Japan, 1950

Directed by Kurosawa Akira

With Mifune Toshirô (Tajômaru, the thief), Kyô Machiko (the gentleman’s wife), Mori Masayuki (the gentleman), Shimura Takeshi (the woodcutter), Chiaki Minoru (the priest), Ueda Kichijirô (the passer-by), Honma Noriko (the medium)

The plot is based on two short stories by writer Akutagawa Ryûnosuke, “Rashômon”, which gives the feature its name and the historical and social context, and “In the Grove”, while the film’s final part comes from the imagination of the screenwriters and gives the initial narratives a fresh perspective. Akutagawa’s story is no longer a rather straightforward tale; the screenplay gives it an introductory development that postpones the relation of the main events, which are presented to the audience as a riddle tough to resolve, hard to comprehend.

As a pouring rain falls on a particular day in the middle of 11th century, a passer-by rushes for cover to the ruined Gate of Rashô, in war-ravaged Kyôto. He finds there two men lost in their thoughts and despondent and tries to grasp what troubles them so deeply. The tormented woodcutter and the dismayed Buddhist priest procrastinate but eventually talk. Their words give the story a unity while a squabble between these three men strayed in the chaos of a storm and a war brings the conclusion.

Grappling with truth, lies, and fate: from left to right, Ueda Kichijirô, Shimura Takeshi, and Chiaki Minoru

What the woodcutter and the priest relate is a trial they had to attend early, as witnesses. Their memories, however, do not feature the judge and all the court regalia: in a striking move, the camera shoots on medium shots the witnesses as they talk – their faces and their words thus are directed to the audience which can feel they hold the place, and the role, of the judge, observing and judging the witnesses. For director Kurosawa Akira, it is clearly up to the audience to make up our mind on what words are true or untrue.

The starting point is the discovery by the woodcutter of a dead gentleman followed by the arrest of a famous thief, Tajômaru. It seems clear that Tajômaru met by chance the gentleman and his wife and tried to lure the man away in a grove and to tie him in order to catch the wife still waiting for them in the spot where the thief hailed them. Tajômaru managed it easily but then he changed his mind and viciously brought the wife where her husband is laid prisoner, and proceeded to rape her, as he wanted. But the following events are a source of discord, revolving around the woman’s behavior.

Did she ask the men to fight each other till one dies for she could not accept her misfortune to be known by both, causing a bitter fight that ended with the gentleman’s death, as the thief claims? Or did she kill her husband after Tajômaru left because she was shocked by his dreadful, relentless glare and inscrutable silence, horrified by the thought he was repudiating her, as she claims? Or did she ask Tajômaru to live with her and kill her husband, a move the thief refused to carry out, releasing instead the poor fellow who then committed suicide out of grief, as the dead husband, speaking through a medium, claims (a supernatural and spooky scene giving the film an even more disturbing edge)? As each testimony partially contradicts the others, truth seems more elusive.

The woodcutter’s version, the screenwriters’ original contribution, offers the intriguing possibility of a woman who is at first humiliated by both men but then laughs at the situation, taunts them, doubts their manliness, and sets off a fight the men were not really willing and ready to have (the outcome: a husband killed and a lover on the run). The woman is not any longer concerned with her status and decency: she is now a scathing observer of gender conventions. The fight she provokes has little to do with the fight she supposedly begged in Tajômaru’s testimony. There are no fierce looks and no saber virtuosity: this second fight shows the two sweating and shaking, awkward and weary, tripping, stumbling, and wallowing. It sounds more comic than tragic, a swordplay turned slapstick. With this addition to the source texts, Kurosawa injects a cutting, unexpected social criticism which is rather remarkable giving that Japan was a few years earlier a military dictatorship worshiping conservative, male-oriented values and that the Japanese studios have been churning out deal with samurai stories and their worldview, and indeed Kurosawa would often explore this popular genre.

When Tajômaru and the wife arrive at the grove where the gentleman is seated, the moment when narratives would start to diverge, the tension rises but the riddle the witnesses, the court, and thus the audience must grapple with is already conveyed. The montage is a hectic string of long shots swiftly displaying the characters in a fragmented manner: usually only two of them are in the shot composition, and shots including the three at the same time are rare – while closer shots in the montage readily emphasize the intensity and perplexity of each character’s gaze: what they could do now is clearly upsetting them. And indeed, the story proceeds to just tell what looks like distorted viewpoints, reflecting what each character claims to have done and actually felt. And accordingly, the camera cleverly uses the same range of dynamic long shots, tense medium close shots, and striking, upsetting closeups, inserted in the same pacy editing, but the camera’s position keeps changing its position on the set and the lighting shifts constantly as the characters experience again the tragedy in their own words – by the way, sunlight and sun reflections powerfully highlight the expressions and feelings and look like an essential leitmotif, from the moment the woodcutter starts walking in the forest, a brightness that usually makes nature even more pleasant and that usually symbolizes clarity and warm feelings or pleasant events, but that provocatively only reveals horror and confusion, turning the world into a moral nightmare. This virtuoso exercise in camerawork and cinematography stands as the other big theme in “Rashômon”: the power of cinema to illustrate in the most relevant way various perspectives, and more precisely to convey one specific character’s vision of the world. And this vision clearly may be far more complex than what is expected by an audience – or the wider society.

Where Akutagawa left his readers with the delicate task to find a meaning out of the testimonies, Kurosawa gives his audience a topic to meditate. The passer-by dismisses the woodcutter’s tale but the conversation is interrupted by a baby’s cry, abandoned in a cranny of the gate. The three men scramble to find him and cajole him, but the passer-by takes away the precious clothes wrapping the baby and runs away with them, challenging the woodcutter to denounce him, as the woodcutter’s tale suggests he may have himself robbed something on the crime scene. The priest cradles the baby for a long time, till the woodcutter decides to take him. The priest hesitates but then trusts him. It is a real effort: the young fellow has repeatedly bemoaned the sad fact exposed by the trial, a fact that has rather amused the far more cynical and seasoned passer-by: no one wants to tell the truth, not even the spirit of the deceased. Feelings, innate or shaped by conventions and accidents, adulterate the reality without respite and mercy. So, should we give up any hope in people? His faith says no and the sincerity of the woodcutter suggests that there is no reason to abandon this faith. And that sounds right, and the sky seems to agree, even to celebrate: the pouring rains stops and the sun comes back, its brightness welcome and perhaps this time expressing genuinely positive feelings, and not ready to betray the clichés associated to it as it was the case earlier. All is perhaps not lost, certainly not in the view of Kurosawa, although he reminded us truth may well be in the eyes of the beholder – but also proved that cinema stands as the best tool to acknowledge the fact, to explore endlessly what it means, to enable the watcher to find their own path to reality, their own approach to human feelings, their own ability to understand and to sympathize.

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