1950, Movies

Rashomon (1950, Akira Kurosawa)

It took me a really long time to see what is probably the most famous – or most important – Japanese film ever made. And unfortunately, I had pretty high expectations, which at first were hard for the film to match.

But the film is doubtlessly important:

  • It is the first film I know of to cast doubt on the reliability of the narrator(s) and
  • One of the earliest films to make use of flashbacks.
  • It is an early film to deal with rape – seven or eight years later, Touch of Evil was considered extremely controversial for including rape.
  • And, most importantly, it is one of the earliest major films – if not the earliest – to deal with the existential despair caused by World War II and the Atom Bomb.

The horror of the story at the heart of Rashomon isn’t so much the rape and murder (or suicide) in the tale, but rather that there is no “true” account of what happened, that everyone has manipulated history to their own ends, and that even the two people who would seemingly have nothing to lose by telling the truth do indeed have secrets to hide.

Where is truth? If there is no truth, where is justice? If there is no truth or justice, how can there be any morality or right conduct?

The slightly upbeat ending – a very Camusian (or perhaps Nietzschean) ending if I do say so myself, I wonder if Kurosawa had read him yet, or whether this was from the source material – doesn’t diminish this seemingly “new” but really age old reality: traditional morality and, more importantly, the way we tell history, is often just a cover and rationalization for instinct or self-interest. Why bother being moral -however you define ‘moral’ – when everyone around you is not? Why tell the truth if it will make you look bad in the eyes of others who are seemingly adhering to some kind of morality?

The film has dated rather poorly:

  • the acting is over the top, even for a Japanese film of its vintage;
  • it is full of typical Japanese sexism;
  • the score is a little intrusive at times – though remarkably absent at others;
  • the print seems to have some bad sections to it;
  • the flashback technique has been copied so many times that it feels cliche even though it was pretty innovative then;
  • and so forth.

But the film is still one of the most important post-War films and feels so “adult” in comparison to most Hollywood films of the era – excepting certain film noir that were willing to take on this stuff – that it makes Hollywood look like the Bollywood of its time: unable to deal with actual, real-life issues for fear of scaring/boring audiences.

It’s a true landmark.


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