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The Rashomon effect is a term used to highlight the condemning unreliability of eyewitness accounts. With the Rashomon effect, the eyewitness account is subject to truth, lies and everything that lingers in between. It is a filmmaking narrative that has been used all throughout cinematic history in classics like Martin Ritt’s The Outrage, Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects and even more recently Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden. As great as these aforementioned movies are, when examining the brilliant significance of the Rashomon effect it can only truly be traced back to the movie that created it – Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 Jidaigeki psychological thriller, Rashomon.
As relentless rain refuses to cease at Rashomon city gate in Heian era Japan, a woodcutter, a priest and a commoner cross paths and with it, recount the disturbing tale of a bandit seemingly outsmarting a samurai and his wife with devastating consequences. With this chance meeting of unreliable minds, we, the audience, are thrust into a battle of wits as we watch voyeuristically as these conflicting stories unfold before our very eyes. It is a cinematic triumph that breaks the fourth wall regularly through its direction and garners a reaction by its conclusion that will forever be considered one of the greatest films of all time.
Based on the short story ‘In a Grove’ by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is a movie that thrives off the all-important questions it asks as opposed to the unfaithful answers it provides. Even among these three men, they ultimately understand ‘it’s because men are weak that they lie, even to themselves’. But amongst these lies, Kurosawa asks the defining question: is it possible to redeem yourself even when your faith in humanity has been shaken? Through the eyes of Kurosawa, the answer is yes.
Filmed in black and white, Kurosawa’s Rashomon is eloquently paced, piece by piece, slowly forming a tale that is just as mesmerizing as it is shockingly deceiving. Three locations dominate the screen (rainy Rashomon gate, a forest and a courtyard) with Kurosawa relying on heavy dialogue encounters to provide impressive entertainment for it’s intrigued viewers.
Rainy Rashomon gate is endless in its rainfall and for the majority of Rashomon‘s runtime, looks like it will never truly cease and clear. The infamous forest is a location steeped in disgust, despair and bloodshed and the courtyard is governed by lies and deceit with every spoken confession.
Static shots frame each encounter with impressive cinematography that was considered groundbreaking in the 1950’s. In fact, almost everything Rashomon achieves was groundbreaking in the 50’s, consolidating Kurosawa as one of cinema’s true greats alongside the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles who were highly influential during the late 40’s and into the 50’s.
Akira Kurosawa favoured long, theatre-like set pieces that commanded the screen and Rashomon was one of his strongest examples of this. Whether it’s Toshiro Mifune’s cackling bandit Tajomaru begging for attention or Minoru Chiaki’s far from pleased priest, Kurosawa ensures each long take is filled with emotion and a strong sense of theatrical immersion.
The performances from each and every cast member are brilliant with both Mifune and Chiaki stealing the show all too regularly. Chiaki’s priest is the standout performance though as his character serves as the dark voice of reason throughout. With each condemnation of these varying stories, Chiaki’s priest quickly establishes time and time again that humanity can be truly evil and if you do not face your demons then there simply cannot be any discernible redemption.
But it is with Rashomon‘s conclusion that everything inevitably comes full circle. With the sudden discovery of a seemingly abandoned child, light eventually prevails over darkness. These three men attempt to lay claim to this child and the exit of a particular character ceases the ever flowing torrential rain sabotaging Rashomon city gate. One eventually lays claim to this child for the greater good and with it, we watch as humanity may finally have redeemed itself.
There are many questions that arise from Rashomon‘s ending but the core understanding is that although these men may have lied to provide more favourable stories for a means of self gratification, innocence is untainted and with this innocence man can attempt to right the wrongs of the past and ultimately, restore faith in humanity.
Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is an incredible achievement that truly pushes the boundaries of what 1950’s cinema could and had achieved to that point. With Rashomon‘s tale of redemption, many have tried to recreate Kurosawa’s genius and although some have succeeded in different ways, Kurosawa’s Rashomon is a filmmaking masterpiece that will stand the test of time and remain just as impactful and cherished another 70 years on from now.