you're reading...
-[Film Reviews]-, East Asian Cinema, Japanese Cinema

‘Rashomon’ (1950): Morality from a Certain Point of View

Directed by: Akira Kurosawa || Produced by: Minoru Jingo

Screenplay by: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashmoto || Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki

Music by: Fumio Hayasaka || Cinematography: Kazuo Miyagawa || Edited by: Akira Kurosawa || Country: Japan || Language: Japanese

Running Time: 88 minutes

My first introduction to Japanese cinema, one of the most respected national film cultures among the international cinephile community, was not the surrealist Studio Ghibli animation now fawned over by American fanboys, nor the live-action period dramas (Jidaigeki films) by Akira Kurosawa, but rather Toho Company’s original Godzilla (1954-2016) films. The largest film production studio in Japan, little did I realize watching those monster-movies as a kid that Toho was also the producer and/or distributor of many Studio Ghibli and Kurosawa productions, a veritable gateway for the rest of the world to experience the most popular, quintessential filmmaking of Japan. As fate would have it, the expensive yet overwhelming critical and commercial success that was the one-two punch of Ishiro Honda’s original Godzilla and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai in 1954 immortalized not only their parent studio, but also established the overseas footprint of Japanese cinema for decades to come. The residual influence of both Toho properties can be felt in everything from the ongoing Legendary Entertainment/Warner Bros. MonsterVerse (2014, 2017, 2019, 2021) franchise to the universal language of Western genre cinema — the gruff, battle-hardened, wandering ronin/gunslinger, lawless rural backdrops, heroic protagonists shot in wide frames, etc. — and perhaps explains much of Japanese popular culture’s enduring appeal in American society to this day.

Takashi Shimura (center), who starred in more Kurosawa films than any other actor (21/30 features), including the far more colorful Toshiro Mifune, contemplates Rashomon’s moral quagmire in the script’s embedded narrative.

Another Kurosawa property whose effects are still felt in contemporary filmmaking is Rashomon, which is also ironically one of the seminal director’s few works that isn’t owned by Toho Company, Limited (Fun Fact: Steven Spielberg, himself a longtime fan of Kurosawa’s filmography, founded Amblin Entertainment in 1984, which optioned the rights to Rashomon in 2018 from the Kurosawa estate). The 1950 historical drama, set at the titular Kyoto city gate during the Heian Period (~794-1185) many centuries prior to the Sengoku or “Warring States” Period (~1467-early 1600s) in Seven Samurai, made its mark on cinema history thanks to its then innovative storytelling structure, since dubbed “the Rashomon effect.” The movie’s screenplay is organized around an event told from multiple perspectives, forcing the audience to question the reliability of each subsequent narrator’s point of view, as well as everyone’s potential motive. This dynamic, seen in various film and television works from Dick Van Dyke (1961-1966; episode = “The Night The Roof Fell in”) to King of the Hill (1997-2009; episode = “A Firefighting We Will Go”) to Reservoir Dogs (1992) to The Last Duel (2021), has become even more famous than the film itself; its universality is indicative of its creativity, though its presence here in Kurosawa’s work is more a contemplation of morality than a whodunit mystery thriller (the verdict of the trial surrounding the primary crime is never mentioned).

The incident around which this nonlinear, multi-perspective narrative revolves is the ambush of a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyō) by a bandit (Toshiro Mifune), who murders the former and rapes the latter, though the method and context of the crimes vary depending on which character tells the story. Subtle yet noticeable variations between different accounts of the same event are interesting, particularly a brutal swordfight choreographed as action-packed in one context yet pathetic in another, and I appreciate how none of the main characters in the flashbacks are painted in a flattering light. My primary qualm with the movie, aside from its repetitive one-note locations, is how the frame story characters (Kurosawa-regular Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijiro Ueda) have no reason to emotionally invest themselves in the central conflict beyond general gossip. Why would they care about these random strangers so much?

In terms of direction, Kurosawa gets as much as he can out of his narrative’s limited set-design through creative outdoor cinematography that manipulates natural light without looking fake. His charismatic, identifiable editing also keeps the action fresh at a brisk 88 minutes, a tidy snack compared to the 3.5 hour Seven Samurai epic. Top to bottom, it’s far from his most charismatic directorial effort, but there’s little to nothing to complain about.

Outside of Seven Samurai and Yojimbo (1961), I’m not as in love with Kurosawa’s library as most cinephiles, though I would never venture so far as to argue the man’s overrated like I do with George A. Romero (I know, I’m pushing things, here). Rashomon, arguably the first of Kurosawa’s beloved samurai classics, is no more imaginative or influential than Godzilla’s various cornball adventures of the Showa era (1954-1975), which isn’t meant as a criticism of Kurosawa as it is a reminder of the wider (yes, wider) appeal of Toho’s more populist works compared to its “higher brow” chanbara (samurai) cinema.

Masayuki Mori (left) locks blades with Toshiro Mifune (right) in the latter’s recount of their conflict.

Given their stylistic overlap with classical (1950s) Hollywood and Italian Spaghetti (1960s) Westerns, “Oriental Westerns (Easterns?)” like postwar Jidaigeki (1950s-1960s) films remain one of the few genre movements popular with mainstream film critics, historians, and academics (1940s Hollywood film noir is another), so contemporary general audiences may walk away from many quintessential chanbara features unsure of what the fuss is all about. With Rashomon somewhat and several of Kurosawa’s later films in particular (e.g. Ran [1985]), I sympathize with modern audiences uninterested in decades-old black-and-white Japanese filmmaking, but the former’s eponymous storytelling technique is just too effective to ignore. I may quibble with the execution here and there, but overall, Rashomon’s nonlinear exploration of morality leaves an indelible mark.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Eccentric in parts and plain depressing in others, Rashomon lives and dies on its unreliable narration and gets considerable mileage from Toshiro Mifune’s multilayered lead performance. Akira Kurosawa utilizes enough subtle tracking shots, creative lighting techniques, and self-reflexive edits to get the most out of his story’s repetitive scenery.

However… I never understood why the characters of the frame story, Takashi Shimura most of all, were so fascinated with the “unspeakable” central mystery, nor would I describe any of the theatrical characterizations as realistic in any sense.

—> RECOMMENDED for film history buffs and samurai cinema fans.

? I like Mifune more when he’s gruff and brooding than when he’s goofy or acting like a crazy person.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.



  1. Pingback: ‘Yojimbo’ (1961): The Samurai with No Name | Express Elevator to Hell - March 18, 2023

Am I spot on? Am I full of it? Let me know!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: