Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 11/5/07/ Additional Edits & Revisions.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa with a script he co-wrote with Shinobu Hashimoto based on the short stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Rashomon tells the story of a rape and murder from four different perspectives including the victims, a woodcutter, a priest, and a bandit. A drama that reveals the source of truth and many versions of it, the film is set in old Japan in the country. Starring Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune along with Fumiko Honma, Machiko Kyo, Mayasuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Kichijiro Ueda, and Daisuke Kato. Rashomon is an eerie, mind-bending film from Akira Kurosawa and company.
At the old abandoned temple gate known as Rashomon, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) have a discussion over the trial about a murdered man named Takehiro (Mayasuki Mori) and the rape of his wife Masago (Machiko Kyo). A ragged commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) joins in to hear what happened where the woodcutter reveals what happened since he was the one who found Takehiro's body and told the police. The murder revolves around a crazed bandit named Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) who is accused of the murder after being caught by a policeman (Daisuke Kato) who found him wounded with arrows near a river bank where Tajomaru confesses to killing Takehiro. There, Takehiro's story has him revealing that he was just wanting to look at Masago where he later meets Takehiro to discuss their swords before tying him up in a grove and raping Masago that led to a duel between him and Tajomaru.
The woodcutter then tell Masago's side of the story in the trial where she revealed about the shame of being rape that led to lots of confusion about what happened. Notably as she claimed to have Tajomaru to kill Takehiro to end the shame as she makes another claim that Takehor killed himself. The woodcutter than reveals Takehiro's story that was told by a spiritual medium (Fumiko Honma) who claimed that his wife's guilt forced her to be with Tajomaru as she wanted him to kill Takehiro. What happens would lead to a lot confusing issues as it also involved a dagger owned by Masago. With a lot of mysteries surrounding the story as the commoner believes the woodcutter had more to say. What happened lead to lots of revelations forcing the commoner to piece everything together leaving the woodcutter and priest more confused about everything that happened.
Since the film takes place in only three locations and has a theatrical tone that isn't seen much with most films about crime or that's in a mystery genre. The film is really about a rape and murder and how each different story questions not just what happened but the actions of everything that's gone on in the aftermath. The themes of the film that Kurosawa talks about are very dead-on. The film is really a morality tale about rape, murder, and lies. Each story does have a bit of truth but it raises more questions rather than answers. Plus, there's still a lot of gaping holes in the mystery that has to do with each of the stories forcing the commoner to piece everything together yet he doesn't have all the answers.
The theatricality of the film is really amazing since it's all done as if Kurosawa is doing a play. The dramatic aspect of the film is a surprise as each story unfolds with suspense and momentum. Yet, by the film's end, the commoner acts as the mouthpiece for the audience. He is confused and is forced to piece everything together but afterwards, there's the question of morality that is forced to shake the faith of the priest. It's not about whose story to believe but why are there different versions of the story and why all of these stories end up raising question about humanity and morals. When the commoner pieces everything and an abandoned baby is found, the commoner suddenly becomes a mouthpiece for cynicism. What he reveals isn't just shocking but really puts into perspective of how cruel the world is.
A lot of credit must go to Kurosawa for not just setting the film in old Japan but bringing a modern perspective to all of these questions. Through his staged yet engrossing direction, he definitely makes the film feel like a play with its three locations. The scenery of the forest that includes shots of the sun has an enchanting quality where it's beautiful. Yet, beauty isn't everything as it seems. Then there's the trial sequence where the camera barely moves throughout its entire sequences. What is more shocking is how still everything is forcing the audience to hear every thing each character is saying. Then there's the scenes at Rashomon gate where everything is dark and decaying and the rain forces the commoner, the priest, and woodcutter to be stuck as the story is told. The close-ups that Kurosawa shoots on the characters definitely reveals not just the emotions but also tension.
Even some of the duel sequences reveal that the fight isn't just physical but emotional, mental, and psychological. The complexity of the action and drama is Kurosawa definitely being an observer where he doesn't even bring any kind of answers and like the audience, has more questions to offer rather than answers. Through his camera and eerie presentation, it's a film that is hypnotic where Kurosawa takes the audience on a journey through four different tales. In the end, he like the audience, tries to figure out everything while wondering if there's some hope for humanity. Overall, Kurosawa takes the mystery and crime genres and adds layers into a film that is strong and provocative.
Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa brings some amazing cinematography where the film was shot in black-and-white with a look that is amazing. The black-and-white look works to convey the different look and feel of each location. From the dream-like beauty of the forest, the big white of the trial scene, and to the oppressive, very black look of the Rashomon gate. Miyagawa, who is one of Kurosawa's regular collaborators, also uses some early use of tracking shots to convey some of the action along with close-ups that brings suspense to the film as it's some of the best cinematography done on film. With Kurosawa serving as editor, the film has a great feel that isn't too slow but rather rhythmic to convey the film’s suspense and tension with very few cuts. A lot of long shots that work to help with its suspense while a few sequences have transition wipes that would be a trademark of Kurosawa's work.
Production designer So Matsuyama and set decorator H. Motsumoto do excellent work in creating the ruins of the Rashomon gates with its broken, abandoned look while the trial temple is more spacious with sandstones used on the floor. The music of Fumio Hayasaka is a wide variety of styles ranging from traditional Japanese music to modern music that creates not just suspense but also drama. The music ranges from dream-like to accompany Masago or use orchestral music with Japanese bass drums to create the tension in the first duel scene. Overall, the music adds terror and drama to the film.
The film's cast is definitely brilliant in its small but memorable ensemble with Daisuke Kato as the policeman who finds Tajomaru while Fumiko Honma is equally as haunting as the medium speaking through the mind of Takehiro. Minoru Chiaki is great as a priest in conflict over his faith as he learns of man's flaws while trying to question his own faith and role as a servant of God. Kichijiro Ueda is great as the commoner who tries to piece everything that is heard throughout the film while reminding the woodcutter and priest of man's flaws in which, he cynically hurts the priest's views of humanity that already starts to fail. Takashi Shimura is great as the woodcutter who tells the story about what had happened while forced to reveal his own role in the crime that had happened while still trying to believe that there's good. Shimura's performance is a man of conscience of sorts who tries not to get involved but realizes that he has his own faults as well.
Mayasuki Mori is excellent as the murdered man Takehiro who is viewed in different lights. Either as a man who is fooled by everything, trying to defend him and his wife honor, or a man driven to shame. Mori's performance is brilliant to convey the complexity of his character who is either trying to find good or realizes the failures of humanity. Machiko Kyo is amazing as Masago, a guilt-ridden wife who is convinced her honor in playing is so shamed by being the victim of rape. She isn't sure what to play as she spends half of the film crying in shame. Then she has another part that is very dark and jaw-dropping as she seems to have enjoyed it a bit and realized she can't be with two men. In the fourth story, her performance and character is so shocking, it is a moment that is unforgettable. It's clearly one of the film's best performance.
Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune is in classic form as the complex, comical Tajomaru. A bandit who seems crazed and comical in hoping to win the heart of Masago while proving to be a skillful samurai. Then when he's seen in different stories, there's more qualities in the character that could be redeeming while realizing that he's not as brave or as aggressive as he seems. Mifune's performance is almost Shakespeare to convey the sense of failure in who this man is. He seems to be this great man but once the story of the woodcutter is told, it's realized that he may not be the man who was seen in the previous stories. Mifune is brilliant as he proves his range as one of Japan's most revered icons.
Rashomon is a powerful and provocative film from Akira Kurosawa and company. With a great cast led by Toshiro Mifune, Michiko Kyo, Mayasuki Mori, and Takashi Shimura, it's a film that is no doubt one of the greatest films ever made with solid performances through and through. While this film is no doubt one of Kurosawa's most quintessential films, it also serves as a fine introduction to the director proving that there's more to him than samurai pictures. In the end, Rashomon is a compelling drama that is a must-see for anyone who loves films, even that has theatricality and suspense.
Akira Kurosawa Films: (Sanshiro Sugata) - (The Most Beautiful) - (Sanshiro Sugata Part II) - (The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail) - No Regrets on Our Youth - (One Wonderful Sunday) - Drunken Angel - (The Quiet Duel) - Stray Dog - Scandal (1950 film) - The Idiot (1951 film) - Ikiru - The Seven Samurai - (I Live in Fear) - Throne of Blood - (The Lower Depths (1957 film)) - The Hidden Fortress - The Bad Sleep Well - Yojimbo - Sanjuro - High and Low - Red Beard - Dodesukaden - (Dersu Uzala) - Kagemusha - Ran - (Dreams) - (Rhapsody in August) - (Madadayo)
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