By Carter B. Horsley
There are certain books and movies that are
landmarks in the intellectual history of the world. The movie
"Rashomon" is one of them.
Like Samuel Beckett's play, "Waiting for
Godot," that dates to about the same period, "Rashomon"
is deeply disturbing and lingers long in the viewer's mind, forever
casting doubts about an individual's perception of reality and
understanding of the concept of "truth," and ultimately
the meaning of life.
Like the play, the movie's cast of characters
is small, but unlike the play, "Rashomon" is packed
with action and stirring emotions.
It could also be compared to Shakespeare's
play, "King Lear," in its emphasis on different interpretations
of apparently simple actions, although Shakespeare's play is,
of course, much more complicated.
In "Rashomon," three men independently
seek shelter in a ruined temple known as Rashomon near Kyoto,
Japan, more than half a millennium ago. The men are a priest,
a woodcutter and a vagabond. A rainstorm pelts down on them ferociously.
The priest and the woodcutter are unpresupposing persons who apparently
are in a state of shock over a recent event. The vagabond joins
them and encourages them to tell him of the allegedly "terrible"
The priest, played with mournful stoicism by
Minoru Chiaki, begins to recount how a scruffy bandit encounters
a man escorting a beautiful woman on horseback in the forest and
proceeds to tie him up and watch him rape the woman and then be
killed by him at the request of the raped woman. The event is
shown in flashback where the bandit, played by Toshiro Mifune,
is being held at a trial and he recounts the incident.
Prior to the commencement of the bandit's retelling
of the incident, the movie is very somber, oppressive and rather
Mifune's performance as the bandit is explosively
vulgar, unpredictable and frightening. He is obviously a very,
very coarse man given to hysterical ravings. In many ways, his
character is so mesmerizing as quintesential evil that one could
almost conjure the hypnoptic speeches of Hitler. Mifune comes
across as a great force of evil, a force that is not without its
Mifune's tale is recreated on film and Kurosawa's
visual depiction of the bandit wandering through the forest and
glimpsing through the dappled sunlight on leaves a very large
woman's hat with huge veils astride a horse drawn by what appears
to be a nobleman is a mesmerizing enchantment that understandably
leads the bandit to chase, at a distance, the couple. The entire
sequence of the bandit's tracking and chase and final encounter
with the couple is one of the most sensational cinemagraphically
in history and is more beautiful and impressive than even Steven
Spielberg's forest chases in "Star Wars" decades later.
The movie has dramatically switched from an
almost drab historic piece to a riveting, scary and exotically
intriguing adventure and melodrama culminating in the lifting
of the hat's veil by the woman, played by Machiko Iyo. Her visage
is climatically startling. She appears to be very beautiful and
to act very much like a lady. Kurosawa's initial close-up of her
face in this sequence is only matched by Grace Kelly's first appearance
as she is about to kiss James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear
Window" a few years later. Both cinematic moments are extraordinarily
effective and recall Josef Sternberg's dreamy entrances for Marlene
Dietrich some years earlier. These "entrances" attest
to the power of beauty and of women and clearly indicate that
sexual attraction is very important.
The bandit's rendition of the event moves back
and forth between his recollection and his testimony at the trial
and Kurosawa has Mifune go through almost pyrotechnical acting
transformations that also conjure episodes of "Frankenstein,"
so horrific are the bandit's temperament, countenance and actions.
At the end of the bandit's version of the incident,
he admits to the rape and the murder of the woman's husband.
The vagabond at the temple is not overwhelmed
by the story, but the woodcutter says that there is more to it
and introduces the retelling of the incident by the raped woman
who appears at the same, open-air trial.
Her version is self-serving and she claims
that she did not instruct the bandit to kill her husband. Her
version, however, is quite convincing as the actress is wondrously
believable as an innocent victim.
The vagabond at the temple is a bit more interested,
but the priest then tells him to listen to the dead husband's
version, which will make him understand better why he and the
woodcutter are so shocked. The vagabond asks how the dead husband
could testify and the priest introduces the segment of the trial
at which a woman medium, played with memorable eeriness by Fumiko
Honma, speaks for the dead husband in a ghostly voice. The scenes
in which the medium testifies with her flowing robes and long
hair is spellbinding, and very beautiful. Her version, that is,
the husband's version, is altogether different in that after the
woman is raped and the bandit runs off after a furious fight with
him and he commits suicide because he is ashamed that his wife
had been raped and wants to abandon him for the rapist.
The vagabond's interest is now piqued, but
his attention now turns to the woodcutter, played with a pitiable
sullenness by Takashi Shimura, who reveals that he was a witness
to the incident and proceeds to give yet another version, which,
again, differs from the others, but which seems more reasonable
since it is not self-serving.
The three men at the temple begin to try to
unravel the truth from the contradictory stories, noting that
there are elements in each that are believable and that none of
the versions is very satisfying.
The message of the film, therefore, would seem
to be that truth is relative, fragile, fleeting and uncertain.
In his review of the film, James Berardinelli noted that that
movie "is not about culpability or innocence." "Instead,
it focuses on something far more profound and thought-provoking:
the inability of any one man to know the truth, no matter how
clearly he thinks he sees things. Perspective distorts reality
and makes the absolute truth unknowable." (His review may
be found at http://us.imdb.com/Reviews/110/11025.)
Some other reviewers have made analogies with the film and the
O. J. Simpson trial, the Clinton/Lewinsky Affair and the Clarence
White/Anita Hill controversy, and some have also read into a foreshadowing
of the Deconstructivist theories that would become popular several
Before any resolution of the discussion by
the three men, they are interrupted by a baby's cry elsewhere
in the temple. They rush around and discover the baby and the
vagabond instantly rips away her blanket for himself, much to
the distaste and dismay of the other two. The priest lifts the
baby into his arms and the woodcutter then pleads with him to
let him have the baby as he has eight children and while very
poor knows how to take care of babies. The priest relents and
gives the woodcutter the baby and the film ends on this fairly
high, optimistic note of humanity.
This coda however is brief and not powerful
enough to cast aside the very weighty bulk and import of the film.
Some critics have, with good reason, criticized the "happy"
ending of the film, but virtually all have correctly noted that
the film's impact on the viewer's conscientiousness and conscience
is immense. Some of these critics have argued that the film's
message is that individuals can only see themselves in one, favorable,
light, while others, more on target, expound on the film's upsetting
of the basic underpinings of knowledge and the foundations of
the notions of truth.
"Rashomon" is a brilliant but bleak
and very dramatic examination of epistemology, the philosophy
of knowledge, the need for certainty and its frail attainment.
A few other great films like "Last Year
at Marienbad" (see The City Review
article) and "Providence," both by Alain Resnais,
and "The Seventh Seal" (see The
City Review article) and "Persona," both by Ingmar
Bergman, have seriously tackled "heavy" themes like
the meaning of life or truth, but none with more brilliance than
"Rashomon," whose truly memorable acting and cinematography
"Rashomon" is not perfect as the
"happy" ending is too convenient and the music score
by Fumio Hayasaka is disappointing as it is sort of a Westernized
version of Ravel's "Bolero," and becomes a little obvious
The performances of Mifune and Iyo, alone justify
this film as great, but its psychological and philosophic mandates
and imperatives elevate it to the highest ranks of cinematic achievement.