Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon Review

rashomon criterion poster

I am beginning the first movie of the 365Days365Classics, and it is obvious to me why I chose this movie as my first classic. This was the first world classic I ever watched, and I was so instantly drawn to this movie. I thought if I really listened I would even understand the language. I took the sound of the rain with me to sleep.

This is the essence, perhaps, of all great art, that we feel we are part of the culture, like someone who was born in it. Even if you have no context of the culture, Rashomon’s atmospheric settings will transport you to the place. Here are my thoughts on this great work of Cinema.

The Setting

In the making of the movie, Kurosawa draws from two sources, two short stories, “Rashomon,” for the setting  and another, “In a Grove” for its plot. The story about the murder of a samurai unfolds as many accused and eyewitnesses present their testimony.

The word Rashomon, (spelled and pronounced variously,) means “city gates”. That is the first shot you see in the movie, the gate with Rashomon written in it in Kanji, and is an actual location in the Japanese city of Kyoto. Rashōmon was the grander of the two city gates built during the Heian Period (794–1185).

rashomon gate

These grand architectural sites ruined with the kingdom and became a place for the less classy folks to hang out. Although no time is specified, one can suppose this is during the times that Japan was still a feudal state, perhaps somewhere in the beginning of the twelth century. 

The Camera

Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa’s camera work can be a lesson in cinematic grammar. Even if your understanding of setting a shot is limited (like me,) you can feel the brevity in composing the frame. And given that he had a great set of actors to work with, the camera exploits each and every fleeting expression. Unlike the current fascination to portray the human body as shiny porcelain perfect, Miyagawa’s camera reflects real people with pores, with tendrils around the face that light up when they catch the sun. 

rashomon samurai wife hands on face

samurai rashomon

tajomaru

And it is Kurosawa’s genius that the setting becomes a character in the movie.The sound of the persistent gloomy, Hemingway-ish rain – and the silent heat of the groves set a contrasting temperament to the story.

The Characters

Rashomon, the movie, is a game of perspectives. It is also a play of politics.  The men in the story are two opposites of the society. This age-old conflict is played out more vigorously in a society where you were “born” to be one or the other. And as is the truth, one is always afraid it might lose out the privilege. One of the privileges is the woman.

The other extreme of the society has nothing to lose, but as history proves these classes have suffered mostly because of the upper classes. Tajomaru, the bandit, is not the kinds who would meditate on such things but when a circumstance arises he feels a rage in him which can be attributed to, amongst many things, the class politics.

The thug on the streets believes he possesses the macho, so what is potentially an act of rape is interpreted by him as an act of seduction. What must have despair on the part of the woman is interpreted as longing by the samurai, who perhaps thinks his wife might find his silent, cosy life, to be boring.

It is important to note that even those on the fringes of the society or less powerful ones have the capacity to influence the decision in the murder case.

Fall of the Woman

No matter how culturally different we might be, there are some themes that remain consistent in all cultures. One of them is the archetype of the fall of a woman. This story is set in a feudal society with rigid social roles but instead of making it a morality play, Kurosawa puts his characters in the real world and lets his characters engage in a psychological warfare. Although, the duel is fought between the two men, the woman fuels it in her own way. Considering this is a story of clashing perspectives, no clear image of the woman’s character emerges. This ambiguity is true to the world, and as a realistic filmmaker, Kurosawa manages to make the woman more human.

The film can be summed up from the quote from the movie itself, – “It human to lie. Most of the time we cannot be honest even to ourselves.” Rashomon is one of the best portrayals of human follies and the idea of subjectivity. It is a classic one should not miss.

Some beautiful posters

Japanese poster

Japanese poster

The German Poster

The German Poster

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3 thoughts on “Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon Review

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