Endless discussion has occurred in academic circles about the psychological ‘Rashomon’ Effect’ stemming from the film Rashomon. In the film, we are given four different accounts of the same scenario, a robbery and rape. Rashomon is a psychological experiment about cinematic representations and it becomes a meta-cinematic commentary that references its own position as a film, in which the audience members will all come to their individual conclusions and nobody will be wrong, similar to the way the characters in the film all tell the same story differently, but none of them are necessarily lying (Martinez 28). The unreliable narrator motif is taken here to heights it had previously not reached. As Roger Ebert said in his retrospective review of the film, it was the “first use of flashbacks that disagreed about the action they were flashing back to.” It’s as if director Akira Kurosawa is telling the audience that life, like the movies, is completely subjective and any representation should be taken with a grain of salt. Through the films form, Kurosawa tacitly condones rape culture, critiques the American Occupation of Japan in the aftermath of World War II, and bends the classical narrative structure to tell a timeless story that has become one of the most influential films of all time.
Deeply entrenched in human culture across the globe is a highly misogynistic, patriarchal society in which women are often regarded as second class citizens. Set in 11th Century Japan, and released in 1950, it’s remarkable how little progress there really has been in the past sixty years. The values espoused in the narrative of Rashomon are more likely to be derived of the time of the shooting, rather than the historical period the film is set in, but either way the problems faced by the wife in Rashomon are still relevant today. The events put in motion in the woods are driven by the animalistic sexuality of the bandit who also serves as a metaphor for the American Occupation after the Second World War; I’ll get to that later. He exhibits such a lack of control over his own actions; the wind blowing the veil off the face of the wife sparks an uncontrollable lust which he blames for his actions. His animalistic instincts also come through in the editing of his narration. The bandits recounting of the events features the shortest shot lengths (Redfern 27). The veil here serves the same purpose as skimpy clothing in modern society where rape victims are time and again blamed for “inviting the rape” with their choice of dress, thus creating a culture where women are forced to internalize their own oppression (Armstrong 108).
Kurosawa is also unwilling to show the violence associated with the rape, and in turn invites criticism upon the wife. Kurosawa himself has stated the film was about a rape but what are actually portrayed on screen are three men talking about a rape (Martinez 34). It is inherently biased as only one woman appears in the film and she is portrayed as wildly emotional, at times sobbing uncontrollably. Her emotional state is also present in the framing of the shots during her narration (Redfern 32). Her story utilizes many more close-ups and has an overall heightened emotional weight to the scene. The impact of the rape and the resulting physical, psychological, and emotional consequences is not something concerns himself with in Rashomon (Leung 2). Instead, the rape is seen as a dishonor to the husband and she is even blamed in the husband’s account of abandoning him and defiling herself. Once she has been raped by the bandit, she is no longer desirable in his eyes; she is the constant focus of male judgment and exists in the film to satisfy the demands of the existing paradigm in sexual relations, where male pleasure is the focus of intercourse and doubt, shame, and even blame are cast toward the victim by society, namely through the media where even politicians in America have supported rape culture and the shifting of the burden of guilt from the perpetrator to the victim.
Another problematic issue in Rashomon is the fact that the wife is the only woman in the film. She becomes a representative of an entire sex, whereas the men are able to be seen as individuals that make their own choices. The rape is also able to be seen as an acceptable topic of conversation for three men waiting out the rain; female sexuality is seen through a male perspective. Kurosawa deliberately chooses not to show the violence of the rape on screen. It is only implied, but even the implied violence is thrown into question by the male accounts of the events. The gaze of the camera is politely averted away from the violence and instead uses metaphors to convey meaning, through a phallic dagger and the sun that washes over the wife. The rape brings shame upon her and is a “crime against the husband’s honor” that makes him hate her, while the rape is somehow an expression of the bandit’s love for her. The rape is also seen as a catalyst for the man’s death and brings out the “liar and inner whore” in the woman (Martinez 34).
It’s in this instance where Kurosawa failed to make a hard-hitting political statement in his film that is admittedly about a rape, but the way he shoots it lends itself to interpretation and has caused many to question whether she was raped at all (Martinez 34). She is also blamed by the bandit for the killing of the husband. The bandit says he had no intention of killing him, but had to for her. If she had never crossed his path, he argues, none of the crimes would have been committed. This moment continues and almost justifies the victim blaming that happens in human society. The woodcutter also blames the woman for the events in his account, saying that if she wouldn’t have spoken, the two men wouldn’t have fought. The question of who is telling the truth about the rape is rarely tackled in analyses of Rashomon. The bandit claims that instincts took over, and he would have done anything to have her once he saw what was beneath the veil, shifting the focus to the woman. The husband sees the rape as the wife betraying him and their marriage, leading him to kill himself. The wife sees herself as twice violate; first by the bandit’s rape, and later by her husband for his anger at the events, leading her to stab him. The woodcutter, a supposedly neutral party, sees the act as a cowardly swordfight “egged on by the vindictive woman” (Martinez 34).
The only certainty in the film is that each of the characters act in their own best interest, and this is reflected in their account of the events.
The woodcutter, who seems initially to be the most reliable witness in the story because he only stumbled upon this mess, is thrown into question when we learn he may have lied about his knowledge of the events and he probably stole the dagger from the corpse of the dead husband. This knowledge throws the interpretation of the entire film into limbo because none of the accounts can be trusted to be objective. While the main narrative is the same throughout, the details and motivations differ in each account and it “becomes apparent that in this final version the use of film stlye in the narration of events serves a different function than in the rest of the other three versions” (Redfern 33).
Kurosawa has been accepted globally since the release of Rashomon as one of the most “Western” Japanese filmmakers (Hutchinson 173). Ironically, the film that brought about his worldwide acclaim, including in America, can be read as a critique of the American Occupation in Japan. The figure of the bandit serves as a representation of the American military, which essentially had free reign and were accused of many crimes against Japanese citizens. The rain may also serve as a distinct metaphor for the occupation. First, it is a useful device to set apart “the present from the past” (Ebert). Before the Americans arrived, Japan was a world power in both economic and militaristic terms. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are represented by this rain. The bandit in the film roams with relative immunity and ravages innocent people roaming through the countryside. The bombs functioned in a similar manner, literally ravaging entire cities and killing thousands of innocent people. Kurosawa also seems to attack the samurai ethic of “truth, courage, and steadfastness” in the film (Hutchinson 176).
The fight sceens between the samurai husband and the bandit are shown in two distinct ways. The first, when the husband is narrating, is a noble depiction of a well-choreographed, courageous battle. The second depiction shatters any illusions of grandeur gleaned from the first. It is almost slapstick in nature and a scrappier, cowardly fight. Neither the bandit nor the samurai seem to know what they’re doing, as if they’re being forced by the woman to complete this dance where the victor will “win” the rights to be with her.
The bandit character becomes a “sort of incarnation of the oni, or ogre, of Japanese folklore” which is often read as a depiction of a foreigner, in this case the United States military industrial complex (Hutchinson 179). Through this lens, the woman stands in for the conquest of Japan and by extension highlights the failure of traditional samurai values to save the nation from an outside occupying force. This reading of the film was likely to only be understood by Japanese audiences at the time of the film’s release, as they were his intended audience – he could have had no idea that it would be such a success internationally. This idea is supported by the acknowledgement from Kurosawa in his autobiography that he felt “guilty for keeping his head down during the war and not protesting” (Martinez 28). Everyone in the film confesses to the crime of murder, marking this interpretation as “a very dark joke indeed about the human propensity to lie.” This self-deception is something he argues is deeply a part of the human condition as he is quoted as saying “human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing” (Ebert).
Though Kurosawa subverts the expectations of the audience with the unreliable flashback sequences, he still relies on the classical three act structure. The number three is present elsewhere in the structural framework of the film, establishing a “formal unity and coherence to the film” (Redfern 24). There are three main location, three principal characters at each location, three days between the trial and the gate scene, and three characters in the gate’s sign. In the woods, where the original action takes place, the film form for each character establishes their own place within the narrative.
The woodcutter’s narrative makes the most use of conventionally neutral shots as he doesn’t have as much of an emotional connection to the events that take place in the woods (Redfern 31). The husband, especially when he is powerless in the scene, is shown with fewer point of view shots while axial shots occur more often, creating a distance from the audience. The wife, on the other hand, is shown the most in close-up as her testimony is the most emotionally distressing. The bandit’s narrative sequence was cut together the fastest, driving home the point about his animal sexuality and the relentless nature of the United States military. The bandit and the wife’s recounting make the most use of point-of-view shots which establish them as active narrators who not only tell their story but through the films form align “the viewer physically and psychologically with their perspective.” (Redfern 32) The husband on the other hand, is a passive narrator who has little control over the situation. He is forced to watch the events but unable to affect them. This is represented by using axial cuts in place of POV and RA shots” allowing Kurosawa to show the audience “events happening before the husband and then his response to them without admitting the viewer direct access to his perspective.” (Redfern 32)
Though there are flaws in the representations of women in Rashomon¸ the film has been able to stand the test of time and be regarded as a classic because of the innovative techniques employed by Kurosawa that raise questions about objective truth in the human experience. The underlying message to be learned is that we cannot trust humans, or even the camera to reflect the truth.
Armstrong, Elizabeth A. "'Good girls': gender, social class, and slut discourse on campus." Social Psychology Quarterly: n. pag. Print.
Ebert, Roger. "Great Movie: Rashomon." RogerEbert.com. N.p., 26 May 2002. Web. 3 Dec. 2014. .
Hutchinson, Rachel. "Orientalism or occidentalism? dynamics of appropriation in Akira Kurosawa." Remapping World Cinema: 173-87. Print.
Leung, William. "Misogyny as radical commentary — Rashomon retold in Takashi Miike’s Masters of Horror: Imprint." Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 51 (2009): 1-2. Print.
Martinez, Dolores. "Where the human heart goes astray: Rashomon, Boomtown and subjective experience." Film Studies 11 (2007): 27-35. Print.
Redfern, Nick. "Film style and narration in Rashomon." Journal of Japanese & Korean Cinema 5: 21-36. Print.
When Akira Kurosawa made Rashomon (1950), he was a forty-year-old director working near the beginning of a career that would last fifty years, produce some of the greatest films ever made, and exert a tremendous and lasting influence on filmmaking throughout the world. Rashomon emerged from the journeyman period in his career after he temporarily left Toho, the studio where he’d begun and where he would ultimately make most of his films. During these years, 1949 to 1951, he made movies for Shochiku, Shintoho, and Daiei. Daiei was somewhat reluctant to fund Rashomon, finding the project to be too unconventional and fearing that it would be difficult for audiences to understand. Those fears proved to be groundless—the picture was one of Daiei’s best moneymakers in 1950.
But the film is unconventional, even radical in design, and these attributes only helped to skyrocket it to international fame at a time when art cinema was emerging as a powerful force on the film circuit. With great reluctance, Daiei permitted the film to be submitted for overseas festival competition. Winning first prize at the prestigious Venice Film Festival in 1951, Rashomon announced Kurosawa’s talents, and the treasures of Japanese cinema, to the world at large. The rest, as they say, is history.
Like most of Kurosawa’s films, Rashomon, based on two stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, is set during a time of social crisis—in this case, the eleventh century in Japan, a period that Kurosawa uses to reveal the extremities of human behavior. As the picture opens, three characters seek shelter from a driving rainstorm (it never sprinklesin a Kurosawa film!) beneath the ruined Rashomon gate that guards the southern entrance to the imperial capital city of Kyoto. As they wait for the storm to pass, the priest (Minoru Chiaki), the woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), and the commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) discuss a recent and scandalous crime—a noblewoman (Machiko Kyo) was raped in the forest, her samurai husband (Masayuki Mori) killed by either murder or suicide, and a thief named Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) arrested.
When Rashomon played in Venice and then went into international distribution, it stunned audiences. No one had ever seen a film quite like this one. For one thing, its daring, nonlinear approach to narrative shows the details of the crime as they are related, through the flashbacks of those involved. Kurosawa gives us four versions of the same series of events, through the eyes of the woodcutter, the thief, the woman, and the spirit of the husband, each retelling markedly different from the others. Kurosawa’s visionary approach would have enormous cinematic and cultural influence. He bequeathed to world cinema and television a striking narrative device—countless movies and television shows have remade Rashomon by incorporating the contradictory flashbacks of unreliable narrators.
But Rashomon is that rare film that has transcended its own status as film, influencing not just the moving image but the culture at large. Its very name has entered the common parlance to symbolize general notions about the relativity of truth and the unreliability, the inevitable subjectivity, of memory. In the legal realm, for example, lawyers and judges commonly speak of “the Rashomon effect” when firsthand witnesses confront them with contradictory testimony.
Furthermore, the film’s nonlinear narrative marked it as a decisively modernist work, and as a part of the burgeoning world art cinema that was transforming the medium in the 1950s. With Rashomon and his subsequent movies, Kurosawa came to rank among the leading international figures of that cinema, in the company of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Satyajit Ray. Like their work, Rashomon was more than just commercial entertainment. It was a film of ideas, made by a serious artist, and with a sophisticated aesthetic design.
For it wasn’t only the film’s modernist narrative that impressed audiences and made it a classic. It was also the tremendous visual skill and power that Kurosawa brought to the screen. Like all his best works, Rashomon is a remarkably sensual film. Nobody has ever filmed forests like Kurosawa. Shooting directly into the sun to make the camera lens flare, probing the filaments of shadows in trees and glades, rendering dense thickets as poetic metaphors for the laws of desire and karma that entrap human beings, and, above all, executing hypnotic camera movements across the uneven forest floor, Kurosawa created in Rashomon the most flamboyant and insistently visual film that anyone had seen in decades. All of the critics who reviewed this picture when it first appeared felt compelled to remark upon the beauty of the director’s imagery.
In Rashomon, Kurosawa was consciously attempting to recover and re-create the aesthetic glory of silent filmmaking. Thus, the cinematography (by the brilliant Kazuo Miyagawa) and editing are incredibly vital, and many passages are composed as silent sequences of pure film, in which the imagery, ambient sound, and Fumio Hayasaka’s score carry the action. One of the best such sequences is the long series of moving camera shots that follow the woodcutter into the forest, before he finds the evidence of the crime. These shots, in Kurosawa’s words, lead the viewer “into a world where the human heart loses its way.” Only Kurosawa at his boldest would create such a kinesthetic sequence, in which movement itself—of the camera, the character, and the forest’s foliage—becomes the very point and subject of the scene. Mesmeric, exciting, fluid, and graceful, these are among the greatest moving camera shots in the history of cinema.
Style for Kurosawa is not an empty flourish. The bravura designs of his films are always carefully motivated—this is why he is a great filmmaker. As in all of his outstanding films, in Rashomon Kurosawa is responding to his world as an artist and moralist. The Second World War had devastated Japan. In its aftermath, he embarked— with moral urgency and great artistic ambition—on a series of films (No Regrets for Our Youth, 1946; Drunken Angel, 1948; Stray Dog, 1949) that illuminated the despair and confusion of the period and offered narratives of personal heroism as models for social recovery, seeking, in his art, to produce a legacy of hope for a ruined nation.
The heroism and desire for restoration that these stories embodied, however, had to struggle with a dark opposite. What if the world could not be changed because people themselves are weak and easily corrupted? Kurosawa’s films have a tragic dimension that is rooted in his at times pessimistic reflections on human nature, and Rashomon was the first work in which he allowed that pessimism its full expression. Haunted by the human propensity to lie and deceive, Kurosawa fashioned a tale in which the ego, duplicity, and vanity of the characters make a hell out of the world and make truth a difficult thing to find. Whose account of the crime is reliable? Whose is correct? One cannot tell—all are distorted in ways that flatter their narrators.
This is truly a hellish vision—the world dissolves into nothingness as the illusions of the ego strut like shadows on a shifting landscape. Such a dark portrait was too much even for Kurosawa (at this point in his career, at least, but not in 1985, when he made Ran). Thus, at the last moment, he pulls back from the darkness he has revealed. The woodcutter decides to adopt an abandoned baby, and as he walks off with the child, the rainstorm lifts (Takashi Shimura always supplies the moral center in Kurosawa’s films of the forties and early fifties).
Compassionate action transforms the world—this was Kurosawa’s heroic ideal. Is it enough, however? Each viewer of Rashomon must 9 decide whether this abrupt turnabout at the film’s end is a convincing solution to the moral and epistemological dilemmas that Kurosawa has so powerfully portrayed.
But whatever one decides about the film’s conclusion, Rashomon is the real thing—a genuine classic. Its greatness is palpable and undeniable. Kurosawa’s nonlinear narrative and sensual, kinesthetic style helped to change the face of world cinema. And astonishingly, Kurosawa was still a young filmmaker—so many treasures were yet to come.
Stephen Prince is a professor of cinema at Virginia Tech and an honorary professor of film and media at the University of Copenhagen. He is the author of numerous books on cinema, including The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2002 DVD edition of Rashomon.