“In the end, you cannot understand the things men do.”
This quote from the character known as “The Commoner” (Kichijirô Ueda) in Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon can be interpreted as the thesis for the entire story. A masterful critique on the very essence of truth and its relationship with humanity, Kurosawa’s adaptation of Ryûnosuke Akutagawa’s short story “The Grove” has inspired some of the greatest successive films across multiple genres in the last seventy years. It is not exactly a whodunnit, but it is certainly a howdunnit and a whydunnit, as the characters in the film spin different stories of how exactly we ended up here.
In this case, “here” is an abandoned, decrepit, crumbling ruin of a gatehouse (the film’s namesake) in the middle of a fierce rainstorm. Three individuals are using the remnants of the building as a shelter from the elements. We have The Priest (Minoru Chiaki), The Woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), and The Commoner, as previously mentioned. The gatehouse is not the only thing that is decaying with each passing moment – The Priest’s faith in the human spirit wears thin.
“War, earthquake, winds, fire, famine, the plague. Year after year, it’s been nothing but disasters. And bandits descend upon us every night. I’ve seen so many men getting killed like insects, but even I have never heard a story as horrible as this. Yes. So horrible. This time, I may finally lose my faith in the human soul. It’s worse than worse than bandits, the plague, famine, fire or wars,” he says in a chilling monologue that feels eerily akin to Rutger Hauer’s legendary “Tears in Rain” speech in Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir thriller Blade Runner, which features a similar reflection on the atrocities of the world within that context.
At the root of his despair is the account of a horrific crime that had been committed nearby. The Priest and The Woodcutter were present at the ensuing court hearing, and became all too familiar with the gruesome circumstances of the case.
The broader details of the crime are as follow: Takehiro Kanazawa (Masayuki Mori) and Masako Kanazawa (Machiko Kyô), a husband and wife traveling through the woods, were attacked by the notorious bandit Tajômaru (Toshirô Mifune). Masako was assaulted and raped by Tajômaru, and Takehiro was killed. Eventually, Tajômaru was captured and brought to court. All of these specifics remain the same across three different versions of the story. However, there are many variations in other parts of the narrative as retold by Masako, Tajômaru, and the spirit of Takehiro, who communicates from the afterlife through a medium.
The Woodcutter is the person who discovered the corpse of Takehiro and reported the crime to local authorities. There are bits and pieces of context that The Woocutter adds to the different translations of the story that serve to paint the fuller picture. The Priest is supposedly the last individual to have seen the husband and wife before they were attacked. Thus, The Priest and The Woodcutter share in their trauma of being connected to the atrocities of the case, while The Commoner appears to lack fundamental human empathy. He already has a pessimistic worldview, and seems intrigued by the appalling nature of (all sides) of the story.
“I don’t care if it’s a lie, as long as it’s entertaining,” he says.
The placement of The Commoner as a character in the film provides the most compelling opportunities for the development of the character arcs of The Priest and The Woodcutter. Without the presence of this cynical personality, the conversations between The Woodcutter and The Priest would have been frustratingly stagnant, and we would not have learned nearly as much about their internal psychologies. Ultimately, all of their discussion, contemplation, and reflection on the crime leads to a decision at the end of the film that encompasses the heart of everything that had led up that point. It comes down to a choice between honesty or greed, service or self, and the acceptance or denial of responsibility.
Perhaps more than any film I have ever seen, Rashomon understands the unparalleled power of storytelling in a very meta fashion. The movie itself is an incredible story, which commentates on three different interpretations of a single overarching story. The intricate web of layers in the narrative structure of the film boggles the mind, but is still delivered in a coherent fashion that is relatively simple to follow for the attentive viewer. In addition to his directorial and screenwriting duties (along with co-writer Shinobu Hashimoto), Kurosawa is also credited as the editor of Rashomon. His voice consistently shines through in every aspect of the film.
Speaking in terms of the technical filmmaking on display in Rashomon and what it lends to the narrative, Kurosawa continues to present his astonishing ability to work with whatever Director of Photography he chooses – in this case, Kazuo Miyagawa – to capture the purest emotion of the human existence in any given frame. The term “simple transcendence” sounds oxymoronic, but that is the best way that I can think to describe the visual style. The use of natural light in accordance with the shapes of the physical environment is breathtaking. There is a mathematical precision to the architecture of every shot. And at the center of it all is the rawness of the human spirit and soul.
Kurosawa is recognized by many as the father of action cinema, and the duels between Takehiro and Tajômaru can be looked to as fantastic early examples of carefully calculated action direction, especially considering the limited special effects and other similar filmmaking resources of the time period. But Kurosawa appreciates the fact that action without emotion and character motivation is weightless. There is purpose and passion behind every swing of the blade. Taking this into consideration, the “crime of passion” (as it is described by the perpetrator) which ignites the entire thread of events becomes all the more potent as a narrative device, in a rather disconcerting manner. It is disturbing to think of our experience as the viewer, and realize that we are indeed entertained by the excitement of the action, even as we are extremely aware of the alarming context. Tajômaru is an indefensible, despicable character, but when we observe his bout with Takehiro, we become entranced by the swordplay and energetic motion of events. For Masako, the woman who had just been brutally abused by Tajômaru, she is filled with horror and fear as she directly observes this moment. This phenomenon can be seen across the entire history of action movies.
To draw a connection to George Lucas, one of Kurosawa’s most famous proteges, think about how what goes through our minds watching a lightsaber duel in a Star Wars film. When we see a Jedi facing off against a Sith in an epic display of strength, power, and swordsmanship, we are mesmerized by…two people attempting to murder one another. We know that one character is the good guy, and the other one is the bad guy. But, whenever the bad guy does something cool, the same general emotions of enthusiasm and excitement are stimulated. No matter the extent of the purely evil nature of characters like Darth Vader or Emperor Palpatine, the audience still finds a way to look at what they do and think to themselves, “wow, that was really awesome.” The actual characters in the Star Wars universe who witness these terrible deeds are affected on a level comparable to Masako’s perceptions in Rashomon. But, to the viewer who is safe and sound on the other side of the movie screen, we are morbidly captivated by the carnage. Why is this? I guess you could say there’s no real answer to this question, because, “in the end, you cannot understand the things men do.”
The lies, deception, and distortion of reality form the crux of human weakness and the corrupted hearts that populate not only this film, but the world as a whole. The phrase “The Rashomon Effect” has even been adopted in pop culture to define the concept of a story told with contradictory details by multiple people involved in said event. Think The Usual Suspects (1995), American Animals (2018), and Knives Out (2019), just to name a few recent examples in film. The legacy and influence of Kurosawa’s 1950 motion picture on storytelling and art in general is truly something to behold.