Classic Film Reviews: Rashomon

I’m back with this week’s classic film review. Today, we’re going to take a look at Akira Kurosawa’s legendary and famously confusing ‘Rashomon’. We previously took a brief tour of classic Soviet cinema with Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’, so read it here if you wish to hear my thoughts on that film. Without further delay, let’s jump into our first Kurosawa film!

Similar to Italy in this time period, post-WWII Japan was a period of rebuilding not only cities, but the country itself. Escaping the grasp of a brutal dictatorship, Japan managed to survive a deadly war that ended in two disastrous explosions. When a country’s people encounters a period of renewal after years of loss and bloodshed, its cinema reflects that. The opening sequence of ‘Rashomon’ is a clear reminder of that reflection. The partially destroyed, almost abandoned temple superimposed by torrential downpour darkening the frame illustrates the despairing nature of Japan as a nation. While ‘Rashomon’ is not exactly a war film per se (in fact, it’s an adaptation of a short story of the same name), it released in 1950, when Japan was still under Western occupation. I believe the timing of this film’s initial release is critical when reviewing it. Ignoring the context of WWII would be like ignoring the existence of Fascist Italy when reviewing ‘Bicycle Thieves’.

The somber tone and desolate atmosphere immediately convey to the audience that a tragedy happened. A tragedy so incredible that none of the three men sitting inside the temple could comprehend what even happened. While told by four contradictory accounts, this tragedy is the core of the story of ‘Rashomon’, in which a samurai was murdered and his wife was raped. The three people involved in this tragedy (the bandit, the samurai, and the wife) all tell different stories that implicate themselves for being responsible for the same murder. Because of the concept of the story, most of the film takes place in flashbacks, which initially makes the film somewhat confusing to follow. However, I will not divulge into spoilers due to the fact that you simply have to watch it.

The unique structure of the narrative coupled with the short length of the film (lasting only 88 minutes) makes it worth multiple viewings. The audience is implicitly given the futile task of determining which story is legitimate, but the truth is that the truth does not matter. There’s an intangible trauma for all involved in this tragedy, which validates and legitimizes the tragedy above all else. This aligns with the collective perception of World War II at Japan during this time. There is no clear answer as to what happened in the war. What matters most is the aftermath. What is left in the war is a destroyed nation and a scarred people. The Japanese internalized the war as an indelible tragedy that would never fully disappear in the collective mindshare. The bombs have still been dropped and the remnants of destruction are still littered across the land.

How could the people hope for a brighter future when they can’t even accurately reflect what happened to them? This rhetorical question is the thesis of ‘Rashomon’. This kind of question is shared with other regions as well. Italy, Germany, Britain, the Soviet Union, and the entirety of Europe are still struggling to live with, let alone understand, the tragedy of war and genocide. Italy and Germany in particular have to struggle with the idea of being the adversaries to democracy and freedom. America had the privilege of not needing to rebuild the entire nation in this manner and enjoyed economic prosperity shortly after in the 1950's.

By the end, ‘Rashomon’ did manage to muster up an answer to that rhetorical question and it certainly lifts your mood. What could drive humanity forward after the tragedy? How could a people rekindle hope after an event that traumatized so many? This is where the film provides an answer and it does contradict our materialistic conceptions of happiness. Rebuilding cities and communities won’t necessarily restore happiness and hope, but rebuilding our own humanity will. Even small gestures of humility and charity can help restore someone’s faith in humanity. ‘Rashomon’ is a story about living with a tragedy and learning how to move forward. During a moment in history in which a horrifying war and deadly pandemic are unfolding simultaneously, I feel like ‘Rashomon’ hasn’t aged a second.

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Peter Finaldi

Graduate at Rutgers University. Writes about movies, video games, and anything else that I find interesting. My twitter: @PeterJFinaldi