Rashomon – a film that influenced how we interpret the world


(Japan, 1950)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Review by Barbara Popel

Have you ever heard someone refer to “the Rashomon effect?” Or perhaps you’ve used the term yourself? Wikipedia says “the Rashomon effect is the situation in which an event is given contradictory interpretations or descriptions by the individuals involved…(it) is used to describe the phenomenon of the unreliability of eyewitnesses.”

In 1950, Rashomon introduced the Western world to Japanese film and to its accomplished director, Akira Kurosawa. The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 and received an Academy Honorary Award in 1952 (the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film wasn’t introduced by the Academy until 1956). Rashomon often appears on critics’ lists of the greatest films ever made. Its technical brilliance – its use of music to ramp up the tension (including its famous use of Ravel’s Bolero), its gorgeous play of light and shadow, its dramatic camerawork and its masterful editing – are all noteworthy, but it’s the story that captures the viewer’s attention.

Initially, the story seems straightforward. In the distant Heian period, a poor woodcutter, a young Shinto priest and a peasant are sheltering during a downpour under Kyoto’s huge ruined Rashomon Gate. Kikori, the woodcutter, (played by one of Kurosawa’s favourite actors, Takashi Shimura) and the priest are discussing a recent rape and murder trial. A bandit lured a samurai and his wife off the main road into a forest. The bandit tied up the samurai, raped the samurai’s wife, and the samurai was then killed. Afterwards, the woodcutter says he came upon several items in the forest – the wife’s hat, the samurai’s cap, a length of rope that had been cut – then he stumbled upon the dead samurai. Terrified, he ran to report what he’d found to the police. He and the priest proceed to relate to the peasant what was said at the trial.

The testimony at the trial confused and amazed the woodcutter and the priest, because all three people gave radically different statements, and each of them claimed to be the one who killed the dead man. The three were: Tajōmaru, the bandit, (played by another one of Kurosawa’s favourite actors, the charismatic Toshiro Mifune); the samurai, (played by Masayuki Mori; as the samurai is now dead, he gave his testimony at the trial through a medium); and the samurai’s wife (played by the exquisite Machiko Kyō). They all agreed that the bandit had overcome and tied up the samurai, then raped the samurai’s wife (though the wife only alluded to this during her testimony, as befitted a decorous Japanese wife). But each claimed to have been the one who stabbed the samurai to death. The bandit claimed he killed the samurai after an epic duel. The wife claimed she killed her husband while in a desperate trance, because her husband now loathed her but refused to release her by killing her. And the samurai claimed he committed suicide out of grief because, after the rape when his wife was about to leave with Tajōmaru, she begged him to kill her husband. Tajōmaru refused.

Why are they each swearing that their testimony is the truth? How could each of them give such radically different testimony about something this important?

Then the woodcutter tells the priest and the peasant that all three are lying. He himself knows what really happened because he was an eyewitness to the entire event. He didn’t tell what he knew at the trial because he didn’t want to get involved. He proceeds to tell the priest and the peasant what he saw. But is he a reliable witness?

See Rashomon for yourself. And the next time you hear an eyewitness testimony, you may wonder is that what really happened?

Running time: 89 minutes
Rated PG

Available: Kanopy, The Criterion Collection, Apple TV, Apple iTunes

Barb Popel has lived in the Glebe since 1991. At university in the early 1970s, she was introduced to the joys of film. She’s been an avid filmgoer ever since.

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