Rashomon

A film so seismic that its title has become a name for a particular form of narrative device, Rashomon (1950) is still widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. The “Rashomon effect” refers to a prismatic plot seen from multiple perspectives which differ radically from each other, developed from the film’s central conceit, in which a folkloric quartet – a woodcutter, a bandit, a samurai, and the samurai’s wife – give four different accounts of a man’s murder and the rape of his wife. The film’s focus is on the unstable nature of experience and the feebleness of narrative authority, when it comes to the shifting and uncertain spaces in which we live our lives.

Director Akira Kurosawa wanted to use only natural light during filming (and shot, controversially, directly into the sun) but it wasn’t strong enough for film, so the crew increased its power by using mirrors to send daylight directly down the lens (an appropriate-feeling intervention in a film about doubling and deflection). As a result, the patches of white where light travels through the trees almost glow, while dappled light makes a constant play of light and dark across the actors, at times causing them to sink into the background or stand out in stark relief. Even Kurosawa’s use of light as a symbolic tool has been contentious, with critics arguing variously that he is using light and dark conventionally, to represent good and evil, or that he is doing the precise inverse, so that dark represents good, and light evil. Perhaps we should look to the dapples, or the spaces in between poles of moral certainty.

Rashomon – so disliked by the studio that the studio head removed his name from the credits – exploded onto the international stage, receiving the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and then Best International Film at the Academy Awards. It is credited often as “introducing Japanese cinema to the West”, though the Rashomon Effect since has been taken up by directors internationally – the kaleidoscopic plotline has appeared in films as diverse as Thai thriller At the Gate of the Ghost (2011), Hindi Talvar (2015), The Handmaiden (2016) a 2016 Korean erotic psychological thriller, 2017 Russian film The Bottomless Bag and The Last Duel, Ridley Scott’s 2021 offering starring Matt Damon. Kurosawa was a profoundly influential filmmaker (Ingmar Berman called his own 1960 film A Virgin Spring a “lousy imitation of Kurosawa”) – a fact that is itself an expression of human impressionability and of art’s circular momentum.

The promise of film as an art form – and what often lends it its escapist pleasure – is its pledge to unfold before the viewer a single, compelling, and resolvable story; a pleasure that life rarely provides on its own. Rashomon, in its doing the opposite, retains its capacity to radically unsettle what we know – or what we think we know. It doesn’t, however, paint this as the simple tragedy of human incapacity – but, by foregrounding perception and impression, as the primordial force from which art springs.

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