Classic Intel: Rashomon - DVD Review

'Mifune is excellent as the wlidcard bandit, crazed and disturbed, he is the dark centre around which everything seems to pivot'

Rashomon. 60 years old. The film that introduced Akira Kurosawa and Japanese cinema to the West. First film to properly muddle structure. First film to point a camera at the sun. One of the first films to be a 'talkie' but include a tangible silent film aesthetic. One of the first winners of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Welcome to film history.

Kurosawa's Rashomon is of course, a near legend. Famous for being the first film to tell the same story from several different points of the view, the story starts with a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) discussing the trial of bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) for the murder of a traveller (Masayuki Mori) and rape of his wife (Machiko Kyo). As the story develops, several of the key players tell a different version of events leaving the duo, since joined by Kichijiro Ueda's commoner, to ponder the nature of truth and the future of mankind.

Rashomon has become renowned in modern culture for it's willingness to analyse truth and show things on screen that may not actually have happened - versions of the real truth which hides just off camera. Of course, Kurosawa's film accomplishes this beautifully and come the conclusion it is difficult to tell how much of Rashomon you can believe and how much you can trust, despite the fact that the key players have all looked directly in to the camera and told you, the audience, that their version is true.

More than this though, Rashomon examines the nature of honour, specifically that of the ancient Japanese notion of it, and pays cursory attention to what can happen when chaos (represented by Mifune) is introduced in to the equation. Both notions are tried and tested in the film's tight run time without being so bold as to draw conclusions in a film Kurosawa knows audiences can't trust. Mifune is excellent as the wlidcard bandit, crazed and disturbed, he is the dark centre around which everything seems to pivot.

But there is another dark heart to the film that for me is the main reason why I can not call it perfect. Machiko Kyo's Masako is the victim of a heinous and disturbing crime, made even more disturbing by Kurosawa's treatment of it and apparent willingness to condemn Masako as much as perpetrator Tajomaru, if not more so. In all the stories, Masako comes off as a bad egg; either for leaving her husband, 'yielding' to the bandit or suggesting other solutions to the event which appear dishonourable. She is marginalised and silently marooned as a person, even when she is telling her tale and for me, Kurosawa does not do enough to ensure that we see this woman as a victim in the piece, something that he surely must do, despite her failings as a human being. I am sure the point is to reinforce the film's main message of truth and perception but I struggled to justify Kurosawa's decision to use a rape victim to make his point.

Perhaps Kurosawa scholars can change my opinion of his depiction of events and I would be happy to have them do so. I'd also grant that yes, the misogynistic overtones are undercut by the telling of the final story (revealing the male characters may not be all they seem) but undercutting other characters didn't, for me, redeem the film for its treatment of women and the crimes against them in the first place.

That personal reading of events aside, is Rashomon good? Yes, absolutely. It's both captivating storytelling and a cinematic milestone. Well shot? Completely. Revolutionary, discussion-worthy? Yes and yes and not just in an 'art-house, film student' way, there are deep and everyday issues on display here. Perfect? No, I don't think. As a landmark piece of cinema then yes but as a film in it's own right there are too many muddled morals and over-long scenes for me, although it's easy to see why others will overlook, forgive or not recognise Rashomon's failings to ensure its place as a cinematic great.

Look further...

This film was watched as part of A Life In Equinox' 23 Days of Kurosawa event so those curious for more Kurosawa should head over there now.


  1. One thing I notice and have been mauling over whether or not to write an article is that with the exception of a couple of his films (perhaps Ikiru) female characters generally come off very submissive, unworldly, or strong but sadistic and corrupt in his films.

    The rape portrayal has always bugged me about Rashomon as well, and along with what I would call Kurosawa's theatrical acting venture it keeps me from giving it a perfect score.

  2. I am pretty damn glad you said that because I was worried I had read the film wrong. Reviewing classic films this old is difficult and having only seen it the once (when others have watched it several times) I really thought I had missed something so I'm glad of your comment. As I say, the film is great but the treatment of the rape I found very difficult to take and it undermined parts of it.

    You should definitely write that article, I'd be very interested and just in my quick searching on the topic for Rashomon it struck me that there wasn't much out there on the topic.