Sometimes a film is so significant that even its title is adopted into our lexicon. ‘The Rashomon effect’ is defined as: contradictory interpretations of the same event by different people. In the simplest terms, that is what the narrative of Rashomon deals with; the juxtaposing retelling of the same event from the perspective of a bandit (Toshiro Mifune), a samurai (Masayuki Mori), a wife (Machiko Kyo) and a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura).
Nowadays, fragmented narrative and non-linear techniques are part and parcel of filmmaking and have been explored in numerous films from The Usual Suspects to Gone Girl, but in the late-1940s, when Akira Kurosawa was pitching his and Shinobu Hashimoto’s script, this manipulation of truth, perspective and plot structure was unheard of. Without even a shred of hyperbole, it can be said that Rashomon had a profound impact on the very nature of filmmaking. The absence of subjective camera angles, the prophetic use of weather as a storytelling device, the camera panning up to show the glint of the sun for the first time in cinema. All these facets of Kazuo Miyagawa’s expressive cinematography act as a fulcrum to one of the medium’s greatest achievements. Fortunately then, this BFI Blu-ray release, from a 2008 restoration by The Academy Film Archive, presents the bold filmic vision with the textured and sharp picture it deserves.
The film opens in the middle of a torrential rainstorm (Kurosawa dyed the water black with calligraphy ink to emphasise the rain) where a woodcutter and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) are taking shelter under the ancient and dilapidated Rashomon gate, one of only three major locations used. A commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) joins the men under the gate in refuge from the rain and a conversation ensues regarding the trial of a local bandit who has allegedly killed a samurai and raped the Samurai’s wife. What follows is contrasting flashbacks to the incident, with each account reflecting the subject’s biased interpretation of the events. The bandit dwells on a dramatic sword fight, the wife describes her husband’s patriarchal manner and the samurai accuses his wife of being disloyal. This play on form and the examination of epistemology reveal the pioneering modernist tendencies of Rashomon, whereas the focus on mise-en-scene and performance over dialogue harks back to the visual storytelling of silent cinema. Minimalism and innovativeness are combined to create art.
The irony with Rashomon (as is the case with many masterpieces) is that initially in Japan it wasn’t received with the same revere it now possesses. The very reason that it is heralded as a cinematic triumph today, for its unconventional manipulation of narrative structure, is why it confused audiences of the time, who complained that it had no cohesion. It was only after it won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival that Rashomon began to the gain the cultural appreciation it deserved. Ultimately, the film announced Kurosawa onto the world stage and in turn introduced the West to post-war Japanese film. There aren’t many films that are entirely flawless, but you’ll be hard pushed to find one as immaculate and influential as Rashomon.
Special Features: Audio commentary from Stuart Galbraith / Rashomon at 65 documentary / John Boorman on Rashomon / BFI theatrical trailer / Illustrated booklet
RASHOMON / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: AKIRA KUROSAWA / SCREENPLAY: AKIRA KUROSAWA, SHINOBU HASHIMOTO / STARRING: TOSHIRO MIFUNE, MACHIKO KYO, MASAYUKI MORI, TAKASHI SHIMURA, MINORU CHIAKI / RELEASE DATE: SEPTEMBER 21ST