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When Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon unexpectedly won the top prize at the 1950 Venice Film Festival, it was a watershed moment for world cinema. This is the work that legitimized Japanese films as viable commercial entities in foreign markets, and established, once and for all, that the country's austere approach to storytelling could be understood by viewers in the West. It also, not incidentally, introduced cineastes to the collaborative team of Kurosawa and his great leading man, Toshiro Mifune.
Kurosawa's dreamy narrative is constructed in a manner that was a revelation in the 1950s. The film, which is set in 17th century Japan, opens under the decaying remains of the Rashomon Gate, where three men have gathered during a rainstorm (note that, in some shots, Kurosawa tints the rain with black ink). A woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) listen as a priest (Minoru Chiaki) describes a trial he once witnessed in which a samurai named Takehiro (Masayuki Mori) was found stabbed to death after his wife, Masako (Machiko Kyo), was raped by a lecherous bandit (Toshiro Mifune). At this point, Kurosawa shifts the focus to the trial itself. We see a series of extended flashbacks during which the wife, the thief, and, through the mouthpiece of a mysterious Medium (Fumiko Honma), the spirit of the dead samurai, recount their wildly differing versions of the crimes. Kurosawa then returns to the men under the gate for an unexpectedly hopeful denouement.
Although Kurosawa was already a seasoned filmmaker at the time of Rashomon's release, most critics consider the film to be the director's first genuine work of art. The screenplay is based on two short stories by the popular Japanese author, Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Much like the more obscure films of Ingmar Bergman, Rashomon is utterly open to personal interpretation. Kurosawa's refusal to wrap the story up in conventional terms leaves the audience in the position of having to draw their own conclusions, and, given the comments Kurosawa made about the picture over the years, it would seem that many viewers approached it from the wrong angle.
In his illuminating memoir, Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa recounts how he explained the script to several assistants who complained that they didn't understand it: "Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. The script portrays such human beings the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel better than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood going beyond the grave - even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem. This film is a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego."
It should be mentioned that the president of Daiei, Rashomon's production company, also felt the screenplay was "incomprehensible," and had to be convinced by Kurosawa to let him shoot it. Kurosawa ruefully noted that this same man would appear on television years later to more or less take credit for the picture, thus falling prey to the very self-delusion that the "incomprehensible" script aimed to illuminate!
As influential as its flashback structure has become, it could be argued that the most important aspect of Rashomon is that it marked one of the high points in a great creative partnership between Kurosawa and Mifune (they had already worked together four times). Kurosawa first encountered Mifune when Toho Studios, the largest film production company in Japan, was conducting a massive talent search, during which hundreds of aspiring actors auditioned before a team of judges. Kurosawa was originally going to skip the event, but showed up when an actress he knew told him of one actor who seemed especially promising. Kurosawa later wrote that he entered the audition to see "a young man reeling around the room in a violent frenzy...it was as frightening as watching a wounded beast trying to break loose. I was transfixed." When an exhausted Mifune finished his scene, he sat down and gave the judges an ominous stare. He promptly lost the competition.
Kurosawa, however, had found his muse. "I am a person rarely impressed by actors," he later said. "But in the case of Mifune I was completely overwhelmed." To better understand the relationship between Kurosawa and Mifune, American movie fans might consider the creative bond between Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. Both associations seem driven by something almost primal, a purity of emotion that often enters the darker regions of human consciousness. It's an exhilarating, sometimes uncomfortable thing to witness.
Rick Lyman summed up Mifune's enormous appeal in the actor's December 25, 1997 New York Times obituary: "His persona had deep roots in Japanese drama. It was a cinematic expression of a long-standing dramatic figure known as the tateyaku, a heroic leading man emerging from medieval samurai tales and epic military romances." However, as Lyman also points out, Mifune infused this traditional character with a decidedly modern "ironic self-knowledge and intense sexuality." He was a performer who seemed forever on the verge of exploding. Audiences couldn't get enough of it, and neither could Kurosawa.
Rather incredibly, Rashomon was never a hit with Japanese audiences. Even Japanese critics disliked it. Many of them stated that Kurosawa took far too many liberties with his source material. But Kurosawa himself believed that his countrymen mistrusted a Japanese film that was a hit with Western audiences, that it was somehow less than pure if it could be enjoyed by another culture. They would have to get over that, though. Kurosawa would go on to create some of the most heartfelt, widely-heralded films of the 20th century, including Ikiru (1952), The Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961), Kagemusha (1980), and Ran (1985). But Rashomon was an especially brilliant opening salvo.
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Producer: Minoru Jingo
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto (based on two stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa)
Cinematography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Art Direction: So Matsuyama
Music: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Toshiro Mifune (Tajomaru), Masayuki Mori (Takehiro), Machiko Kyo (Masako), Takashi Shimura (Woodcutter), Minoru Chiaki (Priest), Kichijiro Ueda (Commoner), Daisuke Kato (Police Agent), Fumiko Honma (Medium).
by Paul Tatara