Before he became world renowned as the leading figure in Japanese art cinema and stunned audiences with such influential cinematic masterpieces as Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), The Throne of Blood (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior (1980), and Ran (1985), Akira Kurosawa first burst to international attention with the highly unique and unconventional art film Rashomon (1950).
The film is based on a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa which is set in 11th century Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, at a time marked by devastating earthquakes, fires, famine and plagues. During a pelting downpour, three figures shelter under the ruined remains of the largest entrance gate to the city.
While huddled together under the protection of the crumbling two-story Rashomon gate, a priest and a woodcutter describe the disturbing details of a recent crime to a concerned commoner. An aristocratic woman and her samurai husband traveling by horse had been attacked by a thief/bandit (Toshiro Mifune). The woman was raped in the forest and her husband murdered. While recalling the testimony of the people involved in the crime at the local tribunal courthouse, the film shows the events in flashback from the perspective of the three participants; the bandit, the woman, and the murdered husband (through a medium), and one witness, the woodcutter.
But in each retelling of the same events, the story changes significantly according to the person telling it. Eventually we realize that the truth is unknowable because people are self-serving and motivated by fear, greed and vanity. They all have reason to tell their own version of the events so everyone’s story is suspect.
It was important for Kurosawa to give audiences a moral perspective on life in Japan after the horrors of the second world war choosing stories like Rashomon and Stray Dog (1949). Japan at this time was lawless, undergoing extremely difficult times. The country was devastated by the war and in a state of complete destruction. People had no food or means of survival and returning soldiers were looked down upon by the starving civilians. Stealing and crime rates were extremely high and Kurosawa wanted to remind people that to rebuild society for our children Japan must hold itself to a new moral standard that would not be easy in these dark times but would eventually improve life for everyone.
When Kurosawa’s regular film studio Toho was reluctant to produce his new project, he turned to another film studio Daiei Tokyo Studios, where he was able to work with renowned cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa for the first time on Rashomon. His use of lighting and sophisticated visual style was so hypnotic and powerful that it captivated audiences with its sense of stunning realism reminiscent of the silent cinema aesthetic mixed with mythic storytelling.
Kurosawa loved instilling his films with a palpable sense of the atmosphere and the environment in which his scenes took place, and you can see how he uses powerful images of weather, wind and heat to get across the feeling of being in those places. The collaboration of Kurosawa and Miyagawa on Rashomon produced a beautiful artful aesthetic that gave the film a whole new magical quality not seen in Kurosawa’s previous films and audiences in Japan and abroad were enthralled by it.
This was only the fourth time that Kurosawa choose to work with a young talented actor who he loved for the energy he brought to a scene. The amazingly versatile and riveting Toshiro Mifune as the bandit would go on to star in many of Akira Kurosawa’s greatest films eventually becoming one of the all-time most prolific and successful director/actor partnerships in cinema history.
Rashomon went on to be a commercial hit for the studio in Japan and overseas winning many international awards including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Foreign film. The success of Rashomon redefined Japanese film for western audiences and opened up opportunities for other Japanese directors of the time like Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Hiroshi Teshigahara.