Written by Akira Kurosawa & Shinobu Hashimoto
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
This is a classic, and Akira Kurosawa is a legend. But you might be wondering how this film qualified as a Hope in the Midst of Darkness entry. It’s a pretty bleak movie that relies on the unreliable narrator trope. This leads to a relatively dark interpretation of humanity by the characters in the framing device. I am here to argue that Rashomon is an intensely optimistic movie that is attempting to overcome the audience’s assumed pessimism. It’s also a film masterpiece and a piece of cinema whose influence continues to ripple out into movies today, across the planet.
A woodcutter and a priest are sitting beneath the ruins of the Rashomon city gate as rain showers down. A commoner approaches seeking a dry spot and company. The woodcutter and priest are in a state of shock and begin to explain their involvement in a recent murder case. A few days ago, the woodcutter discovered a dead body in the forest. After some investigation, the dead man is revealed to be a victim of Tajomaru, an infamous bandit.
The bandit is questioned about what happened, and he explains that he tricked the dead man, and his wife was seduced by Tajomaru. The wife is found and testifies that she was raped by the bandit and her husband rejected her because she was “tainted” and eventually killed himself from dishonor. Finally, a medium even summons the spirit of the dead man who tells a third version of the event. The woodcutter and priest have realized each person told a story that frames them in the best light, and when they learn the actual story, it shakes them to the core.
The influence of this film can’t be underestimated in popular culture. It signaled a new era of Japanese cinema post-World War II that is informed by the trauma of that event. It also introduced the world to Akira Kurosawa, who would go on to become one of the most influential directors in the history of cinema. His work would shape the minds of creators like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Ennio Morricone. The Rashomon effect would become a term used to describe the unreliability of eyewitnesses who often gave contradictory details from each other.
Rashomon is commonly interpreted as a lack of cultural honest about what led to Japan’s involvement in World War II and the harm caused by both domestic and foreign elements. Depending on which character is asked, you get a story that frames them as the sole victim and the other parties as entirely guilty. It’s easy to see how this allegorical storytelling transcends this specific point in time and can even be applied today for any culture which is being dishonest about historical and cultural guilt. The short story the film is based on was published in the 1920s the original intent of the author wasn’t as a reflection on war, but I definitely see Kurosawa taking artistic licenses and imbuing the picture with these ideas.
In the third act of the film, the woodcutter and priest have been so mired in the craven nature of the three people whose trial that testified in that they’ve lost a sense of humanity. The commoner doesn’t help things by further pushing the issue by proclaiming that humans kill each other all the time, it’s merely part of existence, and the cesspool of life has become. If the movie stopped there, it would be a dark image of the human race.
However, the cries of a baby pierce the air, and the three men discover the abandoned child hidden in another area of the Rashomon gate. In this child is the hope that they believe was lost. The priest is hesitant to let go of the child, but the woodcutter convinces him that he wants to take the baby in with his own six children. We don’t know what happens next, but the rain stops, the sun comes out, and we’re left with a sense that as bad as the world can be, especially the way humans treat each other, people like will ultimately choose to help each other.