#5 — Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
A story about the making of Rashomon insists that the actors were regularly asking director Akira Kurosawa to divulge the “official” version of the story they were telling in the film. That likely went beyond a general curiosity. Since the film centers on the sharing of multiple, tellingly divergent versions of an encounter in the woods that left a samurai (Masayuki Mori) dead, the actors had some rationale for wanting to know what was truth and what was fiction in shaping their performances. Kurosawa never shared any real version of events, instead noting that a single truth represented the exact opposite of the film’s point. Indeed, the overwhelming takeaway of Rashomon isn’t that people conceal the truth to serve their own needs, but that the truth is entirely shaped by each individual, on the basis of whatever those needs may be. It’s likely that every storyteller fully believes their own recounting, the contradictions only evidence of the fallibility of others. There is no puzzle to be unlocked, no definitive answers at the back of the book. Everyone is wrong and so very very certain they are right.

Like the Shakespearean works Kurosawa repeatedly returned to for inspiration, Rashomon is brilliant because of the way it transforms the base psychology of human beings into insightful drama. Without turning his film into a purely intellectual exercise — the passionate performances of Toshiro Mifune (as a bandit who is a key player in the tale) and Machiko Kyō (as the samurai’s wife) nearly see to that through sheer force — Kurosawa creates something that meticulously explores the very nature of perception and honesty. In a way, it becomes a stand-in for filmmaking, as each of four characters (including the deceased samurai, communicating through a medium, played by Noriko Honma) takes their turn, they naturally finesse and embellish. There is an inherent, instinctive desire to persuade that takes over so completely that it builds its own opaque wall against the past. It becomes an expression of self rather than mere reportage. Similarly, the work of Kurosawa and other directors is about reformulating a story, usually investing it with personal passions, until it feels intensely right, more truthful than truth.

As usual with Kurosawa, the film is built with fascinating and subtle technique. Working with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, Kurosawa is extremely deliberate about the pacing of the film, down to the length of individual shots and the dynamics of edited segments. Kurosawa isn’t trying to tilt the film in one direction or another. Quite the opposite, most of the choices are intended to level the stories, creating parallels between the different versions that make them echoes instead of contradictions. It adds another level of mastery onto the film. If there’s no certainty in the shifting fiction of the film, there’s plenty in the creative process. This was still fairly early in Kurosawa’s long, storied career, released less than a decade after his debut. There’s no hesitancy to it, though. Kurosawa already had fully command of his art and his craft. He knew that he had many charges as a filmmaker. Providing a solid, unmovable answer was not necessarily one of them.

2 thoughts on “Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Five

  1. A great film, and I’m fascinated by the metaphysical aspects of truth as presented by it. But I must disagree slightly with your “takeaway” from the film. While I agree that each participant has a subjective bias in how they remember the events that took place, there certainly is a real and objective truth: how the events actually happened. In other words, there is an objective reality, and then there are individual, subjective perceptions of that reality.

    One of my favorite Star Trek TNG episodes is the one where Riker is accused of murdering a scientist. That episode is very Rashomon-like in that they use holodeck recreations of the event based upon the testimony recounted by the people involved, and of course, while the basic events are all the same, each recreation is a little different. In the end, though, Picard manages to figure out what really happened and prove Riker’s innocence.

    1. Of course you’re completely correct to note that an objective truth does exist in any given scenario. What I find most interesting about Rashomon is the degree to which the objective truth — the real story — plainly doesn’t matter, in large part because it’s completely unattainable, especially in the era in which the film takes place. The objective truth exists only in the moment. As soon as the present becomes past, memory starts reshaping that truth, making the finessed version more real in some respects than reality. In Kurosawa’s estimation, the objective truth — the real version of the story — didn’t matter. In the context of his film, the relating of the incident by the characters, that objective truth doesn’t exist. There’s no omnipotent filmmaker clearing up the contradictions in the end, telling the audience exactly which narrators were the most and least reliable. Even making a reliable determination of guilt or innocence doesn’t necessarily mean the whole truth has been reconstructed. I find it genuinely exciting that Rashomon (or Star Trek: The Next Generation, for that matter) allows for and provokes such discussion and debate.

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