Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan


(Japan, 1951)

Rashomon (1951) (Japan) In 1964 I went to the only theater in Port Arthur, Texas, that occasionally showed movies that didn’t star John Wayne or Doris Day. That’s where I saw and a few other foreign films. This one wasn’t foreign, but it was not quite like anything I had ever seen. It was called The Outrage, and it starred Paul Newman, Lawrence Harvey, Claire Bloom, and Edward G. Robinson. It told the story of an incident where a Mexican bandito raped a newlywed bride and killed her husband. Except we saw it four different times, told from the point of view of the each of the participants, and the story changed each time. This was not a case of new information being revealed by each of them; each saw it completely differently, each was the hero of his or her own story. I was blown away.

Some years later, when I had started to become the total film buff I am today, I saw the source material, this masterpiece by Akira Kurosawa. (I should say that The Outrage was pretty well savaged by critics at the time. It really isn’t all that bad, for a remake. Nothing like Rashomon, of course, but not terrible. At least those people who will not read subtitles can enjoy the story.) Rashomon is set in 12th century Japan, and stars Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura. Millions of words have been written about this film, covering every conceivable angle, and there really isn’t much I can add about it. But I must mention two things.

First, the way beyond incredible B&W cinematography. The story is told in three settings. 1. An abandoned and partially wrecked gate to the town of Rashomon, where the rain is pouring down in buckets. The grayness of the day contrasts sharply with the harsh sunlight beating down on … 2. The outdoor trial being held for the murder, an almost totally featureless plaza of some sort, which we see from a fixed camera looking directly at the people testifying, and … 3. The forest where the murder happened. Here the light is dappled, constantly moving over everything. It is a delight to watch.

Second, the contrast between my two favorite Japanese actors. Mifune usually was bursting with manic energy, exploding in all directions, perhaps a little too much for western audiences not used to this style of Japanese acting. And Shimura, with none of Mifune’s good looks, a hangdog man with a face like a toad whose mouth is usually turned down. His energy is contained, but he was able to play roles as varied as the head warrior in The Seven Samurai, and the befuddled bureaucrat in Ikiru.

This is one of the greatest movies ever made, and if you can bear to read subtitles, you really must see this.