#78: Rashomon [1950]


Three men take shelter under the battered gate Rashomon, two of whom tell the third a story which has shaken them to their core. They tell of their glancing involvement with a murder and rape which took place in the forest nearby. They tell the third man of how they were giving evidence at the courthouse when a captured bandit was brought in and admitted his own guilt. Except, the attacked lady appears from her hiding place to tell a completely different version of events. Then, her murdered husband tells yet another version of the tale (though a medium, obviously). At the end, it transpires that one of the men telling stories under the gate actually witnessed the entire incident, and he then gives his account. But, which version was true? Is there truth in any of the accounts? Can we ever know? Slowly, it becomes apparent that the men’s horror was not in the stories themselves, but in knowing that the truth is beyond their power to discern.
I watched Rashomon by myself, and I’m glad I did. Firstly, I think most of my potential Challenge Assistants would have found it boring; I’d have felt responsible. Secondly, I found it rather demoralising that I found it so hard to “get”. This Japanese drama is certainly “arty”, a descriptor which doesn’t perturb me at all. Rather, it’s the fact that I didn’t like or particularly understand this “arty” film which worries me. I admit that I didn’t see many of the themes which I later unearthed in research; I only briefly noted a few. Does that make me dumb, uneducated? The shame!
This film requires an essay really, rather than a blog post. But, I’m not going to list off themes which I’d have only lifted from others’ work anyway. Instead, I’m going to commit myself to the heavily “bloggy” style I seem to have adopted here and talk about my viewing experience. I was heavily uncomfortable throughout: partly because I was reading subtitles while trying to grasp what director Akira Kurosawa and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa were trying to achieve with their heavily visual style (in their shooting, editing and the actors’ performances rather than set design); partly because I feel that a lot of the significance of the plot and its emotion was lost in translation given that I don’t come from a honour-based culture; and, partly because I was aware of how bored I was, which therefore signalled I really wasn’t “getting” it. I’m so disappointed in myself.
But, then again, I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. A foreign language film, set in feudal Japan, which makes use of deeply ambiguous visual symbolisms, is always going to be a bit beyond a film novice such as myself. My plan, when I’m back at university and have free access to academic journals again, is to read everything there is to read on Rashomon and have a second crack at it, with a pot of Nutella and a sturdy spoon to get me through. I just hope I haven’t put you all off.

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