#6 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
This is one of those movies that has become so influential that it almost feels like homework to talk about it. However, it really shouldn’t be. Rashomon is a tight 88-minute film that’s alternatively funny and incredibly taut while leaving a mountain of material to talk about. It’s the kind of art film that can easily break into mainstream conversations because of the kinds of questions that it leaves with its audience. Which of the four stories that we hear are true? It’s a very literal question that has no real answer on purpose, so people can navigate clues, intentions, motives, and details day in and day out until they are blue in the face. That central question doesn’t concern me, though. I know going in that I’m not going to get a solid answer, that each tale is going to have holes, inconsistencies, or outside reasons to doubt their veracity, and I focus more on the big picture.
The film begins with Kikori (Takashi Shimura), a woodcutter, and Hoshi (Minoru Chiaki), a Buddhist priest, sitting in the middle of a rainstorm under the titular citadel gate, joined by the unnamed peasant (Kichijiro Ueda) who becomes the audience for their strange tale. Kikori had come across a dead samurai in the forest three days earlier when he ran to tell the police. The morning of the rainstorm, a court was held to determine the guilty party of the murder, and the pair of the woodcutter and the priest heard the three accounts of the bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), the samurai’s wife (Machiko Kyo), and the samurai’s ghost (Masayuki Mori) through a medium (Noriko Honma). All three tales vastly contradict each other to the point where all three have different perpetrators of the murder.
The humor of the film largely comes from Mifune as Tajomaru. Instructed to act like a lion by Akira Kurosawa, his movements are animalistic and, as told by Tajomaru, bound as a captive, he’s both cocky and seemingly hiding something while being contradictory at the same time. Before he begins his tale, he insists that he did not kill the samurai but that the policeman who captured him did the deed. We then go through his tale and yes, he kills the samurai in the end after a pitched battle that has them crossing swords more than twenty times, a first for an opponent of Tajomaru, according to him. The conflict arose, though, because Tajomaru saw the samurai and his wife traveling through the forest and he decided that he wanted the woman. One detail that is never denied by any of the four total stories is that Tajomaru rapes the wife, her level of willingness and regret is an open question, though. In Tajomaru’s telling, for instance, she simply cannot overcome his animalistic sexual appeal, and she simply gives in.
The wife is next, and she was discovered in a temple, hiding from the world. She’s a broken woman, and her telling begins after the rape where she begs Tajomaru to take her as his wife and kill the samurai to save her shame. Tajomaru simply leaves laughing, and the wife takes her expensive dagger to free her husband, tied up to a tree stump. The samurai simply looks at her with contempt, though, driving the wife into a state of despair and, perhaps, madness. She passes out with the dagger still in her hand, waking up later to find the dagger in her husband’s chest.
The ghost is third and, as told through the medium, the details change even more. His wife begs for Tajomaru to kill the samurai after her shame, but Tajomaru is not persuaded. In fact, he’s disgusted, offering to kill the woman if the samurai wishes it. His wife flees, Tajomaru cuts the samurai’s bonds, and the samurai is left alone with his wife’s dagger. He plunges the knife into his own chest, killing himself, but, the medium explains, the dagger was taken by somebody.
Those three stories were told by the court, but Kikori has a secret. He didn’t happen upon the aftermath of the crime, he witnessed it. He refused to recount it to the court out of a sense of self-preservation. He recounts how Tajomaru and the samurai ended up in a pitched battle, much less exquisitely executed on the part of either combatant with the pair rolling around in the dirt, losing weapons, and fighting dirty the whole time, ending with Tajomaru killing the samurai, fleeing after the wife afterwards.
So, who’s story is true? There are reasons to believe that none of them are. It seems to me that Tajomaru was trying to protect the wife, the wife was trying to protect her own shame and one of the two men, the samurai was trying to damn his wife, and the woodcutter was trying to cover up for his own crime of stealing the wife’s dagger from the scene. There’s no one telling the story who’s free of any bias or motive to elude the truth. There’s no answer. Life is messy like that sometimes.
So, then what’s the point? The point ends up manifesting around the waking and wailing of an unseen infant, hidden under the awning of the gate and out of sight of the three men recounting the tales. The listener steals a nice kimono from the baby, eroding the priest’s belief in the goodness of humanity even further after the soul shaking incomprehensible stories he had just heard, but Kikori takes the child to care, adding to his collection of six children already at home. In the messiness of life, we have to find ways forward. Those can be good like Kikori taking the child to care for, and those can be bad like the listener swiping a valuable kimono from a helpless infant.
There’s a common motif in Kurosawa’s films developing at this point, first noticed in Drunken Angel, of characters talking about the meaning of the movie they’re in, focused usually around the meaning of the lives of those involved. This is the fully developed form of that idea, completely dominating the whole film as the three characters under the gate in the rain discuss what it all means, coming to no real conclusion. That lack of a conclusion ends up being the conclusion itself, and to get there Kurosawa wrote (along with his cowriter Shinobu Hashimoto) and directed a compelling story of four people with no real answers. It’s rare to find a film that is so unwilling to offer up answers to its own questions that gets so embraced by so many people. And yet, this is the film that brought Kurosawa, Mifune, and Japanese cinema at large to the attention of the world, most particularly the critical community. Japan was telling interesting, compelling, and intelligent stories with real flair. The fight as described by Kikori is amazingly tense in its chaotic execution. The rise of the medium is wonderfully creepy, combining the voices of Mori and Honma. The film, to no surprise, is really quite beautiful to look at with Kurosawa’s expert eye creating marvelous, natural, and organized framing that helps highlight the right subjects at the right time.
Rashomon isn’t homework. It’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s classic in the best of ways.