“Men are only men. That’s why they lie. They can’t tell the truth, even to themselves.“
What is the nature of reality? Can we truly believe in what we see and trust our own reality? Are we humans so vain that we constantly have to lie so we can live with ourselves? Grandmaster Akira Kurosawa pioneered the subject of alternate version of realities in movies with the existentialistic Rashomon, one of the most influential masterpiece in film history. The far-reaching concept of multiple perspectives that do not agree with each other has now become a staple of many modern films such as Hero, Courage Under Fire or The Usual Suspects. This non-linear story-telling concept was almost unheard of in Hollywood at the time and another lasting legacy left by Rashomon is that it was one of the first film to not provide closure to its audience.
Rashomon is a crime mystery that essentially tells the same story four times from four different eye-witness accounts. The curtain opens on a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), who are seeking refuge from the rain under the city gate of Rashomon. Both men were the last people to see a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyō) before they encountered the notorious bandit Tajomaru (Toshirō Mifune). They were summoned to testify at the trial earlier and have been left shaken in disbelief at what they have heard. They recount the disturbing testimonies in a series of flashback to a third man. Against all expectations, the three persons present at the crime scene each claim responsibility for the murder of the samurai. The wildly differing accounts of the captured bandit, the victimized wife, the dead samurai’s spirit (channeled by a medium), and the woodcutter make it impossible to say what truly happened on that fateful day in the woods.
“But is there anyone who’s really good? Maybe goodness is just make-believe.”
In a visual medium like film, there is always an assumption that what we are seeing is contextually true. Kurosawa demonstrates the use of this assumption against the audience. by playing the same story four times from different perspectives. The beauty of this film is that each story is just as valid as the other but each of them is also corrupted by the ego of its witness. Kurosawa manage to tell the same story story multiple times by changing the tone of each story to correspond with the personality of each character retelling it. In his testimony, the bandit tells of his honorable and heroic sword fight against the samurai. It is portrayed as this elegantly choreographed action scene of two brave men fighting skillfully to the end. The woodcutter later recounts the same fight but instead, it is portrayed as a sword fight parody, with the two adversaries so terrified to the point of being unable to hold their sword.
As the audience, we are trained to expect revelation of the truth at some point during the movie and it apparently comes when the woodcutter finally gives his account of the crime. However, in a bleak reversal of events, as we finally assume that the last story would be the unbiased and honest one, the narrator is subsequently revealed to be just as untrustworthy. Kurosawa questions the nature of reality and human perception. According to him, humans are incapable of attaining absolute objective truth because everything we see is tainted by our own ego. Psychologist have gone so far as to call this the “Rashomon effect”, the effect of subjectivity on the recollections of equally plausible events by different individuals.
From a technical point of view, Rashomon is absolutely brilliant most especially in terms of the cinematography. The intricate interplay of lights and shadows, close-ups and long shots, and the different camera angles used to film the same locations contributed to the particular structure of this masterpiece which has now become commonplace in contemporary film making. By using different shot perspectives for each of the story arc, the audience is given alternate realities in a visual manner. The film is grounded by its framing device, the gates of Rashomon to which the film returns to intermittently. The movie is widely known to be the first instance where a camera was pointed directly at the sun. Also, the way the camera follows the characters through the woods is also very reminiscent of today’s hand-held documentary-style filming, and remember this was made in 1950.
The intense focus on visual story-telling remind of the era of silent movies and the acting is slightly over-the-top. Given the multiple perspective and deliberate change of tones, the actors are required to play several variations of their characters. The great Toshirô Mifune as well as Takashi Shimura and Minoru Chiaki are actors you can recognize from their role in Seven Samurai as Kurosawa, like many great directors tends to go back to the same actors over and over again. It is however Machiko Kyō who gives the most haunting and skilled performance, giving several radically different portrayals of the samurai’s wife.
An hypnotic, unsettling examination of the conscience and motives of men, Rashomon is an indispensable masterpiece that needs to be seen if only because it is one of the great milestone in film history.
Notes: Black and white, 88 minutes.