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From Under A Rock: Rashomon

May 12, 2018 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: Rashomon  


This week’s pick is a film that put Japanese cinema on the worldwide map. Often imitated but never surpassed, it’s a genuine classic.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Michael chose High Plains Drifter. This week Aaron takes Michael out from under the proverbial rock to show him Rashomon.

Released: August 25th, 1950
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa & Shinobu Hashimoto
Toshiro Mifune as Tajōmaru
Takashi Shimura as Kokiri
Machiko Kyō as the Samurai’s wife
Minoru Chiaki as Tabi Hōshi
Masayuki Mori as the Samurai

Aaron Hubbard: I’ve been making it my duty to introduce Michael to the works of Akira Kurosawa. With Seven Samurai off the bucket list, this was an easy pick for the second Kurosawa work to cover here.

Michael Ornelas: I understand the hype around the guy now. I liked Seven Samurai a bit more, but this was still a fantastic movie.
Dagger Wife
The Rashomon Effect
Aaron: Rashomon is basically a crime drama set in feudal Japan, based on the story In a Grove. One man is murdered, though the circumstances behind his murder is obfuscated by wildly different and contradictory accounts. The bandit accused of the murder, the wife of the dead samurai, and a passing farmer who witnessed the events, and the samurai is even able to give his account from beyond the grave. Each retelling seems more disturbing than the last.

Michael: The fact that the term “Rashomon Effect” has even been coined speaks to the innovative nature of this movie. It has been preserved by the Academy’s archives, it has been repackaged countless times, and its influence has spread far. Its presentation, while not “common” nowadays, wouldn’t throw anyone off if we saw it in an episode of TV or another movie. It has become a gimmick in and of itself which speaks to what this film set in motion. That’s the sign of a work that will stand the test of time.

Aaron: Almost seventy years later the film is still compelling. That’s Kurosawa’s trademark though, really. He excelled at filming classic stories that captured the imagination of people outside of Japan, and has been influential on everything from Spaghetti Westerns to Star Wars to Pixar and superhero movies. That legacy really begins with Rashomon, a film which put Kurosawa and Japanese cinema on the world map. As a fan of everything from Godzilla to Miyazaki, I owe it a huge debt of gratitude for that alone.
The Sides of the Truth
Michael: This film was the first to play with varying perspectives of the truth, which makes it a landmark cinematic achievement in and of itself. By presenting four different stories as to how the incidents played out, we get to decide for ourselves what the truth actually was after considering biases. My favorite presentation of this was when the medium summoned the spirit of the deceased himself and it spoke through her. I loved the way Kurosawa shot it with low angles and unsettling sound cues. But even the dead would be biased.

Aaron: This is obviously what Rashomon is most known for, and has been used as a formula for other films and television episodes. (Batman: The Animated Series has my favorite twist on it with the episode P.O.V.) I’ve always been impressed by how effectively Kurosawa tells this story, which could have been confusing but stays clear thanks to masterful editing and clear acting changes by the three characters in question. It’s a remarkable achievement in cinematic storytelling.

Michael: The acting performances were the glue that held this together, I completely agree. I love the way they view themselves and those they disliked in their versions of the events. Tajomaru was probably my favorite with how arrogant his portrayal of himself is.
“What if good is make-believe?”
Aaron: In between the various accounts, the farmer and priest discuss the events with a passing stranger seeking shelter from a storm. The priest is deeply unsettled by the murder and feels as if he’s lost his faith in the goodness of people. The stranger expresses his opinion that there are no good people, and that selfishness is how we survive in a cruel, indifferent world. It’s not a worldview that I ascribe to, but it cannot be dismissed out of hand either. What’s your take on this philosophical discussion at the core of Rashomon?

Michael: It’s tragic to see a Priest lose his faith, first and foremost, as it can almost be seen as an existential crisis of the entire nation of Japan in the fallout of World War II. I think it’s an interesting framework between the four accounts of the “truth” that we see throughout the film, and really asks the interesting questions about the nature of truth, self-preservation, and goodness. I personally think there’s plenty of goodness, but it’s on a spectrum. We will always try to survive in desperate situations, and that will cause us to abandon what is “good” much of the time. But when not threatened, I believe the human spirit is good.

Aaron: Kurosawa seems to affirm that belief in the final moments, when the farmer unselfishly decides to take care of the baby. This part of the film is not part of the original story, and is how Kurosawa uses this 1922 story about evil and selfishness to comment on post World War II Japan. And while the darkness can seem overwhelming, the good people of Japan can endure and make things better for future generations.

Michael: I’m not normally the kind of guy who places a heavy emphasis on “what movie did it first?” in terms of how I choose to rate things. I usually care more about a film that takes an idea and does it better. That said, this holds up as a classic worth discussing even 68 years later. Kurosawa was a master and he’s now 2-for-2 with me.


Aaron: Rashomon is about as good as film gets. It has a tight running time, great acting, Kurosawa’s masterful directing and editing, gorgeous cinematography, philosophical themes, and a timeless narrative. It’s a must-see, bucket list movie.


Michael: So…Hidden Fortress next time you pick Kurosawa for me?

Aaron: Possibly, as I need to get around to that one. Yojimbo and Ran are also nearly flawless.

What is Akira Kurosawa’s finest work?

Next week:

Michael: This next pick is actually a martial arts film I checked out because it was referenced in a rap song I liked. It has a unique weapon in it that makes for some fun combat sequences.
Aaron: So is he fighting French Royalty in the 1800s?

Michael: ….that’d be amazing. But no.

What’s your favorite movie weapon ever created?

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The final score: review Virtually Perfect
The 411
Akira Kurosawa gets his second perfect score from us, and for good reason. The story of shifting point of views between unreliable, selfish witnesses to a murder is as timeless as it is compelling. But Kurosawa's directing and editing, the cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa, and the outstanding acting elevate the story to a masterful work of art. Take 90 minutes out of your time and set it aside to watch Rashomon. It's worth it.