Rashomon

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
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Rashomon 1950 6357.jpg

A samurai who went out for a walk with his wife and encountered a bandit has been murdered -- and that's all anyone knows for sure about the situation. Each eyewitness to the crime -- the bandit, the wife, and the dead samurai (through a medium) -- give vastly different accounts of what happened, and each eyewitness portrays themselves as the most sympathetic figure in their story. What's more baffling is that each witness also claims to be directly responsible for the man's death, albeit with reasonable motives.

Which story, if any, is the closest to the truth? That's the question that a woodcutter and a priest mull over as they explain the situation to a third person (and, by extension, the audience) while they wait out the rain in the gatehouse of the ruined Rashomon temple. As the stories are explained, a fourth story emerges from the woodcutter, who eventually admits that he actually saw what happened -- but his story contradicts the participant's accounts just as much as their stories contradicted each other's. By the film's end, neither the characters nor the audience are any closer to uncovering the truth, but the concluding events do provide some reassurance that even though humans lie and steal, they're still capable of goodness.

Rashomon is one of Akira Kurosawa's most well-known works, even in the West; the film was based on the short stories "In a Grove" and "Rashomon" by Ryunosuke Akutagawa ("In A Grove" more so than "Rashomon"). The film itself inspired two play adaptations and the naming of a psychological effect. This is the film that introduced Kurosawa and Asian cinema (specifically, Japanese cinema) to the West, and it received an Honorary Oscar at the 1952 Academy Awards. [1]

The Trope Namer of Rashomon Style, a plot which mimics the narrative style of this film.

Tropes used in Rashomon include:
  • Absence of Evidence: One of the final reveals is that the woodcutter, who at that point is the only person the viewer would be inclined to believe entirely, stole a valuable dagger mentioned by all the other witnesses, but the object was never mentioned by him.
  • Alternate Character Interpretation: In-universe: the characters' personalities vary greatly between the different testimonies.
  • Art Shift: Tone changes with the testimonies. In the bandit's story, he is dirty and the scene resembles a botched crime film; contrast this style with the woman's story and the woodcutter's second testimony.
  • Circular Drive: The famous long dolly shot at the beginning was achieved by having the actor walk in a figure eight pattern that crossed the dolly tracks twice. It looks like the camera is following him through the woods but he is actually walking around it.
  • Complete Monster: In-universe: Tajomaru, the Bandit, constantly tries to paint himself like this, taking pride in killing and rape. The other testimonies subvert this, painting him out as a scared, pathetic, only-somewhat-thuggish bum.
  • Death Glare: The samurai's wife's reason for (accidentally) slaying her husband after her rape.
  • Driven to Suicide: What the samurai (or medium "channeling" him) claims to have done in his story after witnessing the unfaithfulness of his wife.
  • Every Japanese Sword Is a Katana: Averted. Tajomaru wields a tsurugi, and the Samurai wields a tachi.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The names of the Priest, the Woodcutter and the Commoner are not revealed.
  • Evil Laugh: Tajomaru, the bandit, all throughout his testimony. In The Woodcutter's actual testimony, from the woman - either she's laughing at the bandit's failure to kill her husband, or is laughing bitterly about the bandit's feelings not being true and the fact that her "honorable samurai" is a wimp. Take your pick.
  • Flash Back: All testimonies.
  • Heroic BSOD: The woodcutter and the monk are not exactly the heroes of the story (although, from a certain viewpoint, they are the closest this movie gets to actual heroes), but they both seem to be suffering this at the beginning of the film.
  • Hime Cut: The Samurai's Wife.
  • Honour Before Reason: The Bandit, the Samurai and the Wife all try to justify themselves by somehow involving honour. Completely absent in the Woodcutter's tale, which makes them all look like fools.
  • Minimalist Cast: There are only eight actors in this entire film. Nine, if you count the horse.
  • Period Piece: Shogunate-era Japan.
  • Rape Is Love: The bandit claims that the man's wife submitted to him after he forced himself on her. Not surprisingly, the wife's own account completely avoids this.
  • Rashomon Style (aka Rashomon Plot): The Trope Namer.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: it is surprisingly difficult to capture rain on film (it's one reason most Hollywood rain sequences are shot in the dark) so Kurosawa's team had to use enormous volumes of water (delivered using fire hoses) and eventually resorted to dying the water black--tricks he later reused while filming Ikiru.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Let's see, the monk and the woodcutter believes they've lost all faith in human nature, and the commoner harassing them giggles about the supposed badness and selfishness of every human at the end before suiting words to deeds by stealing the clothes off a baby abandoned in the ruins of the shrine. The Woodcutter's willingness to take the child in and raise it despite his own poverty -- "I already have six children,what's one more?" -- restores both men's faith.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: The woman tries to paint herself as this.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The whole point of the film.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: An interesting twist. All three of the stories told by the three individuals involved in some way involve the woman's ornate dagger, but none of them explain why the woodcutter didn't find it when he found the body. When the woodcutter explains what he saw of the affair, the dagger doesn't appear at all. The man who he's been telling the stories to figures out what is going on: the woodcutter stole the dagger after everyone else had died or left; it's the knife he uses to defend the baby at the end.
  • Wimp Fight: In the Woodcutter's version of the duel between the Samurai and the bandit, they run around swinging desperately at each other with their weapons. It's often taken as one of the hints that his testimony isn't exactly truthful - a trained Samurai wouldn't have done such a thing - but this was how Kurosawa commonly depicted fights.
  • World Half Full

Notes

  1. There was no Best Foreign Language Film category at the time, although the film -- and the eight other movies given similar awards between 1947 and 1955 -- are often considered retroactive "winners" of the award.