Often thought of as a parable relating to the meaning of truth, Akira Kurosawa’s groundbreaking motion picture from 1950, Rashomon surprised nearly everyone involved, including Kurosawa himself. Based on a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa entitled In A Grove, the film gathers its mojo and momentum from an intriguing plot device involving various characters providing alternative, self-serving and, of course, contradictory versions of the same incident.
In a sense, Rashomon is like an advanced course in epistemology. Throughout the course of the unfolding narrative, we find ourselves asking the question: “How do we know what we know?”
And the real beauty – inherent in Rashomon as well as just about any epistemological inquiry – is that we can know something and never be certain that we know the truth. Kurosawa makes extensive use of natural elements to underscore this dichotomy and nudge his story towards a hopeful resolution.
Consider how the torrential rains cascading off the ruined gate contrast with the sunlight piercing through the forest’s canopy. The rain seems to suggest the chaos of the period after the dark and evil outlook on life adopted by men living during that era. The sunlight attempts to penetrate these shadows, but in doing so, it uncovers a world created not of concrete events, but of subjective views of reality. The epilogue type ending in which a baby is found is typical of the way in which Kurosawa manages to seed compassion into the telling of his tale.
Also setting Rashomon apart from other films of its era is the incredible strength of the cast. Toshiro Mifune, who portrays a most convincing bandit seems to slide his story back and forth like a presidential candidate, according to what he thinks will help him achieve his objectives. Machiko Kyo, probably the greatest Japanese actress to ever have her likeness filtered through a glass lens, is equally emphatic and charged with emotion in presenting her side of the story. Kurosawa regulars Takahashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki and Kichijoro Ueda also turn in extremely compelling performances, thus making it all but impossible to discern fact from fiction.
To this day, Rashomon enjoys a rare and exalted place in the hearts of movie lovers everywhere. In fact, it was the first, though certainly not the last, of Kurosawa’s films to be remade by a western director (Martin Ritt), thus reversing the direction in which popular art and ideas flow.