Director: Akira Kurosawa
Production: Daiei Productions; black and white, 35mm; running time: 88 minutes; length: 2406 meters. Released 25 August 1950, Tokyo. Filmed at Daiei Studios on outdoor sets.
Producers: Jingo Minuro, later titles list Masaichi Nagata; screenplay: Shinobu Hashimoto and Akira Kurosawa, from two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa; photography: Kazuo Miyagawa; art directors: So Matsuyama (some sources list Takashi Matsuyama); music: Fumio Hayasaka.
Cast: Toshiro Mifune ( Tajomaru, the bandit ); Masayuki Mori ( Takehiro, the samurai ); Machiko Kyo ( Masago, his wife ); Takashi Shimura ( Woodcutter ); Minoru Chiaki ( Priest ); Kichijiro Ueda ( The commoner ); Daisuke Kato ( Police agent ); Fumiko Homma ( The medium ).
Venice Film Festival, Best Film: Lion of St. Mark, 1951; Honorary Oscar
as most outstanding foreign film, 1951.
Hashimoto, Shinobu, and Akira Kurosawa, Rashomon: A Film by Akira Kurosawa , edited by Donald Richie, New York, 1969; also published as Rashomon , New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1987.
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Tyler, Parker, The Three Faces of Film , New York, 1960.
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Bock, Audie, Japanese Film Directors , New York, 1978; revised edition, Tokyo, 1985.
Erens, Patricia, Akira Kurosawa: A Guide to References and Resources , Boston, 1979.
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Kurosawa, Akira, Something Like an Autobiography , New York, 1982.
Sato, Tadao, Currents in Japanese Cinema , Tokyo, 1982.
Desser, David, The Samurai Films of Akira Kurosawa , Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1983.
Tassone, Aldo, Akira Kurosawa , Paris, 1983.
Jarvie, Ian, Philosophy of the Film: Epistemology, Ontology, Aesthetics , London, 1987.
Richie, Donald, editor, Rashomon: Akira Kurosawa, Director , New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1987.
Chang, Kevin K.W., editor, Kurosawa: Perceptions on Life: An Anthology of Essays , Honolulu, 1991.
Prince, Stephen, The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa , Princeton, New Jersey, 1991; revised and expanded edition, 1999.
Goodwin, James, Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema , Baltimore, 1994.
Goodwin, James, editor, Perspectives on Akira Kurosawa , New York, 1994.
Yoshimoto, Mitsuhiro, Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema , Durham, North Carolina, 2000.
Jacchia, Paolo, "Drama and Lesson of the Defeated," in Bianco e Nero (Rome), October 1951.
Crowther, Bosley, in New York Times , 27 December 1951.
McCarten, John, in New Yorker , 29 December 1951.
Farber, Manny, in Nation (New York), 19 January 1952.
Griffith, Richard, in Saturday Review (New York), 19 January 1952.
Life (New York), 21 January 1952.
Ghelli, Nino, in Bianco e Nero (Rome), March 1952.
Whitebait, William, in New Statesman (London), 15 March 1952.
Harrington, Curtis, " Rashomon et le cinéma japonais," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1952.
Barbarow, George, in Hudson Review (New York), Autumn 1952.
Crowther, Bosley, in New York Times , 6 January 1962. (R. 1952?)
Harcourt-Smith, Simon, in Sight and Sound (London), July-September 1952.
Mercier, Pierre, " Rashomon et le pédantisme," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1953.
Sadoul, Georges, "Existe-t-il un néorealisme japonais?," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), November 1953.
Davidson, James F., "Memory of Defeat in Japan: A Reappraisal of Rashomon ," in Antioch Review (Yellow Springs, Ohio), December 1954.
Rieupeyrout, Jean-Louis, in Cinéma (Paris), June-July 1955.
Leyda, Jay, in Film Culture (New York), no. 10, 1956.
Iida, Shinbi, "Kurosawa," in Cinema (Los Angeles), August-September 1963.
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* * *
When Rashomon won the Grand Prix at the Venice International Film Festival in 1951, the event represented the opening of the Japanese cinema to the West, and the film itself was regarded as a revelation. Ironically, it has never been very highly thought of in Japan. This does not necessarily mean that the West was wrong (consider the number of major Hollywood films that had to wait to be discovered by the French). It should, however, make us pause to question the grounds for its acclamation.
The film's exotic appeal is very obvious, and in some respects inseparable from its genuine qualities—the originality of its structure, the bravura virtuosity of its camera work, the strength and force of the performances—its success at Venice (and subsequently throughout the western world) was doubtless due to its fortuitous knack of combining the exotic with the appearance of precisely the kind of spurious profundity that western intellectuals have tended to see as necessary for the validation of cinema as an art form. The film was (mis-)taken for a vast metaphysical statement (or, at least, question) along the lines of "What is truth?" Little wonder that there has been a considerable backlash. The initial mis-recognition of Rashomon no doubt played its part in the subsequent rejection of Kurosawa by numerous critics in the process of discovering Ozu and Mizoguchi. Re-seeing the film now, one is apt to challenge both extremes.
The "What is truth?" school of Rashomon admirers always (quite understandably) felt some embarrassment at the film's ending: the film's "great subject" seemed suddenly displaced and evaded, the film collapsing in "sentimentality": certainly a poor woodcutter deciding to adopt an abandoned baby seems to have little relevance to a philosophical inquiry into the nature of truth and reality. It is, however, open to question whether a demonstration that different people will tell the same story in different ways to suit their own convenience really amounts to such philosophical inquiry in the first place. There is no evidence anywhere in Kurosawa's work to suggest that he is a profound "thinker." That is not at all to belittle him as an artist, philosophy and art (though capable of intimate inter-relationships) being quite distinct human activities with quite distinct functions. To demand that a work of art be philosophically profound is merely a crass form of intellectual snobbery. (This is not of course to deny that all art has philosophical implications , which is another matter altogether.)
One must, as always, "Never trust the artist—trust the tale"; yet Kurosawa's own far more modest and earthly account of Rashomon 's subject (from his splendid and delightful Something Like an Autobiography ) seems to me to tally more satisfactorily with the actual film:
Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings—the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem . . . .
This account has a number of advantages. For one thing, it ties the film in closely with Kurosawa's other work, as the "relativity of truth" account does not. For one example, the last third of Ikiru is singlemindedly concerned with the gradual revelation of an unquestioned and authentic "truth" that the self-serving bureaucrats are bent on concealing. For another, it accords much more readily with the general tone and attitude of Kurosawa's films—what one might describe as a bitter humanism, a tenacious belief in the human spirit and in human goodness juxtaposed with a caustic and often savage view of human egoism, duplicity and pettiness. Thirdly, it is much more compatible than philosophical abstractions with one of Rashomon 's most immediately striking qualities, its intense physicality, the direct visual communication of sensory experience. It also makes perfect sense of the ending, which becomes, indeed, the logical and very moving culmination of the whole film.
Rashomon is adapted from two very short stories by Akutagawa. The first, "In a Grove," provides the basis for the main body of the film; the second, "Rashomon" (the name of the ruined stone gate), is the framing story; the two are brilliantly tied together by the woodcutter's narration of the final version of the story. What many westerners fail to recognize is how funny the film is—at least in part. The use of its premise by the Hollywood cinema is well-known: there are Martin Ritt's painstakingly literal (and somewhat labored) translation of it to the American southwest ( The Outrage ), and George Cukor's marvelous transformation of its premise into the basis for a musical comedy ( Les Girls ). But the Hollywood movie that seems closest to Rashomon in structure actually antedates it: Unfaithfully Yours . Sturges's comedy gives us three quasi-serious episodes (Rex Harrison's fantasies) which prove to be but the necessary build-up to the final, comic, episode, in which the protagonist attempts to put his fantasies into action. Rashomon follows the same pattern: the first three "full" versions of the story (the bandit's, the wife's, the nobleman's)— which certainly contain their longeurs—are best read as the equally necessary preliminary to the explosion of savage farce in the woodcutter's version. The function of the farce in both films is strikingly similar: the deflation of presumption and pretension. We are not invited to read the woodcutter's story as "the truth," yet its status is clearly different from that of the other three: its purpose is not that of bolstering his own ego. It is especially important that his version uses the woman as its central figure to make the two men look ridiculous: the proletarian and the woman fuse for the purpose of puncturing class pretension and male egoism.
The woodcutter is the real hero of the film and a fully characteristic Kurosawa hero, a point underlined by the casting, since Takashi Shimura also plays the heros of Ikiru and The Seven Samurai . His adopting the baby (although he and his family are near starvation-level) follows logically from the scathing denunciation of self-serving egoism that is the central impulse of his version of the story: rising above the moral squalor of his time and the physical squalor of his environment, he performs the action that at once establishes his heroic status and redeems the film's almost desperate, almost nihilist view of humanity.