Rashomon is a 1950 Japanese film directed by Akira Kurosawa, working in close collaboration with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa. It stars Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo and Masayuki Mori. The film is based on two stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa ("Rashomon" provides the setting, while "In a Grove" provides the characters and plot). Rashomon can be said to have introduced Kurosawa and Japanese cinema to Western audiences, and is considered one of his masterpieces.
The film has an unusual narrative structure that reflects the impossibility of obtaining the truth about an event when there are conflicting witness accounts. In English and other languages, 'Rashomon' has become a byword for any situation in which the truth of an event is difficult to verify due to the conflicting accounts of different witnesses. In psychology, the film has lent its name to the 'Rashomon effect'.
The film depicts a rape and murder through the widely differing accounts of four witnesses, including the perpetrator and, through a medium (Fumiko Honma), the murder victim. The story unfolds in flashback as the four characters—the bandit Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune), the murdered samurai Kanazawa-no-Takehiro (Masayuki Mori), his wife Masago (Machiko Kyō), and the nameless Woodcutter (Takashi Shimura)—recount the events of one afternoon in a grove. But it is also a flashback within a flashback, because the accounts of the witnesses are being retold by a woodcutter and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) to a ribald commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) as they wait out a rainstorm in a ruined temple. Each story is mutually contradictory, leaving the viewer unable to determine the truth of the events.
An unnamed Woodcutter claims he found the body of the victim (the Samurai) three days previously while looking for wood in the forest. Upon discovering the body the Woodcutter flees in a panic to search for the authorities.
A traveling Buddhist priest claims that he saw the Samurai and the Woman the same day the murder happened. (Since his report does not tell anything about the murder, and does not contradict the other reports, he is presumably telling the truth.)
Tajōmaru, a notorious brigand , claims that he tricked the Samurai to step off the mountain trail with him and look at a cache of ancient swords he discovered. In the grove he tied the Samurai to a tree, then returns to fetch the woman. He planned to rape the woman, who initially tried to defend herself. When caught, she submitted in view of her husband. The woman, filled with shame, then begged him to duel to the death with her husband, to save her from the guilt and shame of knowing two men. He honorably set the Samurai free so they could duel. In Tajōmaru's recollection they fight skillfully and fiercely, but in the end Tajōmaru is the victor and the woman runs away. At the end of the story he is asked about an expensive dagger owned by the samurai's wife: he says that, in the confusion, he forgot all about it, and that it was foolish of him to leave behind such a valuable object.
The Samurai's wife, Masago, claims that after she was raped by Tajōmaru, who left her to weep, she begged her husband to forgive her; but he simply looked at her coldly. She then freed him and begged him to kill her so that she would be at peace. He continued to stare at her coldly, and then she fainted with dagger in hand. She awakens to find her husband dead with the dagger in his chest, supposedly an accident that happened when she fell over. She recalls attempting to drown herself some time later by a nearby lake.
Through a medium, the deceased Samurai, Kanazawa-no-Takehiro , claims that after he was captured by Tajōmaru, and after the bandit raped his wife, Tajōmaru asked her to travel with him. She accepted and asked Tajōmaru to kill her husband so that she wouldn't feel the guilt of knowing two men. Tajōmaru, shocked by this request, grabbed her, and gave the Samurai a choice of letting the woman go or killing her ("At this", the dead samurai recounted, "I almost forgave the bandit."). The woman fled, and Tajōmaru, after attempting to recapture her, gave up and set the Samurai free. The Samurai then killed himself with his own dagger. The ghost then mentions that somebody removed the dagger from his chest; upon hearing this (or more precisely, in the frame sequence after this part of the trial flashback is recounted), the woodcutter is startled, and claims that the dead man must be lying, because he was killed by a sword.
The woodcutter then says his earlier view was a lie, claiming he didn't want to get too much involved. He confesses he did in fact witness the rape and murder. He says that Tajōmaru raped the Samurai's wife, and then begged the weeping woman to marry him. She instead freed her husband, then continued weeping. The Samurai said that he was unwilling to die for a woman such as her, and that he would mourn the loss of his horse more than the loss of his wife. After hearing these words, Tajōmaru lost interest in the Samurai's wife and began as if to leave. The Samurai's wife continued to weep, more forcefully now, which prompted her husband to demand that she stop crying. Tajōmaru retorted that the Samurai's remarks were "unmanly" of him since, according to Tajōmaru, "women are weak" and can't help crying. At this, the woman was provoked into an embittered rage about both her husband's reluctance to protect his wife and Tajōmaru's half-heartedness, whose passionate affection had all too soon turned into mere pity. In a fit of mad fury she spurred the men to fight for her, which she seemed to regret as soon the men actually started a pitiful fight, apparently more for the sake of keeping their face in front of each other than because of any true affection for the woman. After a pathetic struggle, Tajōmaru won the duel, more by luck than through skill, and killed the Samurai as he was attempting to scamper away in the bushes. At the sight of her husband's death, the woman screamed in horror and ran from Tajōmaru who tried to approach her. Tajōmaru, unable to follow her, took the Samurai's sword and left the scene limping.
At the temple, the woodcutter, priest, and commoner are interrupted from their discussion of the woodcutter's account by the sound of a crying baby. They find the baby abandoned, and the commoner takes the clothes protecting the baby as it lay in a basket. The woodcutter reproaches the commoner for stealing from the abandoned baby, but the commoner retorts that he knows the truth: that the woodcutter, too, is a thief, having stolen the dagger used in the murder of the samurai. The commoner, smiling and snickering at his own purportedly trenchant observations, claims that all men are selfish, and all men are looking out for themselves in the end.
These deceptions and lies shake the priest's faith in the goodness of humanity. He is brought back to his senses when the woodcutter reaches for the baby in the priest's arms. After initially snapping at the woodcutter ("Are you trying to take all that he has left?") he relents when the woodcutter explains that he has six other children at home, and that the addition of one more (the baby) would not make life any more difficult. This simple revelation recasts the woodcutter's story and the subsequent theft of the dagger in a new light. The priest gives the baby to the woodcutter, saying that the woodcutter has given him reason to continue having hope in humanity. The film closes on the woodcutter, walking home with the baby. The rain has stopped.
Spoilers end here.
The film was produced by Daiei. The head of the company didn't understand what the film was about, and the company was reluctant to support the film so they gave the director only a small budget. However, despite their doubts, the company gave the film a two-week premiere, twice as long as usual.
Most Japanese critics called the film a failure: it failed in "visualizing the style of the original stories," was "too complicated," "too monotonous," and contained "too much cursing." When it received positive responses in the West, Japanese critics were baffled; some decided that it was only admired there because it was "exotic", others that it succeeded because it was more "Western" than most Japanese films.
In a collection of interpretations of Rashomon, Donald Richie writes that "the confines of 'Japanese' thought could not contain the director, who thereby joined the world at large." He also quotes Kurosawa criticizing the way the "Japanese think too little of our own Japanese things."
According to documentaries on Kurosawa and Rashomon, Japanese audiences were shocked at two places in the film. The first occured when the medium speaks using the dead man's voice and words. The other shocking scene occurs when the woman begs her assailant to kill her husband and safeguard her own honor. That level of blatant self-preservation was not previously viewed in Japanese films.
The film won a Golden Lion Award at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, and is widely credited to have introduced both Kurosawa and Japanese cinema to Western audiences. The film pioneered several cinematographic techniques, such as shooting directly into the sun and using mirrors to reflect sunlight onto the actor's faces. The film is also notable as an instance in which the camera "acts" or plays an active and important role in the story or its symbolism.
The film's concept has influenced an extensive variety of subsequent works, such as the films Courage Under Fire, The Usual Suspects, One Night at McCool's and Hoodwinked, the television series Boomtown and episodes of television programs such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, A Different World, CSI, My Name Is Earl, Veronica Mars, Good Times, The X-Files, Happy Days, Carter Country, and Farscape. An episode of Dexter's Laboratory even mimicked the wooded glen for its background. The 1964 western movie The Outrage, which starred Paul Newman, Claire Bloom and Edward G. Robinson, was a remake of Rashomon. The movie Hero has also been compared to Rashomon.
In the film Inside the Edges, German filmmaker Werner Herzog said that Rashomon is the closest to "perfect" a film can get.
Kurosawa's admiration for silent film and modern art can be seen in the film's minimalist sets. Kurosawa felt that sound cinema multiplies the complexity of a film: "Cinematic sound is never merely accompaniment, never merely what the sound machine caught while you took the scene. Real sound does not merely add to the images, it multiplies it." Regarding Rashomon, Kurosawa said, "I like silent pictures and I always have ... I wanted to restore some of this beauty. I thought of it, I remember in this way: one of techniques of modern art is simplification, and that I must therefore simplify this film."
Accordingly, there are only three settings in the film: Rashomon gate, the woods and the courtyard. The gate and the courtyard are very simply constructed and the woods are simply a real wood. This is partly due to the low budget that Kurosawa got from Daiei. However, when Kurosawa was younger, he studied and painted western paintings. His knowledge of modern art helped him balance the complication of sound films by making images simpler.
When Kurosawa shot Rashomon, the actors and the staff lived together, a system Kurosawa found beneficial. He recalls "We were a very small group and it was as though I was directing Rashomon every minute of the day and night. At times like this, you can talk everything over and get very close indeed." One result of his closeness can be seen in Toshiro Mifune's performance: while the actors and Kurosawa were waiting for the set to be built, they watched a film on Africa directed by Martin and Osa Johnson. The film included shots of a lion roaming around, and Kurosawa suggested that Mifune play the bandit like a lion. As a result, Mifune gave the wild, insane and inhumane performance that can be seen in the film.
The cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, contributed an enormous amount of ideas and support. For example, in one sequence, there is a series of single close-ups of the bandit, then the wife, and then the husband, which then repeats to emphasize the triangular relationship between them. Some critics have called this a "silent film technique" because silent films use close-ups to express emotion from an actor’s facial expression.
Use of contrasting shots is another example of techniques in Rashomon. According to Donald Richie, the length of time of the shots of the wife and of the bandit are the same when the bandit is barbarically crazy and the wife is hysterically crazy.
Rashomon was the first film to shoot directly into the sun. In the shots of the actors, Kurosawa wanted to use natural light, but it was too weak; they solved the problem by using a mirror to reflect the natural light. The result is to make the strong sunlight look as though it has travelled through the branches, hitting the actors.
The rain in the film had to be tinted with black ink because camera lenses couldn’t capture rain made with pure water.
Stanley Kauffman writes in The Impact of Rashomon that Kurosawa often shot a scene with several cameras at the same time, so that he could "cut the film freely and splice together the pieces which have caught the action forcefully, as if flying from one piece to another." Despite this, he also used short shots edited together that trick the audience into seeing one shot; Richie says in his essay that "there are 407 separate shots in the body of the film ... This is more than twice the number in the usual film, and yet these shots never call attention to themselves."
In his essay "Rashomon", Tadao Sato suggests that the film (unusually) uses sunlight to symbolize evil and sin in the film, arguing that the wife gives in to the bandit's desires when she sees the sun. However, Keiko I. McDonald opposes Sato's idea in her essay "The Dialectic of Light and Darkness in Kurosawa’s Rashomon." McDonald says the film conventionally uses light to symbolize "good" or "reason" and darkness to symbolize "bad" or "impulse". She interprets the scene mentioned by Sato differently, pointing out that the wife gives herself to the bandit when the sun slowly fades out. McDonald also reveals that Kurosawa was waiting for a big cloud to appear over Rashomon gate to shoot the final scene in which the woodcutter takes the abandoned baby home; Kurosawa wanted to show that there might be another dark rain any time soon even though the sky is clear at this moment. Unfortunately, the final scene appears optimistic because it was too sunny and clear to produce the effects of an overcast sky.
Due to its emphasis on the subjectivity of truth and the uncertainty of factual accuracy, Rashomon has been read by some as an allegory of the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II. However, Akutagawa's "In a Grove" predates the film adaptation by 28 years, and any intentional postwar allegory would thus have been the result of Kurosawa's influence (based more in the framing of the tale than the events themselves).
James F. Davidson's article "Memory of Defeat in Japan: A Reappraisal of Rashomon" in the December 1954 issue of the Antioch Review, is an early analysis of the World War II defeat elements.
Another allegorical interpretation of the film is mentioned briefly in a 1995 article "Japan: An Ambivalent Nation, an Ambivalent Cinema" by David M. Desser. Here, the film is seen as an allegory of the atomic bomb and Japanese defeat. It also briefly mentions James Goodwin's view on the influence of post-war events on the film.
Symbolism runs rampant throughout the film and much has been written on the subject. Miyagawa stated in an interview that the forest setting was symbolic of the mystery shrouding the actual details of the dramatic events. Bucking tradition, Miyagawa directly filmed the sun through the leaves of the trees, as if to show the light of truth becoming obscured. Even the commoner plays a significant symbolic role, nearly as important as the principal characters, as the representative of that cold-hearted component of all men, the one dedicated to the advancement of rational self-interest above all competing considerations. The self-congratulatory smiles and derisive snickers punctuating his frequent, self-righteous statements provide further confirmation of this.
* Rashomon plays a central role in Martin Heidegger's dialogue between a Japanese person and an inquirer. Where the inquirer praises the film early on for being a way into the 'mysterious' Japanese world, the Japanese person condemns the film for being too European and dependent on a certain objectifying realism not present in traditional Japanese noh plays.
* The political scientist Graham Allison claimed to have used Rashomon as a starting point for his magnus opus, Essence of Decision, in which he told the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis from three different theoretical viewpoints (and, as a result, the Crisis is described and explained in three entirely different ways).
* In season 1 of the TV show Veronica Mars, the episode "An Echolls Family Christmas" showed the events of a poker game from which the money is stolen through the eyes of the various participants. Similarly, the episode "A Trip to the Dentist" showed the events of Shelly Pomroy's party, in which Veronica was drugged and raped, from the perspective of various people at that party.
* The last episode of season 3, of the Ken Finkleman TV series The Newsroom, entitled Learning to Fly, is done in an anime style and alludes to the film, including 3 men retelling events in the rain at a ruined gate.
* The 1964 movie The Outrage, starring Paul Newman, directed by Martin Ritt, transfers the Japanese setting of Rashomon to that of the Wild West.
* Four characters in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, A Matter of Perspective describe their interactions and a murder scene differently.
* The second season of Mama's Family included a 1983 episode titled "Rashomama," in which Mama is hospitalized after being knocked unconscious by a stew pot. In the episode, Naomi, Ellen, and Eunice each try to absolve themselves from responsibility for the accident by describing very different scenarios to Vint about who hit Mama with the pot.
* The 2006 animated movie Hoodwinked is a similar allusion, retelling the "Little Red Riding Hood" fable using the plot format of Rashomon.
* The episode of the sitcom All in the Family, "Everybody Tells the Truth," features the same premise. The characters Archie Bunker, Mike Stivic, and Edith Bunker give very different descriptions of how Mike and Archie interact with two men who come to the Bunker household to repair the refrigerator. The episode's writers employ the two men who repair the refrigerator, a black man, and an Italian man, to illustrate the respective political and social viewpoints of Archie and Mike. Whereas Mike and Archie cannot see beyond their own stereotypical views of these two men and their own behavior, Edith sees the two men more clearly as simply being two people trying to earn a living and who visit the household to repair the household appliance.
* In the episode "Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo" of the TV series The Simpsons, the following exchange takes place, in humorous reference to Rashomon's themes of ambiguity and conflicting accounts:
Marge: 'You liked Rashomon.'
Homer: 'That's not how I remember it.'
* The 2002-2003 police drama Boomtown used the premise of a criminal investigation each week, seen from various points of view including the investigators, the lawyers, paramedics, reporters, victims and criminals.
* A 2006 episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation was titled "Rashomama," in reference to the movie.
* In the 1999 Jim Jarmusch film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai the story is thrown into action when the daughter of an Italian Mafia Godfather drops a copy of the original book Rashomon to the floor, revealing herself to Ghost Dog, who had just performed a professional hit on her lover in the same room. Ghost Dog takes the book at the girl's insistence, reading it throughout the film. He returns the borrowed copy to the girl at the end of the film, seconds before he dies from bullet wounds. It is an interesting text to be included, because the girl's role as innocent bystander is called into question at the end of the film, as she may have actively influenced some of the events of the film (much like the samurai's wife in Kurosawa's film).
* Broadway Composer Michael John LaChuisa references and uses Roshomon as his theme in his 2005 show "See What I Wanna See" starring Idina Menzel
* An episode of the 2006 Nicktoon Kappa Mikey spoofs the entire concept, where five members of the main cast recount each of their own inaccurate events leading up to the theft of a tigerfish, and it is fitting, considering the show is a spoof on anime and general Japanese culture. The epsisode title, "Splashomon," even spoofs the title of the movie.
* In the 1990 Ed McBain novel Vespers, the detective investigating the priest's murder makes reference to Rashomon each time he interviews a different witness, since he knows that each witness will tell the story differently.
* In Season 2 of the TV show Smallville the episode "Suspect" followed the premise of Rashomon when Jonathan Kent is suspected of murder with different witnesses giving their own account of the events leading to the crime
* The 1996 film Courage Under Fire, starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan, uses a similar technique of retelling the same story, of a battlefield incident during the First Gulf War, from different vantage points.
* The hugely successsful PC game Knights of the Old Republic features a ubiquitously 'Rashomon' style sub quest, where the player must compare several accounts of a murder (one of which is fallacious, it originating from the murderer himself), the others of which clouded by nothing more than perspective. By cross-referencing the compatibilities of the differing accounts, the player must decide who the murderer is.
* An episode of King of the Hill entitled "A Firefighting We Will Go" features four main characters telling their own versions of how a fire station burned down.
* The Sci-Fi television show Fascape episode "The Ugly Truth" uses the same technique. The characters, John Chrichton, Aeryn Sun, Ka D'Argo and Stark recount the events which caused Talyn to fire on a ship.