Review of Rashomon, the Classic 1950 Japanese FIlm By Akira Kurusawa

GRADE: AA / 90%

Rashomon poster 2.jpg

Rashomon (wikipedia)

The true irony in Rashomon is that the only person whose guilt is proven is that of the narrator’s, despite the fact that majority of the film involves its three central characters claiming responsibility for one crime. While the focal point of Rashomon involves unraveling the event involving the death of a Samurai where the Samurai himself, his wife and a bandit claim to be the culprit, the film isn’t a clue-solving mystery where new revelations in subsequent scenes make it easier for us to judge who the criminal is; instead, Rashomon places us in the jury box with its characters appealing to us one by one and the only way we can reach to any decision is through moral considerations. Can the wife be a woman of such loose morals that she immediately agrees to elope with the bandit and asks him coldly to shoot her husband? Can the husband be so stone-hearted that he rejects his helpless wife because she has been raped? Can a bandit be smooth enough to woo the married lady with just a kiss?

It is hard to find a concrete answer because a) believing one version would be discarding the other equally credible versions and b) in each version we find the characters supporting the unexpected person ( for example, the samurai’s version is more sympathetic to the bandit than his own wife). What makes the tale more complex is that there’s another narrator who’s retelling the different versions of the three characters. Later, it is his crime which is revealed and positively true, unlike the ambiguity of the murder case. In this way, Rashomon is revelatory as a film whose acclaim and relevance has lasted over the years because of its universally understood themes.

I remember having gone for a local play held at the city hall about a year ago only because my friends were included in its cast and crew. I hurriedly slid out of the theater during interval because I couldn’t endure the play anymore and I didn’t want to lie to the cast, who’d called me backstage, about how much the play sucked. A year later, I rented Rashomon through a movie rental store and saw it at home. That day is today, and why I’m mentioning about a year-old play is that I realized that it was based entirely on Rashomon! Unlike the film, the play however was overburdened in dialog and reduced to shambles by substandard acting and technical achievements. I ‘RAN’ out the second the curtains dropped for interval (hope you get the silly capitalized pun. It’s improvised!).

Rashomon on the other hand has fewer dialogues, more pantomime and is a great technical achievement; it opens up like Orson WellesCitizen Kane, giving us very long shots of rain pattering down the city gate and slowly taking us inside, closing in on its two actors who are first seen at a distance from the camera’s eye. Even the opening line in both Kane and Rashomon has the same function of defining the crux of the film; while you hear the protagonist Kane going ‘Rosebud’, Rashomon has the character of the woodcutter uttering “I just don’t understand”, not once but four different times. He has four conflicting versions of the same incident to tell, first from the point of view of its three characters and lastly himself. The companion sitting beside him is a priest who’s also a witness to the incident, albeit a minor one. The film needs somebody apart from us to whom the story has to be told, and so a third character is introduced. Taking shelter from the rain, he enters the city gate and finds the two men sitting sullenly as the woodcutter murmurs his opening lines. With brazen intrusiveness, he asks the woodcutter what he can’t understand, and then proceeds to question the priest like he can’t mind his own business. But that’s the catalyst for the woodcutter, our narrator for the rest of the film, to begin with the incident that’s been bothering him for long.

He starts by telling about the body of a samurai he found while walking through the woods, and then proceeds to share everything that happened in court (with no jury except us and maybe the skies). The stage is taken by the bandit first, who’s been accused of killing a travelling samurai and raping his wife. The samurai gives an account that glorifies his deeds and presents him in the light he’d like to see himself in –as a cold-blooded murderer who also entices the samurai’s wife. The wife gives her account then, which reminded me of the tale Ramayana from Indian mythology; in it, Lord Ram’s wife Seeta is abducted by Raavan, and after Ram defeats his sworn enemy, he brings Seeta back home but banishes her reluctantly after his subjects suspect her chastity. Here the samurai looks at his wife, who’s been raped, with a look of contempt that frightens her and compels her to plunge the dagger into his heart. It is the dead samurai’s version we hear next through a medium, and finally we hear the wood-cutter’s own version. And while the woodcutter’s tale would seem the most trustworthy at first, he being a stranger to the three characters, his words can’t be relied upon wholly after we learn that he too may have something to hide.

Even the sum of parts cannot make a whole in Rashomon as the sum itself has fluctuating variables. Instead of acting sleuth and trying to solve the case, watch the contrast in the personalities of the three characters through the four versions. You’ll find yourself pulled into Rashomon’s story until you can’t tell what’s true and what’s not. And when you find yourself saying “I just don’t understand”, you got what Rashomon is all about; you weren’t even a witness to the incident, so how do you expect to ever know the truth?