Reflections on "Rashomon" (1950)

1/21/2010 Posted by Admin

Reflections on "Rashomon"

By our guest blogger, Kicia Sears

Because film is such a rich medium, it is, to say the least, extremely difficult to get everything just right in order to create a masterpiece. Even films that are great have significant inadequacies that drag down the rest of the movie. Then there are films like "Rashomon," which have so many amazing things going on at once that it’s hard to find something that doesn’t work.

A lot has been said about "Rashomon" since its 1950 release; there are entire film courses on Akira Kurosawa’s work. However, from everything that contributes to this film’s greatness–the trailblazing cinematography; the expressive, symbolic use of light, which creates a breathtaking palette that is difficult to achieve with black-and-white film; and Kurosawa’s unique perfectionism–there are two elements that stand above everything else and help to elevate "Rashomon" from a great movie to a film classic in the eyes of scholars and audiences alike.

The first is the source material and Kurosawa’s interpretation of it ("Rashomon" is inspired by Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short stories “In a Grove” and “Rashomon,” though from the latter only the setting is borrowed). The second is Toshiro Mifune, without whom the film would have been entirely different.

"Rashomon" is a masterpiece because it is both a simple folktale and a microcosm of a complex aspect of human relationships. It makes a serious statement about the nature of ‘man’ without punching the audience in the face with its message. There is a tendency in modern cinema to assume the audience’s stupidity and present an obvious story with an obvious idea behind it. And just in case anyone missed it, some films even put their message in a character’s mouth. (Example: "Saved!") Instead of the character, you hear the director or the writers speaking, and it feels alien and uncomfortable. As an audience, it is invigorating to watch something that might have a few meanings, or to be asked to take something from the film that is your own. As to what actually happened in "Rashomon" that led to the murder of the samurai, there is no way to know. Kurosawa refuses to give us the answer. In doing so, he not only elegantly creates a mystery onscreen but also allows us to reflect on the uncertainty of human nature.

As for the brilliance of Toshiro Mifune, who portrays Tajomaru in the film, Mifune not only brings natural talent and unique style to each film in which he acts, but a deep dedication to a story and its characters. In "Rashomon," his portrayal of Tajomaru the bandit is especially chilling. When Tajomaru explodes into a laughing fit, he seems to cross into something utterly inhuman. It is said that this is because at Kurosawa’s request Mifune studied footage of lions in Africa in order to prepare for the role.

Kurosawa praised him for his efficiency and diligence in his book "Something Like an Autobiography," which is worth quoting at length: “The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression, Mifune needed only three feet. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express.” Mifune appeals to audiences with his quick-witted delivery and the way he allows his characters to be flawed but still awe-inspiring at times. He understands the complexity of human beings, and his characters are multi-layered not necessarily because of the writing, but because of the way he hints at these layers through movements and facial expressions. Mifune’s performance makes us, as an audience, laugh with disbelief as we find ourselves wanting to believe Tajomaru’s innocence even though he is a known rapist and murderer. Rashomon was Mifune’s first exposure outside of Japan, but it is his dedication and ability to express emotion as quickly and complexly as it appears in life that caused him to retire as one of the greatest actors of all time.

Oddly, "Rashomon" was popular with European and American audiences while it was all but a flop in Japan when it was first released. There is a lot of speculation as to why Japanese audiences weren’t impressed with the film, but the truth likely will never be known. Akira Kurosawa achieved greatness with "Rashomon" not because it was noticed by the Western world but because it is beautiful, nuanced, innovative and resonant. We all watch movies for a reason, and filmmakers make movies for a reason, too. Perhaps it is to convey a moral message or make a political statement, or perhaps it is an attempt to control a part of life. In the words of the Commoner, who is a character in the film, “We all want to forget something, so we tell stories.”

"Rashomon" makes one thing abundantly clear--if Akira Kurosawa is telling the story, we’d better listen.

  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Technorati
  • Facebook
  • TwitThis
  • MySpace
  • LinkedIn
  • Live
  • Google
  • Reddit
  • Sphinn
  • Propeller
  • Slashdot
  • Netvibes