Joe Pettitt, an amateur screenwriter, has fortunately written a fantastic review on Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) for you all to read.
“Well men are only men. That’s why they lie. They can’t tell the truth, even to themselves”
It can be assumed that most film fanatics can recall, with detail, scene’s from their favourite courtroom drama – a sub-genre that transports the viewer through the grand, unshaken walls of a legal house. It is in this transportation that the genre emits its allure and suspense, wherein the viewer must watch on, often through the dramatic irony of knowing the truth, but powerless to affect the verdict. This is perhaps what has made the legal drama such an enjoyed subgenre within hollywood for so many years. Kurosawa’s Rashomon hit the western cinema screen in 1951 a year after its initial release in Japan and it rocked the film industry in a way no one saw coming. Kurosawa neglected to endow his audience with the foresight of knowing what really happened, thus presenting an unsolved mystery about interpretation and the ego’s embellishment of the truth.
Kurosawa’s Rashomon takes place in rural Japan, presumably pre-dating the Second World War by decades. Still mourning the loss of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many enjoyed and took pride in narratives of classical sensibilities, distracting them from the realities of post war Japan. It’s opening shots of a decrepit, pre-war Japanese building is symbolic of the devastation the war inflicted on the nation and nods to this popular nostalgic mindset of the people at the time. The rain helps to reinforce this melancholy but is also used wonderfully by Kurosawa as a device to convey the differing time zones in which our narratives take place. In one of the most beautiful scene transitions in classic cinema, we come from the heavy rain of the opening shots to see the woodcutter wandering through the forest, as the camera points upward through the canopy with the sun shining through the leaves, we seemingly enter another realm. Kurosawa uses weather fantastically in this film.
Through the rain that pours over the building at the beginning we are introduced to three men, who huddle around a fire – the visual equivalent of someone saying ‘You are about to be told a story’ – and the events of our court hearing are disclosed. From here we are told three contradicting stories surrounding the murder of a samurai. One from the point of view of the Bandit Tajomaru, one from wife of the murdered samurai, and one from the samurai himself who communicates through a medium. Each character’s story is portrayed with the same conviction as the next, all seemingly believing what they say. This is what made the this film so difficult for western audiences to grasp. Kurosawa’s narrative arcs contradict and yet are all equally plausible and true, it is as if he is asking us to confront our prejudices. Do we believe the filthy bandit, with his scratchy skin, swatting flies and raping women? Do we believe the wife, who one of the characters describes as a typical woman who will believe her own lies? Or is it the samurai whose story bears the most candour, speaking through the mystical medium? – As the priest says ‘dead men tell no lies’. These are the questions we ask when watching Rashomon with narratives that are truth, lie and neither at the same time, in a film that is courtroom drama, mystery and something entirely it’s own as well.