Rashomon (1950)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Period Film, Crime Drama, Samurai Film  |   Run Time - 88 min.  |   Countries - Japan  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Jonathan Crow

Rashomon's winning the Golden Lion in the 1951 Venice Film Festival is one of the key events of world cinema. Not only did it establish director Akira Kurosawa as one of the masters of the medium, but it compelled European and American audiences to look seriously at non-Western cinemas. Without Rashomon, the international critical successes of Kenji Mizoguchi, Satyajit Ray, and others are difficult to imagine. The film's structure, which replays the same event though different characters' eyes, layers ambiguity atop ambiguity. Not only are the witnesses' testimonies completely incompatible but the reliability of the film's primary narrator, the woodcutter, is seriously questioned. If the woodcutter initially lied about his role in this crime, then what else could he be lying about? The film comes precariously close to nihilism--the denial of all objective truth and the utter senselessness of existence. Yet Kurosawa pulls back from the abyss in the film's final moments. Though most of Rashomon is adapted from two short stories by famously misanthropic Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Kurosawa himself penned the final sequence, an elegant summation of his signature humanism. The truth may be inscrutable, even unknowable, Kurosawa argues, but hope and compassion remain. This vision struck a chord in European audiences for whom the horrors of war were still fresh and the existentialist philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were gaining popularity. Kurosawa's dynamic editing and swaggering camerawork seemed vibrant and sophisticated for a national cinema thought at the time to be second-rate, and the film proved influential to several generations of filmmakers. Ingmar Bergman included a sequence in The Virgin Spring (1960) strongly reminiscent of the film's most memorable sequences--the woodcutter's walk through the forest--and Alain Resnais acknowledged Rashomon's influence on the bold plot structure and existential content of his art-house classic Last Year at Marienbad (1961). In both artistic achievement and historical importance, Rashomon remains one of the masterpieces of cinema.