The Rashomon effect: a new look at Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic milestone of post-truth

The premiere of Rashomon was a watershed moment for Japanese cinema, but what was the appeal of this tale of unreliable narrators set in the far distant past? And how did the peculiarities of its initial screenings affect the way Kurosawa’s masterpiece was interpreted?

3 January 2023

By Jasper Sharp

Rashomon (1950)

There are many reasons why, more than 70 years since its first release, you might want to return to the landmark of cinema history that is Rashomon. This was the title that first introduced the name of director Akira Kurosawa to overseas audiences, along with such stars of Japan’s cinematic golden age as Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo and Takashi Shimura. It won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, which is seen as marking the beginning of a wide-scale global interest in Japanese film, and became the first Japanese film to get a North American release from a major studio.

Poster for Rashomon (1950)

This sudden vogue for an exciting new cinema rising from the east initially manifested itself in a taste for period dramas, or jidaigeki, rather than contemporary-set stories. The Japan portrayed in not just Rashomon but also subsequent festival-feted arthouse classics, such as Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Sansho Dayu (1954) and Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (1953), is not the Japan of its bushido heyday or the more recent feudal Tokugawa era (1603 to 1868), which provided the setting of choice for the majority of the period action movies aimed at local audiences during the 1950s. It’s the Japan of the medieval Heian era (794-1185), a near mythic land as historically distant from the experiences of contemporary domestic audiences as it was culturally distant for overseas ones, and so provided a fertile ground for allegory, mystique and abstraction.

Central to the legacy of Rashomon is its revolutionary approach to plotting, which introduces narrative uncertainty by way of flashbacks depicting the conflicting accounts of a major dramatic incident from its four main witnesses. The script, by Shinobu Hashimoto, was a composite of two short stories by the modernist writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892 to 1927). Its main dramatic incident – the violation of a noblewoman and the murder of her samurai husband in a secluded forest clearing, and the subsequent attempts to get to the elusive truth behind who perpetrated the crimes – were derived from the 1922 story ‘In a Grove’. Akutagawa’s shorter 1915 mood piece from which Kurosawa’s film takes its name describes the atmospheric setting of the Rajomon gate, which marked the southern exit from the ancient capital of Kyoto leading to the dark lawless wilderness beyond.

It’s this location that provides the arena for the present-day scenes, which try to reconstruct what actually happened through the accounts of witnesses to the crime: a woodcutter who just happened to be in the area (Shimura); a notorious bandit named Tajomaru (Mifune), who is the principle suspect; the raped samurai’s wife (Kyo); and even the murder victim himself (Masayuki Mori), who is summoned by a medium to give his evidence from beyond the grave, adding a supernatural element that further muddies the individual narrative threads. 

The Rashomon gate itself is portrayed almost as a character in its own right, lashed by rain and isolated in the darkness in a way that the Japanese literary scholar Paul Anderer describes in his biography Kurosawa’s Rashomon: A Vanished City, a Lost Brother, and the Voice Inside His Iconic Films as like “another allegorist foraging through the shadows and the hollowed-out emptiness of the postwar period”.

Rashomon (1950)

Kurosawa had apparently intended the allegory to stand clearer. Today nary a trace of the real-life gate, built in 789, remains, and even by the end of the Heian period it had fallen into such a state of ruination that it became a stamping ground for thieves, murderers and other ne’er-do-wells.

Writing in 1919, Akutagawa had seen the structure as symbolic of a wider societal malaise sweeping Japan, while the coda in Kurosawa’s adaptation, in which an abandoned baby is discovered beneath its ruined arch, points to the more tragic historical function that it served towards the end of its physical existence – as a dumping ground for the unwanted. According to Anderer, Kurosawa had initially intended for it to be surrounded by hordes of ramshackle market stalls, similar to those of the black market that crammed the streets of a bomb-ravaged Tokyo during the harsh years of the occupation.

Production shot for Rashomon (1950) showing the building of the Rashomon gate

In the end, Kurosawa’s lavish expenditure on reconstructing the monumental centrepiece to his tale, while hiring fire engines to souse it in perpetual rainfall, rendered such an explicit visual link between past and present unviable. Nevertheless, Stuart Galbraith IV in The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune points out that “Considering its small cast and three simple locations, Rashomon was not a cheap film, at least by Japanese standards.” Budgetary information about individual titles from this period are hard to come by, but Galbraith cites Rashomon as costing an estimated $140,000, a figure reported in The New York Times, 21 October 1951, in an article by Ray Falk entitled “Japan’s ‘Rash-Mon’ Rings the Bell”, which was about twice that usual for a Japanese studio film of the period. (The figure of $250,000 cited in many sources, equivalent to 90 million yen, seems highly unlikely given that the 125 million yen, approximately $350,000, that Kurosawa subsequently spent on Seven Samurai four years later made this film by far the most expensive domestic production up to this point).

With 11 films under his belt at this time, Kurosawa was far from either the local legend or the international master he would soon become, while Daiei, the studio that financed Rashomon and which had previously just produced one Kurosawa film, The Quiet Duel (1949), had little confidence in the project. As Kurosawa later recounted in his 1983 memoirs Something like an Autobiography, after the critical and commercial disaster of his next work, an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1951) for Shochiku studios, Daiei withdrew their offer to produce another film by the director.

Rashomon was not a particular commercial success in Japan following its release on 26 August 1950. Contrary to popular belief, however, it was not a critical failure, with the writers of Kinema Junpo voting it fifth best of its year in their annual poll. Its subsequent international stature can be attributed to Giuliana Stramigioli, a representative of Italiafilm who had seen Rashomon during a trip to Japan and recommended it for the following year’s Venice Film Festival. Daiei neglected not only to inform Kurosawa his film had been entered in competition but also when it won the prestigious Golden Lion award, a kudos that lifted the director from his short-lived post-Idiot career doldrums.

It’s important to note that there were several noteworthy examples of Japanese films that had screened in the west at the time. Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Crossroads (1928), a silent jidaigeki modelled on German expressionism that focused on character and locale rather than sword-fighting action had been exhibited in Berlin, Paris and London, and had been released in New York under the salacious retitling of Slums of Tokyo, an Oriental Sex Drama. In 1937, Mikio Naruse’s Wife! Be like a Rose! became the first Japanese talkie to receive a commercial release in North America when it opened in New York under the title of Kimiko. Moreover, Venice itself had played host to a number of Japanese films prior to the war, with Tomotaka Tasaka’s humanist battle-front film Five Scouts (1938) regarded as the first to be recognised at a major international film festival, receiving the Popular Culture prize when it played there in 1938 alongside a number of other Japanese works including Hiroshi Shimizu’s child-centred drama Children in the Wind (1937), while Tomu Uchida’s Earth (1939) also played at Venice the following year.

Poster for Rashomon (1950)

Nevertheless, Rashomon became the first Japanese film to receive any such degree of attention since this period over 10 years before. Its plaudits at Venice led to it being picked up for distribution in North America by RKO, opening in December 1951 at a time before a dedicated market for what we might label foreign arthouse films had yet to be established. As Greg Smith observes in his essay ‘Critical Reception of Rashomon in the West’, the only previous attempt by a major studio to release a subtitled foreign film had been as far back as 1948, when RKO distributed René Clair’s Le Silence est d’or (1947), starring Maurice Chevalier, under the title of Man About Town. The gamble paid off for RKO with Rashomon, but not so with subsequent foreign-language releases, which remained something of a niche market in North America. 

In the UK, Rashomon was released in March 1952, and became, as the Monthly Film Bulletin reviewer pointed out, “the first [film] from Japan to be seen for many years in this country”. A few months later, in August 1952, its distributor London Films followed the release up with the second Kurosawa film to get UK distribution, the earlier comic period film The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945), released under the title Walkers on the Tigers Tails. 

Kurosawa’s international breakthrough to a large extent coloured his reputation in his homeland as a director who made films that pandered to foreign audiences. As he later wrote in his autobiography, the Golden Lion and the subsequent Academy honorary award for best foreign language picture in 1952 saw Japanese critics insisting “these two prizes were simply reflections of Westerners’ curiosity and taste for Oriental exoticism, which struck me then, and now, as terrible.”

There might have been a kernel of truth to this, as certain foreign critics’ evaluation of Rashomon bears out. Simon Harcourt-Smith in Sight and Sound opened his review by warning the reader that “it confronts us with a tradition and a point of view perhaps the most remote from our own world”. The author makes the perverse yet curiously enlightening observation that Rashomon is “oddly reminiscent in the mood of German silent films from thirty years ago. They were also made in the aftermath of defeat.” 

A sizeable chunk of the review is given over to detailing 70 years of Japonisme after the painter James Whistler’s discovery of Japanese art, leading to the writer’s claim that “it took time and experience before the West could distinguish the attack of mere novelty from the claims of excellence”. Harcourt-Smith makes frequent references to kabuki, including the misguided assertion that “Repetition is indeed a salient quality of the ‘Kabuki’ theatre” in an obvious allusion to the technique of revisiting the central crime at the heart of Rashomon from multiple perspectives. 

The Venice Film Festival print of Rashomon, showing the Italian subtitles

Indeed, though Harcourt-Smith concludes that Rashomon is “one of the most stimulating and extraordinary pictures made anywhere in the world since the end of the war”, such comments as “We find ourselves here in a world where social conventions and psychological reactions are alike alien to us, and at the same time infinitely absorbing” highlight one of the inconvenient truths at the heart of most English-speaking critics writing about the film after the hubbub of its Venice world premiere. This is that its only screenings at the festival were in Japanese with Italian subtitles. Catherine De La Roche’s Venice festival report in the same issue of Sight & Sound confessed to understanding “no Japanese and little of the Italian subtitles”, and renders the director’s name as Achira Curosawa in a mistake evidently carried over from the original promotional materials.

La Roche was left instead to focus primarily on its startling formal qualities, which include composer Fumio Hayasaka’s innovative reworking of Ravel’s ‘Boléro’ for the soundtrack and a judiciously spare use of silence and incidental sounds throughout. She praises Kazuo Miyagawa’s stunning cinematography, drawing attention to the forest scenes, with his deployment of “sunshine shimmering through leaves, all the patterns formed by nature; and the movements of human figures, their faces and hands, to make pictures of tremendous eloquence and beauty… For me, Rasho Mon [sic] is, therefore, the supreme example of the true sound film: one whose pictorial narrative maintains its own continuity, strengthened, blended with, but not interrupted by sound.” 

Interestingly, Anderer’s account of the influence of Kurosawa’s cultural dawning in the 1920s and its influence on the visual expressionism of his work also highlights the influence of the literally hundreds of silent films the director lists in his biography as having watched in his teen years.

It’s unsurprising then if these initial Venice reviews rather gloss over the complexities of Hashimoto’s groundbreaking script, and how it is so perfectly served by Miyagawa’s rendering of events in stark and contrasting shades of black and white that obscure the evidence of the objective camera eye. Kurosawa later wrote in his memoirs of how Miyagawa’s work in the opening scene in particular, which “leads the viewer through the light and shadow of the forest into a world where the human heart loses its way”, was “praised at the Venice International Film Festival as the first instance of a camera entering the heart of a forest [and] was not only one of Miyagawa’s masterpieces but a world-class masterpiece of black-and-white cinematography.”

With the benefit of subtitles, reviewers at the time of the US release of Rashomon were more equipped to address the film’s storytelling innovations, with Henry Hart writing in Films in Review in January 1952 that the film was distinguished “by the insights into the human heart that put Western psychologizing to the blush… It will be observed that the different versions of the events in the forest aggrandize or protect the egos of the persons who related them… The basic contention is that the Japanese are saying to the world: who knows who is guilty, who, in terrible truth, is without guilt?” 

Rashomon (1950)

Bosley Crowther, writing in the New York Times on 27 December 1951, appraised the film “as an artistic achievement of such distinct and exotic character that it is difficult to estimate it alongside conventional story films”, before asking “Whether this picture has pertinence to the present day – whether its dismal cynicism and its ultimate grasp at hope reflect a current disposition of people in Japan – is something we cannot tell you. But, without reservation, we can say that it is an artful and fascinating presentation of a slice of life on the screen.” In his book On Kurosawa: A Tribute to the Master Director, Peter Tasker quotes Francis Ford Coppola as claiming that “Kurosawa is notable amongst great film directors for having produced not one or two masterpieces, but five or six.” Still, if the reputation of Rashomon seems slightly overshadowed by Kurosawa’s subsequent epics such as Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961) or Ran (1985), its influence on international cinema is undeniable. 

We might easily forget that the film was made as a western called The Outrage in 1964, directed by Martin Ritt and starring Paul Newman as the bandit, Claire Bloom as the ravished woman and Edward G.Robinson as the narrator. Most are probably not aware that Akutagawa’s source material has subsequently been refilmed in Japan in such works as Hisayasu Sato’s In the Thicket (1996), Kenki Saegusa’s Misty (1996) and Hiroyuki Nakano’s Tajomaru (2009).

Under the Rashomon influence: Pulp Fiction (1994)

However, even those who have not seen Kurosawa’s original may well be aware of the psychological term the ‘Rashomon effect’, used to describe the conflicting accounts and descriptions of certain events by undependable eyewitnesses, and any filmmaker, critic or screenwriter worth their salt will be aware of how Hashimoto’s groundbreaking storytelling techniques have influenced such wide-ranging narratives as Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995), Richard Linklater’s Tape (2001), Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) and numerous television dramas. 

In a post-truth era where the lines between subjective experience and objective fact are constantly being muddied, is there any better time to go back to the film that started it all?

Rashomon is back in cinemas from 6 January.

A complete Akira Kurosawa retrospective runs at BFI Southbank throughout January and February.

This article was originally published on 25 August 2020.

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