That the List should kind of induct us into the 1950s (setting aside The Asphalt Jungle) with a movie by Akira Kurosawa (whose name, at least in the US, is associated with ambitious, dense, cerebral work — same as with Goddard or Fellini or Antonioni) gives off this vibe like if you’re driving toward an interstate marker confirming entry to a foreign place where the sights are as reputedly beautiful as the terrain is difficult. A mountain that lotsa people turn back from.
But, as has turned out to be the case with most landmark movies on the List (Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, The Third Man etc.), Rashomon isn’t so difficult to follow as its reputation would suggest — probably mainly because the narrative device that made it famous, where different characters give different testimonies about how a murder went down (testimonies that’re all supplemented by persuasive flashbacks), is by now a pretty familiar one (Ebert mentions some modern-day analogs, none of which I’ve seen, but I do know I’m…familiar with it somehow). But you do still have to come at it with an open mind. Resign yourself to ambiguity. Adopt the attitude that you’re hearing a story for the sake of hearing a story. Rashomon doesn’t give us the arc of foreplay-intercourse-climax that we get from a typical movie, where there’s a demand for “payoff” that comes in the form of resolution: the grays all rendered black or white, and the powers of goodness made to prevail.
The story here, real quick, is about a guy who (I’d forgotten this part) is a “woodcutter,” according to Wikipedia, and while wandering in the forest he comes upon a body that turns out to be a samurai, murdered, and when he runs to notify the authorities we’re privy (via flashback) to the trial.
A bandit named Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune — one of Kurosawa’s greatest assets), the wife of that samurai, Masako (Machiko Kyo), a psychic and the woodcutter himself give different accounts of how the murder went down.
Each one’s different, and we’re never told which (if any) is accurate — although (and I hadn’t picked up on this) I read a pretty astute dissection that shows us the woodcutter’s story is a lie.
Matter of fact: the account of their testimonies is itself an oral rendition. Buncha dudes talking about the trial. We’re actually flashing back to the trial that sparks all these other flashbacks. It’s a story about people telling a story about people telling a story.
(Personal story: One of my all-time favorite novels is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and I was over the moon to meet him at the Miami International Book Fair a few years ago (this was 2010). Prior to getting a couple minutes with him at the signing table there was a Q&A where I mentioned, when I got to the mic, how there’s this passage in David Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a ~200 page transcript of Lipsky’s conversations with David Foster Wallace on the Infinite Jest book tour, where, in discussing the work of John Updike, Wallace reveals some sour feelings about not just the novels of Updike, but the man himself. Follows it up by saying something like, “But if you think I hate Updike, go mention his name around Franzen.” So I brought that up at the Q&A and asked Franzen what misgivings he had about Updike, whether the guy or the work or both, and Franzen chuckled and said, “This is very removed. It’s your account of Lipsky’s account of Dave’s account of my alleged disdain for Updike. It’s well within the realm of possibility that I like Updike very much.” He let it sit like that for a minute before answering the question sincerely. My 20-year-old stomach twisted.) (And, if you’re interested, he said the reason he disliked Updike is because he thought the guy compromised his almost-unrivaled talent as a prose stylist because of an egotistical compulsion to publish every single thought that crossed his mind, thereby diluting the well and — putting it gently — making a kind of pest of himself on the US lit scene.)
I’m surprised I didn’t have to watch Rashomon in college, where a bunch of professors in our English department were these staunch post-structuralists who sermonized (with lip-licking, pseudo-subversive, over-intellectualizing relish) about the death of the author, the ambiguity of all things, “the story means whatever it means to you” and things like that. Reader as author, reading as a creative act, etc.
As I mentioned, Kurosawa’s body of work is the sorta thing you wanna step-up to. Like there’s that line in Ulysses about how Shakespeare’s work is “the happy hunting ground of all minds that have lost their balance.” A jungle gym for minds of recursive hyperactivity. The work is so masterful that it kinda holds a mirror up to you and, in that mirror, you can see your own preoccupations manifesting. Not sure if that means there is a lot to be taken outta the movie or if it prompts a viewer to find more things than the filmmaker put there. Maybe there’s no difference between those two things.
So I’m looking at it closely and, in trying to find something about the visual style to riff on, something to wax academic about, I guess there’s something to be said about dichotomies (?). A visual analog to the idea of truth v. deception, guilt v. innocence (?). The blacks and whites of the flashbacks feel starker, grainier than in normal scenes. When hearing the testimony of witnesses, we have the camera facing them directly, placing them at the center of the frame: one clear symmetrical side of the discourse between authorities and witness (and between witness & witness).
The flashbacks all take place in the forest where the murder took place, and we see the shadows of overhanging foliage waver over our character’s faces, suggesting…ambiguity? Obfuscation?
Back in college I’d have gotten an erection at the chance to write five or six pages of dissection about something like this — why the lighting? What do the trees mean? The movie begins with a downpour of rain and ends with the clearing of that rain, suggesting a resolution we haven’t actually gotten.
What does it MEAN?
That kinda discourse was always fun and I think it might have made me a better storyteller and writer and thinker, but a big part of it was ego. Write that stuff all down with big words and a few heady jokes, turn it in, get recognized as a maverick star pupil. That was the fantasy. The goal.
It was more about me than the subject of the essay.
And I feel like that’d be the case here if I started waxing philosophical about what Kurosawa was tryna communicate here. I’m still not that astute, I don’t think, at decoding the implications of camera angles, what a zoom might mean in a critical moment — heady stuff like that. But when a movie’s made with such an engrossing story, one that keeps pulling you back to the beginning, toward a retelling of something you’ve already seen, and it manages to keep that story interesting and multifaceted (given that we’re not only having to keep track of this new version that’s unfolding, but also what it implies about the larger question of what went down, and the ways in which it clashes with other versions), this suggests to me that the filmmaker was much more concerned with the pace and rhythm and shape of his story than he was in the themes it appears to explore.
Kurosawa said the following about all these different narratives in Rashomon and what they mean:
Akira Kurosawa, director
Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings—the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are.
And that sounds more like his own observation of his story rather than a fuel that sparked it.
This essay from Alexander Sesonske does a good job, I think, of exploring how Rashomon, rather than being a statement, is — if anything more than a meditation — kinda just a really good story that happens to capture, whether inadvertently or not, certain elements of its nation and historical moment. He cites the repeated barbarism to which Japan has been subjected throughout history, that this twisting-turning kinda narrative maybe a byproduct of people looking back and trying to determine a cause and effect (I explored some of this in talking about Spring in a Small Town and the Second Sino-Japanese War).
It’s a great movie that’s also a good time and there’s plenty to dissect if you wanna get cerebral about it but it’s also totally approachable. I don’t know if I’d recommend it to somebody looking to get through a rainy afternoon, but it’s definitely required viewing if you’re tryna get a sense of cinema.