|Directed by||Akira Kurosawa|
|Based on||"In a Grove" and "Rashōmon"|
by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
|Produced by||Minoru Jingo|
|Edited by||Akira Kurosawa|
|Music by||Fumio Hayasaka|
|Distributed by||Daiei Film|
|Box office||$143,376+ (US) |
373,592+ tickets (EU)
Rashomon (Japanese: 羅生門, Hepburn: Rashōmon) is a 1950 Jidaigeki psychological thriller/crime film directed and written by Akira Kurosawa, working in close collaboration with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa. Starring Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori, and Takashi Shimura as various people who describe how a samurai was murdered in a forest, the plot and characters are based upon Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story "In a Grove", with the title and framing story being based on "Rashōmon", another short story by Akutagawa. Every element is largely identical, from the murdered samurai speaking through a Shinto psychic to the bandit in the forest, the monk, the rape of the wife, and the dishonest retelling of the events in which everyone shows his or her ideal self by lying.
The film is known for a plot device that involves various characters providing subjective, alternative and contradictory versions of the same incident. Rashomon was the first Japanese film to receive a significant international reception; it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, was given an Academy Honorary Award at the 24th Academy Awards in 1952, and is considered one of the greatest films ever made. The Rashomon effect is named after the film.
The story begins in Heian era Kyoto. A woodcutter and a priest are sitting beneath the Rashōmon city gate to stay dry in a downpour when a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) joins them and they begin recounting a very disturbing story about a rape and a murder. Neither the woodcutter nor the priest understand how everyone involved could have given radically different accounts of the same event, with all three of the people involved indicating that they, and they alone, committed the murder.
The woodcutter claims he found the body of a murdered samurai three days earlier while looking for wood in the forest. As he testifies he first found a woman's hat (which belonged to the samurai's wife), then a samurai cap (which belonged to her husband), then cut rope (which had bound the husband), then an amulet, and finally he came upon the body, upon which he fled to notify the authorities. The priest says he saw the samurai with his wife traveling the same day the murder happened. Both men are then summoned to testify in court, where a fellow witness presents a captured bandit, who claims to have followed the couple after coveting the woman when he glimpsed her in the forest.
Tajōmaru, the bandit and a notorious outlaw, claims that he tricked the samurai to step off the mountain trail with him and look at a cache of ancient swords he discovered. In the grove, he tied the samurai to a tree, then brought his wife there with the intention of raping her. She initially tried to defend herself with a dagger but was eventually overpowered by the bandit, and eventually seduced by him. The wife, ashamed, begged the bandit to duel to the death with her husband, to save her from the guilt and shame of having two men know her dishonor. Tajōmaru honorably set the samurai free and dueled with him. In Tajōmaru's recollection, they fought skillfully and fiercely, with Tajōmaru praising the samurai's swordsmanship. In the end, Tajōmaru killed the samurai and the wife ran away after the fight. At the end of his testimony, he is asked about the expensive dagger used by the samurai's wife. He says that, in the confusion, he forgot all about it, and that the dagger's pearl inlay would have made it very valuable. He laments leaving it behind.
The wife tells a different story to court. She claims that Tajōmaru left after raping her, she begged her husband to forgive her, but he simply looked at her coldly. She then freed him and begged him to kill her so that she would be at peace but he continued to stare at her with loathing. His expression disturbed her so much that she fainted with the dagger in her hand. She awoke to find her husband dead with the dagger in his chest. She attempted to kill herself but failed.
The court then hears the story of the samurai told through a medium. The samurai claims that, after raping his wife, Tajōmaru asked her to travel with him. She accepted and asked Tajōmaru to kill her husband so that she would not feel the guilt of belonging to two men. Shocked, Tajōmaru grabbed her and gave the samurai a choice of letting the woman go or killing her. "For these words alone," the dead samurai recounted, "I was ready to pardon his crime." The woman fled, and Tajōmaru, after attempting to recapture her, gave up and set the samurai free. The samurai then killed himself with his wife's dagger. Later, someone removed the dagger from his chest, but it is not yet revealed who it was.
Back at Rashōmon (after the trial), the woodcutter states to the commoner that all three stories were falsehoods. The woodcutter says he witnessed the rape and murder but he declined the opportunity to testify because he did not want to get involved. According to the woodcutter's story, Tajōmaru begged the samurai's wife to marry him but the woman instead freed her husband. The husband was initially unwilling to fight Tajōmaru, saying he would not risk his life for a spoiled woman, but the woman then criticized both him and Tajōmaru, saying they were not real men and that a real man would fight for a woman's love. She urged them to fight one another but then hid her face in fear once they raised swords; the men, too, were visibly afraid as they began fighting. In the woodcutter's recollection, the resulting duel was far more pitiful and clumsy than Tajōmaru had recounted previously; Tajōmaru ultimately won through a stroke of luck and the woman fled. Tajōmaru could not catch her but took the samurai's sword and left the scene limping.
At the gate, the woodcutter, priest, and commoner are interrupted from their discussion of the woodcutter's account by the sound of a crying baby. They find the baby abandoned in a basket and the commoner takes a kimono and an amulet that has been left for the infant. The woodcutter reproaches the commoner for stealing from the orphaned child, but the commoner chastises him in an attempt to justify the theft: having deduced that the reason the woodcutter did not speak up at the trial was that he was the one who had stolen the dagger from the scene of the murder, the commoner mocks him as "a bandit calling another a bandit". The commoner leaves Rashōmon, claiming that all men are motivated only by self-interest.
These deceptions and lies shake the priest's faith in humanity. He claims it is restored when the woodcutter reaches for the baby in his arms. The priest is suspicious at first but the woodcutter explains that he intends to take care of the baby along with his own six children. This simple revelation recasts the woodcutter's story and the subsequent theft of the dagger in a new light. The priest gives the infant to the woodcutter, saying that the woodcutter has given him a reason to continue having hope in humanity. As the woodcutter leaves to take the child home, the rain stops and the clouds have parted, revealing the sun.
The name of the film refers to the enormous, former city gate "between modern-day Kyoto and Nara", on Suzaka Avenue's end to the south.
Kurosawa felt that sound cinema multiplies the complexity of a film:
Cinematic sound is never merely accompaniment, never merely what the sound machine caught while you took the scene. Real sound does not merely add to the images, it multiplies it.
Regarding Rashomon, Kurosawa said,
I like silent pictures and I always have... I wanted to restore some of this beauty. I thought of it, I remember in this way: one of the techniques of modern art is simplification, and that I must therefore simplify this film."
Accordingly, there are only three settings in the film: Rashōmon gate, the woods, and the courtyard. The gate and the courtyard are very simply constructed and the woodland is real. This is partly due to the low budget that Kurosawa gained from Daiei.
When Kurosawa shot Rashomon, the actors and the staff lived together, a system Kurosawa found beneficial. He recalls,
We were a very small group and it was as though I was directing Rashomon every minute of the day and night. At times like this, you can talk everything over and get very close indeed.
The cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, contributed numerous ideas, technical skill, and expertise in support for what would be an experimental and influential approach to cinematography. For example, in one sequence, there is a series of single close-ups of the bandit, then the wife, and then the husband, which then repeats to emphasize the triangular relationship between them.
The use of contrasting shots is another example of the film techniques used in Rashomon. According to Donald Richie, the length of time of the shots of the wife and of the bandit are the same when the bandit is acting barbarically and the wife is hysterically crazy.
Rashomon had camera shots that were directly into the sun. Kurosawa wanted to use natural light, but it was too weak; they solved the problem by using a mirror to reflect the natural light. The result makes the strong sunlight look as though it has traveled through the branches, hitting the actors. The rain in the scenes at the gate had to be tinted with black ink because camera lenses could not capture the water pumped through the hoses.
Robert Altman compliments Kurosawa's use of "dappled" light throughout the film, which gives the characters and settings further ambiguity. In his essay "Rashomon," Tadao Sato suggests that the film (unusually) uses sunlight to symbolize evil and sin in the film, arguing that the wife gives in to the bandit's desires when she sees the sun. However, Professor Keiko I. McDonald opposes Sato's idea in her essay "The Dialectic of Light and Darkness in Kurosawa's Rashomon." McDonald says the film conventionally uses light to symbolize "good" or "reason" and darkness to symbolize "bad" or "impulse." She interprets the scene mentioned by Sato differently, pointing out that the wife gives herself to the bandit when the sun slowly fades out. McDonald also reveals that Kurosawa was waiting for a big cloud to appear over Rashomon gate to shoot the final scene in which the woodcutter takes the abandoned baby home; Kurosawa wanted to show that there might be another dark rain any time soon, even though the sky is clear at this moment. Unfortunately, the final scene appears optimistic because it was too sunny and clear to produce the effects of an overcast sky.
Stanley Kauffmann writes in The Impact of Rashomon that Kurosawa often shot a scene with several cameras at the same time, so that he could "cut the film freely and splice together the pieces which have caught the action forcefully as if flying from one piece to another." Despite this, he also used short shots edited together that trick the audience into seeing one shot; Donald Richie says in his essay that "there are 407 separate shots in the body of the film ... This is more than twice the number in the usual film, and yet these shots never call attention to themselves."
The film was scored by Fumio Hayasaka, who is among the most respected of Japanese composers. At the director's request, he included a bolero during the woman's story.
Due to setbacks and some lost audio, the crew took the urgent step of bringing Mifune back to the studio after filming to record another line. Recording engineer Iwao Ōtani added it to the film along with the music, using a different microphone.
See also: Rashomon effect
The film depicts the rape of a woman and the murder of her samurai husband through the widely differing accounts of four witnesses, including the bandit-rapist, the wife, the dead man (speaking through a medium), and lastly the woodcutter, the one witness who seems the most objective and least biased. The stories are mutually contradictory and even the final version may be seen as motivated by factors of ego and saving face. The actors kept approaching Kurosawa wanting to know the truth, and he claimed the point of the film was to be an exploration of multiple realities rather than an exposition of a particular truth. Later film and television use of the "Rashomon effect" focuses on revealing "the truth" in a now conventional technique that presents the final version of a story as the truth, an approach that only matches Kurosawa's film on the surface.
Due to its emphasis on the subjectivity of truth and the uncertainty of factual accuracy, Rashomon has been read by some as an allegory of the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II. James F. Davidson's article, "Memory of Defeat in Japan: A Reappraisal of Rashomon" in the December 1954 issue of the Antioch Review, is an early analysis of the World War II defeat elements. Another allegorical interpretation of the film is mentioned briefly in a 1995 article, "Japan: An Ambivalent Nation, an Ambivalent Cinema" by David M. Desser. Here, the film is seen as an allegory of the atomic bomb and Japanese defeat. It also briefly mentions James Goodwin's view on the influence of post-war events on the film. However, "In a Grove" (the short story by Akutagawa that the film is based on) was published already in 1922, so any postwar allegory would have been the result of Kurosawa's editing rather than the story about the conflicting accounts. Historian and critic David Conrad has noted that the use of rape as a plot point came at a time when American occupation authorities had recently stopped censoring Japanese media and belated accounts of rapes by occupation troops began to appear in Japanese newspapers. Moreover, Kurosawa and other filmmakers had not been allowed to make jidaigeki during the early part of the occupation, so setting a film in the distant past was a way to reassert domestic control over cinema.
Rashomon was released in Japan on August 24, 1950. It was released theatrically in the United States by RKO Radio Pictures with English subtitles on December 26, 1951.
Rashomon has been released multiple times on DVD. The Criterion Collection issued a Blu-ray and DVD edition of the film based on the 2008 restoration, accompanied by a number of additional features.
The film performed well at the domestic Japanese box office, where it was one of the top ten highest-earning films of the year. It also performed well overseas, becoming Kurosawa's first major international hit.
In the United States, the film grossed $46,808 in 2002 and $96,568 during 2009 to 2010, for a combined $143,376 in the United States between 2002 and 2010.
In Europe, the film sold 365,300 tickets in France and Spain, and 8,292 tickets in other European countries between 1996 and 2020, for a combined total of at least 373,592 tickets sold in Europe.
Although it won two Japanese awards, most Japanese critics did not like the film. When it received positive responses in the West, Japanese critics were baffled; some decided that it was only admired there because it was "exotic", others thought that it succeeded because it was more "Western" than most Japanese films.
In a collection of interpretations of Rashomon, Donald Richie writes that "the confines of 'Japanese' thought could not contain the director, who thereby joined the world at large". He also quotes Kurosawa criticizing the way the "Japanese think too little of our own [Japanese] things".
The film appeared at the 1951 Venice Film Festival at the behest of an Italian language teacher, Giuliana Stramigioli, who had recommended it to Italian film promotion agency Unitalia Film seeking a Japanese film to screen at the festival. However, Daiei Motion Picture Company (a producer of popular features at the time) and the Japanese government had disagreed with the choice of Kurosawa's work on the grounds that it was "not [representative enough] of the Japanese movie industry" and felt that a work of Yasujirō Ozu would have been more illustrative of excellence in Japanese cinema. Despite these reservations, the film was screened at the festival.
Before it was screened at the Venice festival, the film initially drew little attention and had low expectations at the festival, as Japanese cinema was not yet taken seriously in the West at the time. But once it had been screened, Rashomon drew an overwhelmingly positive response from festival audiences, praising the originality of the film and its techniques while making many question the nature of truth. The film won both the Italian Critics Award and the Golden Lion award—introducing Western audiences, including Western directors, more noticeably to both Kurosawa's films and techniques, such as shooting directly into the sun and using mirrors to reflect sunlight onto the actor's faces.
The film was released in the United States on December 26, 1951, by RKO Radio Pictures in both subtitled and dubbed versions, and it won an Academy Honorary Award in 1952 for being "the most outstanding foreign language film released in the United States during 1951" (the current Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film wasn't introduced until 1956). The following year, when it was eligible for consideration in other Academy Award categories, it was nominated for Best Art Direction for a Black-and-White Film.
Upon release in North America, Ed Sullivan gave the film a positive review in Hollywood Citizen-News, calling it "an exciting evening, because the direction, the photography and the performances will jar open your eyes." He praised Akugawa's original plot, Kurosawa's impactful direction and screenplay, Mifune's "magnificent" villainous performance, and Miyagawa's "spellbinding" cinematography that achieves "visual dimensions that I've never seen in Hollywood photography" such as being "shot through a relentless rainstorm that heightens the mood of the somber drama." In the early 1960s, film historians credited Rashomon as the start of the international New Wave cinema movement, which gained popularity during the late 1950s to early 1960s.
Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that 98% of 52 surveyed critics gave the film a positive review; with an average rating of 9.3/10. The site's consensus reads: "One of legendary director Akira Kurosawa's most acclaimed films, Rashomon features an innovative narrative structure, brilliant acting, and a thoughtful exploration of reality versus perception." In a 1998 issue of Time Out New York, Andrew Johnston wrote:
Rashomon is probably familiar even to those who haven't seen it, since in movie jargon, the film's title has become synonymous with its chief narrative conceit: a story told multiple times from various points of view. There's much more than that to the film, of course. For example, the way Kurosawa uses his camera...takes this fascinating meditation on human nature closer to the style of silent film than almost anything made after the introduction of sound.
Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars out of four and included it in his Great Movies list.
See also: Remakes of films by Akira Kurosawa
Rashomon spawned numerous remakes and adaptations across film, television and theatre. Examples include:
In 2008, the film was restored by the Academy Film Archive, the National Film Center of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, and Kadokawa Pictures, Inc., with funding provided by the Kadokawa Culture Promotion Foundation and The Film Foundation.
The film appeared on many critics' top lists of the best films.
when the camera was aimed upward at the cloudy sky over the gate, the sprinkle of the rain couldn’t be seen against it, so we made rainfall with black ink in it.
The historians of the new cinema, searching out its origins, go back to another festival, the one at Venice in 1951. That year the least promising item on the cinemenu was a Japanese picture called Rashomon. Japanese pictures, as all film experts knew, were just a bunch of chrysanthemums. So the judges sat down yawning. They got up dazed. Rashomon was a cinematic thunderbolt that violently ripped open the dark heart of man to prove that the truth was not in it. In technique the picture was traumatically original; in spirit it was big, strong, male. It was obviously the work of a genius, and that genius was Akira Kurosawa, the easliest herald of the new era in cinema.