Akira Kurosawa made his masterpiece, Rashomon, in 1950, and despite the lack of support from the studio that produced the film, it went on to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the Academy Award as best foreign film, and to set box office records for a subtitled film.
A lot of the current assessments of the film look at how it influenced films made later (Courage Under Fire and The Usual Suspects), but I suspect that Kurosawa had read William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. In that book, the events are told from four different perspectives (three siblings and a housekeeper), and includes the infamous Benjy chapter, told from the perspective of a developmentally disabled adult.
It is this same use of the unreliable first-person account that Kurosawa uses in Rashomon.
November 2nd, 2012
“Come on, Homer,” Marge Simpson once said to her husband before one of the cartoon family’s trips abroad, “Japan will be fun! You liked Rashomon.” Homer’s sullen reply: “That’s not how I remember it.” There you have all you need to know about that film’s permanent and immediate place in the zeitgeist. Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 tale of crime, punishment, and the nature of memory has become a byword for the way that single events produce bewildering varieties of recollections and interpretations. We make this reference in the same offhand way when we make a reference to, say, Rosebud, the tortured magnate’s childhood sled incinerated at the end of Citizen Kane. It comes in handy when we need to describe those seemingly vast revelations that actually reveal nothing. But just as far fewer people throw around the word “Rosebud” than have actually seen and appreciated Citizen Kane, far fewer people display familiarity with “Rashomon” than with Rashomon. Yet both pictures hold up immaculately today, and you can watch the latter free on Archive.org (or pick up a finer print on DVD/Blu-ray here).
In addition to signifying both a classic film and an inescapable element of the human experience (not to mention the Ryunosuke Akutagawa short story that provided the movie’s basis), “Rashomon” also signifies a place. The Rashomon gate isn’t just a film set; should you find yourself in Kyoto, you can visit it. I may well do that myself soon, since I’m coming to you for the next couple of weeks from western Japan. While here, I’ll take the opportunity to showcase a few particularly intriguing pieces of Japanese film, television, art, and media on Open Culture. If you, like me, live under the spell of Japanophilia, Japanese film may well have first cast it upon you. After taking the Italian Critics Award and the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, Rashomon cast it on a generation or two of westerners. While the cinema of Japan has much more to offer than Kurosawa, you could hardly find a place of higher craft or accessibility to begin exploring it.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.