Rashomon • Japanese Cinema

Greenscreening Series #21

January 27, 2023

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Rashomon (1950) directed by Akira Kurosawa


A riveting psychological thriller that investigates the nature of truth and the meaning of justice, Rashomon is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made. Four people give different accounts of a man’s murder and the rape of his wife, which director Akira Kurosawa presents with striking imagery and an ingenious use of flashbacks. This eloquent masterwork and international sensation revolutionized film language and introduced Japanese cinema — and a commanding new star by the name of Toshiro Mifune — to the Western world. - Criterion

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Why Rashomon?

"Men are only men. That's why they lie. They can't tell the truth, even to themselves." -The Commoner, Rashomon

From a historical perspective, Rashomon was the first Japanese film to receive international acclaim, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 and receiving an honorary Oscar at the 1952 Academy Awards. Due to its innovative nonlinear structure and its striking visuals, Rashomon became one of the most influential films of the 1950s, and its impact is still felt today. Director Akira Kurosawa went on to become one of the great directors of the 20th Century and an influence to countless filmmakers across generations and around the world.


Rashomon may have been the breakout for postwar Japanese cinema and Kurosawa, but Japan had been developing a robust film industry since the beginning.

Thomas Edison brought cinema to Japan, via a demonstration of his kinetoscope in Tokyo in 1896, followed shortly by the Lumiere Brothers. The Lumieres shot the first film in Japan, and almost immediately, Japanese filmmakers began creating and releasing films.

In the early days, Japanese films resembled kabuki theater and often involved a narrator (benshi) sitting beside the silent film screen. As Kurosawa wrote in his autobiography, "The narrators not only recounted the plot of the films, they enhanced the emotional content by performing the voices and sound effects and providing evocative descriptions of events and images on the screen - much like the narrators of the bunraku puppet theatre. The most popular narrators were stars in their own right, solely responsible for the patronage of a particular theatre."

Due to the success of the benshi, the Japanese film industry made a more gradual move from silent to sound; even in the late 1930s, a third of feature releases were silent. The use of a narrator would have profound influence on Kurosawa and on Rashomon.

Two major genres have dominated Japanese film: jidai-geki, which are period dramas set in the Edo era, and gendai-geki, which are contemporary dramas in modern Japan. If you're looking for shorthand of these two genres: samurai films for jidai-geki and Godzilla for gendai-geki. That Japanese film would be pulled between old and new, traditional and modern, is appropriate, as this was one of the dominant tensions in Japanese society in the 20th century, the century of cinema. Another important genre to be aware of is horror; J-horror remains one of the country's most popular exports, and from the earliest days of cinema, directors used Melies-like special effects to tell ghost stories.

Just before the War, as in Germany and Italy, the film industry came under government supervision and censorship, which led to an increase in propaganda and documentaries during the War years, as well as a prohibition of Western films. It was in these days that Kurosawa got his start, initially as an apprentice and later as a director.

After the War, during American occupation, the film industry was liberalized. Studios who cooperated with the war effort were largely blacklisted. There were opportunities for directors like Kurosawa to flourish, as the industry looked to quickly redefine its new identity.


Kurosawa's earliest films were successful domestically, but Rashomon was his first masterpiece.

Based on a short story, the film was ambitious structurally, telling the story of a crime from four different perspectives. There were multiple narrators. There were flashbacks and even flashbacks within flashbacks - nearly unprecedented at the time. The film was commercially risky, but due to the limited locations and small cast, it was made on a modest budget.

Rashomon is most famous and influential for its innovative structure. What actually happens in the film is fairly simple and perhaps uninteresting. Three men sit under a city's gate during a rainstorm, and two of the men tell the third about a disturbing criminal trial that they witnessed. They recount the three testimonies they heard, and argue about the details of the trial, and how to make sense of it. But through the power of flashbacks, we see the testimonies come to life. We actually first flash back to the trial, and then flash back to the crime itself to see how it played out according to the testimony.

The conflicting testimonies force us to question the details and decide whether we trust anyone. But we're also third party to the testimonies - everything is filtered through the priest and the woodcutter at the city gate. Kurosawa invites us as viewers to question everything that we see on screen, including the filmmaker's account of events.


Stylistically, the film was innovative and highly influential. Just a few of the innovations include:

  • Kurosawa shot scenes with multiple cameras from different angles. This gave him a lot of material to assemble the final cut, and also the concept of seeing the same thing from different angles ties into the film's subject.
  • The editing of the film -- there are just over 400 shots in the film, which was twice the number of shots in the typical film of the day. But the pace doesn't seem too frantic.
  • Kurosawa frequently juxtaposed wide shots and closeups. The effect is a bit jarring at times, and just wasn't done at the time. But since this has become much more commonplace, it makes Rashomon feel a bit more timeless than some other films of its day.
  • The film breaks the 180-degree rule. Traditionally, there is an invisible line of sight established in each scene, and the camera stays on the same side of that line so that characters and other objects stay roughly the same in relation to one another. This helps maintain a sense of continuity between the different camera angles. When someone breaks the 180-degree rule, things feel off from one shot to the other. By intentionally moving the camera across this plane, Kurosawa sought to disrupt continuity, disorient viewers, and make them question what they're seeing.

The film draws upon several key elements of traditional Japanese cinema: First, the film's genre is jidai-geki, set during the Edo period. Second, it contains a ghost (the husband's testimony, delivered through a medium), which links the film to Japanese horror and folklore. Third, the film's use of narration through the frame story and the flashbacks, as each character recounts their version of the crime, links the film to the benshi of the silent film era. But Kurosawa puts these traditional elements in service of a story about pervasive lies - in some ways, he implicates the culture and industry in perpetuating lies. For a society emerging from the shadows of a war that was sold through sacred devotion to the emperor and cultural superiority, and which caused the deaths of 2.5 million Japanese, Rashomon's exploration of deception, and of self-deception, struck a chord.

"The Rashomon Effect" entered the cinematic lexicon as a storytelling method involving multiple conflicting perspectives, often told in flashback. The structure has been used countless times and across genres. Television sitcoms, including Frasier, have used the Rashomon Effect. Films like Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects (1995), Ridley Scott's The Last Duel (2021) and Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden (2016), and even Rian Johnson's Glass Onion (2022) use elements of the Rashomon Effect. It's easily one of the most significant narrative innovations in cinematic history.

Besides innovative storytelling, the film's existential dread, its search for truth in the modern world, puts it alongside Bicycle Thieves and The Third Man as among the most important films coming out of the immediate aftermath of WWII. Rashomon was a staple of Art House cinemas, which were dedicated to showing important "serious" films from around the world, primarily in big cities. With the rise of college attendance directly after the War, there was a growing audience of young, educated viewers. Rashomon is a great example of why the Art House appealed to audiences: there was nothing else like these films, not from Hollywood and not from television. There's no way Hollywood under the Production Code could produce a film like Rashomon, where we don't get a tidy resolution or sense of justice. And yet Rashomon is more authentic and true than a straightforward crime and punishment story coming out of Hollywood. The success of Art House cinemas proved that grown-up audiences could handle mature material, and even preferred it. And Hollywood directors and studio bosses took notice, and they began pushing back on the Production Code Administration's strict rules.

Kurosawa opened up Western audiences to Japanese films. He was 40 years old when the film was released, and over the rest of his career became perhaps the most important director in Japanese cinema. Rashomon was the first of his many masterpieces, which included Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961), Kagemusha (1980), and Ran (1985). Almost every film of his is worth seeing. Perhaps only Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick achieved a similar lengthy record of must-see films. His influence on other filmmakers is profound and wide-ranging. If we're looking for direct inspiration: Seven Samurai was remade as The Magnificent Seven, Yojimbo was remade as A Fistful of Dollars (launching the Spaghetti Western genre), and The Hidden Fortress was unofficially remade as Star Wars (launching the American blockbuster and franchise as we know it today). The 2022 Oscar-nominated film Living was adapted from Ikiru. It's safe to say he'll continue inspiring future filmmakers.


What to Watch For

  • The simplicity of this film's production contrasts with its thematic complexity. There are only three sets. There are only a handful of actors. In this way, Rashomon takes us back to cinema's roots in theatre.

  • Pay attention to how Kurosawa establishes and maintains each character's perspective during their retelling of events. The camera angles chosen, how much Kurosawa shows the characters' eyes, and how he uses voiceover.

  • Toshiro Mifune's performance. His character is the most alive on screen, and as an actor, he was one of the most electric screen presences ever. Look at his physicality - his scratching, grunting, sweating, spitting; his sudden bursts of laughter. At times it's a large performance, but there's so much nuance in it as well. Consider this: Mifune and the other main characters have to play four different roles, though they're the same character. It's a truly masterful performance.

Learn More About Rashomon

Roger Ebert on Rashomon

Professor Norman Holland on Rashomon

The Rashomon Effect essay on the style of the film by Stephen Prince for Criterion

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