Rashomon (1950): Humanity on Trial

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“Rashomon” was the first film I ever saw by Akira Kurosawa. It was for my Japanese History, Media and Culture class and a lot of scenes from the film still stand with me to this day, so going back and re-watching it was a lot of fun.

“Rashomon” was directed by Akira Kurosawa and he also co-wrote the screenplay with Shinobu Hashimoto. The story itself comes from two short stories written by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, with his story “In the Grove” being the inspiration for the characters and “Rashomon” for title and characters. The film was produced by Minoru Jingo.

The story involves a woodcutter (Takashi Shamura) and priest (Minoru Chiaki) recounting a trial they attended to a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) of a murder and rape that happened in the forest and three different versions that were shared underneath Rashomon, the city’s gate. The Woodcutter and Priest are trying to make sense of it all as the commoner provides his perspective of events in the outside world and the trial itself. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: Cinematography – Kurosawa knows how to shoot a scene, and the same goes for this film. From the water pouring at the gate and them all escaping from it (in a way hiding from the hardships they experienced and in the world), the darkness of the forest hiding the intentions of characters and how the trial was shot, where the people are speaking directly to the camera, making us the judge. Kazuo Miyagawa did a great job on cinematography too as it was what he was in charge of.

The Music – The music is great at building tension and capturing the intimacy of the film. Fumio Hayasaka did a great job incorporating traditional Japanese instruments into the picture and using orchestra as well when it served the scene. I plan on using this soundtrack in my own writing for sure.

A Matter of Perspective – How they share each person’s story just creates more questions as in each one the character sharing it is the victim and it is someone else’s fault. Whether it is the bandit (Toshiro Mifune) blaming the wife, the wife (Machiko Kyō) blaming the bandit or the samurai (Noriko Honma) blaming them both, which is also what the woodcutter does to a degree as he tries to make everyone sympathetic in his story. Because of this the stories all clash making it impossible to know what really happened.

The Characters – Even though they aren’t always consistent, they are human and show it really well.

The Bandit – Is a thief, murder and rapist…yet gets humanized in how he genuinely falls in love with the wife and in certain versions regrets his actions. This is contrasted by the man at the trial who doesn’t care so puts on a show for the audience since he knows he’s going to die anyway so has nothing to lose. He’s a despicable and interesting character.  Toshiro does a good job playing him as a character who has an element of madness to him as he is always laughing.

The Wife – The wife knows she is powerless and disposable. In most of the stories after she is raped her husband immediately says he doesn’t want her anymore. You can see how powerless she is which in a few versions is contrasted where she is able ot use what power she has to turn them against each other (in the Bandit’s, Samurai’s and Woodcutter’s version) or to stand up for herself and fight (Bandit’s version). She is the one who loses in all the situations as she expressed in the woodcutter’s story and how powerless women are in her society. For this reason when she does fight back in different versions, it means a lot…since in all she was victimized (by bandit and husband) and raped by the bandit. Mochiko was awesome in this role.

The Samurai – This guy is cold in all the versions and all about honor. He is cold and blames the wife for what was done to her. In his version as told by the Medium (which again we have no idea if the Medium is even dependable or has her own agenda) in his he has grudging respect for the bandit and hatred for his wife, he also takes his own life at the end.

The Commoner – The commoner represents the selfishness of those at the trial and the selfishness of humanity. He only listens because he’s bored and stuck with them because of the rain, and he is the one who points out the problems going on and how horrible man is to man. He completes it with the final act in the end when he steals a komono from a baby and points out the woodcutter’s hypocrisy, he is a nihilist and truth teller, though he does some of the picture. For the purpose of the story he is the prosecutor of humanity while the priest and woodcutter are the defendants. He was one of my favorite characters in this and Kichijiro really does a fantastic job.

The Priest – The priest is the idealist who is putting his head in the sand to a degree, as he doesn’t want to hear the woodcutter’s story after the three perspectives have been given. He is also easily manipulated as the commoner is able to briefly turn him against the woodcutter when he points out the woodcutter stole the wife’s dagger to sell. He is the heart and what is good about humanity in the end though as he tells the woodcutter after the woodcutter adopts the baby that his faith in humanity is restored.

The Woodcutter – The Woodcutter is the main protagonist, as it begins with him discovering the crime in the beginning and he is the one recounting it to the commoner. He tries to kill the commoner at one point when the commoner steals the abandoned baby’s clothes, but stops when his own crimes are revealed. He owns up to them though and chooses to take care of the baby, revealing that even with all the darkness in humanity, there is some light still.

The Message – Humanity on Trial and Defining Humanity

The message of this film is much bigger than the mystery of who was guilty of what, it tells the story of the bigger picture of us and the problems of people. From the wife and her husband the samurai betraying one another in different ways (her telling the bandit to kill her husband, her husband abandoning her after her victimization, the woodcutter stealing the dagger and the bandit for the rape and killings he’d done), with all this darkness and the country where bodies were left to rot (mentioned by the commoner) and the abandoned baby…there is a lot more desolation and reasons not to hope. Everyone is against everyone. Until the woodcutter and priest change that. The priest forgives and trusts the woodcutter, and the woodcutter adopts the abandoned baby to care for with the six children he already has. This shows that in all the bad, there is good.

The complexity of humanity in all its pros and cons is captured masterfully by Kurosawa in this film. This may be my favorite of his films, I’ll have to watch others before making a final assessment of that though. For now, it is one of my favorite films overall and one I’d highly recommend. If you are looking for a film that is beautifully filmed, has a soundtrack that captures the tension and mystery and has a greater larger point, this is your film.

Final Score: 10 / 10

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2 thoughts on “Rashomon (1950): Humanity on Trial

  1. R. G. Tamaki

    Great post! Of course “Seven Samurai” is a classic so is “Yojimbo” (which has a decent remake–aside from “For A Few Dollars More–called, “Last Man Standing” with Bruce Willis). But if you haven’t seen “Ran,” get ready for a dark Shakespearean tragedy with blood-thirsty samurai.

    Reply

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