In 1950, Akira Kurosawa directed ‘Rashomon,‘ a Jidaigeki drama film that ended up being a classic in film history. As we revisit this cult film, we’ll explore what makes ‘Rashomon’ a masterpiece.
What Is ‘Rashomon’ About?
Based on Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short stories ‘In a Grove’ and ‘Rashōmon,’ the film presents us with a complex narrative about the murder of a samurai and the assault on his wife, told through multiple perspectives. The film stars Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori, and Takashi Shimura, whose performances are now considered iconic.
Internationally, ‘Rashomon’ was the first Japanese film to receive attention, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 and an Academy Honorary Award in 1952. Its success was influential in introducing Japanese cinema to a global audience. This was initially unexpected due to the film’s experimental and intellectual nature.
Why Is ‘Rashomon’ A Cult Classic?
From the outset, ‘Rashomon’ challenged traditional storytelling by introducing non-linear storytelling and unreliable narrators. This narrative choice was due to Kurosawa’s emphasis on multiple realities over a singular truth.
The plot, driven by varied and conflicting accounts of the same incident, questions the very nature of truth and memory. This narrative approach, known as the ‘Rashomon effect,‘ has influenced countless films and shows. As a groundbreaking treatment of subjective reality, this technique draws parallels with the ambiguity and complexity of human nature.
Led by Kazuo Miyagawa, cinematography is another key aspect of the film’s legacy. Miyagawa’s techniques included direct sun shots, dappled light effects, and the innovative use of natural light and mirrors. His experimental use of camera angles, particularly in the courtroom scenes and the forest sequences, adds depth to the narrative’s exploration of truth and morality.
Acting in ‘Rashomon’ was another area where the film broke new ground.
The performances, especially those of Mifune and Kyō, were intentionally exaggerated to mirror the heightened emotional expression found in silent films. This stylistic choice added to the film’s exploration of human psychology and the elusive nature of truth with its strong focus on facial expressions and physical gestures.
On a technical level, ‘Rashomon’ also had its share of production challenges, including lost audio, which required innovative post-production solutions. The film’s score was composed by Fumio Hayasaka, a highly-respected Japanese composer, who included a bolero during the woman’s story at Kurosawa’s request.
‘Rashomon’s historical and cultural context also adds layers to its interpretation. Post-World War II Japan, grappling with defeat and identity, finds a reflection in ‘Rashomon’s themes of truth and moral ambiguity.
The Film’s Critical Reception
Despite its international acclaim, ‘Rashomon’s reception in Japan was mixed. Some Japanese critics initially dismissed the film for its perceived Western influence or its exotic appeal to foreign audiences. However, this view changed over time as the film’s artistic merits and innovative storytelling became more widely recognized.