifune plays the bandit, running the gamut from bravery and bravado to a far more inept and cowardly persona, depending on whose story we are watching. Machiko Kyo, as the samurai’s wife, is in turns a fighter, a schemer who goads the men to fight, ashamed and pleading for death, and so on. Masayuki Mori is the samurai and again reacts very differently to events depending on whose version of events we are seeing. Takashi Shimura as the woodcutter does not play a part in the main events, but he too has a hidden side when the audience learns he has been withholding evidence. All of these actors did a fantastic job showing these various nuances and changes of character, while still being essentially the same characters. All of the performances were very strong, helping to remind the audience that they are watching someone’s version of events rather than the actual events.
The director makes good use of the setting, with many shots of light through the tree canopy, the contrast of the sunlight to the shadows beneath the trees. As the camera follows the woodcutter through the forest it drifts up to view the sky through the trees. There’s something almost dreamlike about this section, as if the woodcutter is leaving real life and entering the stage on which the events of the rape and murder are to be played out. The light in the clearing with the forest in darkness around is evocative of a spotlight on a stage performance, and the theatre-like ambience is of course only enhanced in the court scenes, with the witnesses presenting heir statements to the camera. The theatricality of the medium’s performance is a highlight of this. The setting that frames the film, that of the ruined gate, is as theatrical as the rest. This film is not intended to be realistic in its presentation. In its psychology, however, I think it is very real.
There are a few flaws. I considered the role of the priest to be barely relevant, as he really added nothing to the narrative, except perhaps to offer some sort of moral compass. The way the bandit was captured was obscure, as he seemed to have been incapacitated in some way. His captor states he fell from his horse, while he insists he was sick (another example of two versions of events). It would have been nice to get a clearer picture of that part of events. Also the fact that the rape seemed to be regarded as a catalyst but not a crime is off-putting, though in its historical context it is unlikely to have been considered important other than as a reflection on the honour of those involved.
The idea is this – humans are incapable of being truly objective about events, and especially incapable of being objective about their own actions. Perspectives differ, so that while two people may view the same event, each will interpret it differently. People tell lies – to protect themselves or others, to paint themselves in a better light. They will lie even to themselves, to the point of believing what they say even though it’s not true. The narrative offers no solution to this, leaving the audience to reach their own conclusions.
“Rashomon” is a fascinating look into the human psyche, and is a film that can be endlessly mulled over and debated. Don’t expect a murder mystery, because it has no satisfying conclusion. If you like films that offer food for thought, I would recommend “Rashomon.”