Year of Release: 1950 Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Starring Toshirô Mifune, Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, and Kichijirô Ueda.
Two men, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest, (Minoru Chiaki) take shelter from the torrential rain in a large, ancient temple. As they sit there in shock over recent proceedings, a third man (Kichijirô Ueda ) dashes across the courtyard to join them. They share with this third man the details of the recent murder and trial which has caused their disbelief. Three days ago the woodcutter discovered a gruesome corpse in the forest with a woman’s hat and cut rope laying nearby. The priest had encountered the murdered man shortly before his death. Both of them testified during the trial and were stunned by the contradictions in the testimonies of the plaintiffs. While the recollection of the initial crime concurs in each story, the telling of the following crime is completely different in each version.
The woodcutter, who saw the scene of the crime, is shocked and devastated by the dishonesty and inability for those involved to tell the truth. The barbarity of the crime and the dishonesty of the criminal and of the victims has shaken the priest’s faith in the goodness of mankind. The third man listens to the accounts with amazement, which increases as he hears each recollection of the crime. By the time the woodcutter tells his version, which is supposedly authentic, the viewer, along with the third man, is not sure whom to believe.
Each version of the story is shown in a flashback. All four stories agree that a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyô) were traveling through the forest, when a notorious bandit (Toshirô Mifune) trapped them, tied up the samurai, and raped the wife. However, the events following the rape are notably different in each telling of the story.
The most interesting aspect of the flashbacks is to whom each storyteller assigns the primary blame – not the blame for the first crime, but the responsibility for the second crime. The storyteller simultaneously tries to absolve himself or herself from guilt for the first crime while taking responsibility for the most heinous happening. The narrators all reflect a sense of honor and duty in themselves but not in the other participants. All the narrators seem to be aware of their failures, and their stories reflect that, since they all claim responsibility for the second crime as a result of their failures. At the same time, their actions were supposedly driven by an attempt to rectify their spurned honor. This sense of honor and duty is universal to all the characters in the film, and it foreshadows the final action in the film.
In many ways, retelling the same story from different vantage points is a foreshadowing of many future films, especially Zhang Yimou’s 2002 film, Hero. In Hero, for each version of the events the sets were saturated with a different color. Although shot in black and white, the lighting in Rashomon changes for the flashbacks as more light is shed on the proceedings. The underscoring also changes drastically for each story. The bandit’s story is underscored by a sinister, descending march. The underscoring for the wife’s tale is melancholy and quotes Ravel’s Bolero. The samurai’s story is underscored by eerie and dark percussive music that suits strangeness of his story. And the woodcutter’s story uses no underscoring to highlight the bleakness of the events and to suggest that his story is the true recollection.
By the end of the film, the viewer has heard four different versions of supposedly the same story. Is only one version true, are none of the versions true, or did everyone tell the truth recalling the events as they remembered them? All three of these answers are possibilities. Regardless of which one turns out to be correct, another surprising incident occurs right before the film’s end that takes precedence to the shocking crime and trial. This new occurrence shows that even in the midst of man’s depravity and temptation to sin, goodness and virtue are possible. As in the flashbacks, even in the midst of sin, a sense of honor and duty prevails.
Content Advisory: An off-screen rape, some violence, and fleeting gore. Not rated.
Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.
Personal Recommendation: A