The film RASHOMON (1950), directed by Akira Kurosawa was heavily influenced by the short story ‘In a Grove’ by Ryunosuke Atkutagawa. Investigating themes consistent with human nature, the film explores the philosophical questions Atkutagawa poses. The storyline revolves around the differing perspectives of the characters, which differ so immensely, that it is difficult to decipher what is fact or fiction. The characters’ each tell elaborate stories of the same event, to suit their own fate and protect their honor, while selfishly abandoning the objective truth.
Interestingly, Kurosawa started his career in the Japanese film industry by honing in on his talent as a painter, and designing storyboards for feature length films. It is no surprise that his filmic vision, knowledge of fluid scene structure, or framing, stem from that experience. These components are captured in some of the initial shots alone, which frame his narrators within the abandoned gates of Kyoto.
Kurosawa collaborated with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, who captivates the audience with his hypnotizing long, tracking shots. Black and white film cannot be compared to the special effects that are so much a part of the film industry today, however the beauty of this film is at a caliber that is unattainable with the use of computer-generated images. The light and shadows within the film tell a story without dialogue or action present within the frame. There is a synchronization that exists between the picture and the artist; an invisible dynamic that cannot be seen with the naked eye, but is instinctively sensed. This connection enables the film to communicate with the deepest realms of the human psyche. Furthermore, Miyagawa’s manipulation of light enhances the image as, in some shots, he points the camera directly at the sun, which is a very difficult image to capture because of the extreme exposure. But he juxtaposes this sunlit shot with the blade on the back of a man setting off to chop wood, and this contrast of light and shadow adds a communicative component, adding to the symbolic language in the film; exposing the light and darkness in all humans.
The filmic setting is that of Japan. However, the opening scene seems as if the viewer has come upon a place where apocalyptic events have recently occurred. The first sound and image is that of pouring rain, accompanied shortly after by the sound of high-pitched, fluttering flutes, in somewhat of a foreboding structure. The characters are all strangers; as if they met that day, and have fatefully crossed each other’s paths, such as in the film, CRASH (2004) which explores the ‘Rashomon Effect’.
The ‘Rashomon Effect’ has become a coined term for explaining the phenomenon of perception and memory. In journalism it is used to explain the ethics of the media, and in psychology and ethnography as well, describing contradictory interpretations of the same event by differing entities. What is believed can change with the wind, differing by individual-to-individual, and is indisputably unpredictable.
The misperception of reality, or better yet the differing ways the individuals perceive reality, can be an incredible burdening and isolating experience. Some characters lose faith in humanity as a result of their inconsistent storytelling. Throughout the differing stories there are themes of religion, virtue, and faith, on which each character seems to take an extreme.
There is a sense throughout the entire film that someone is telling you a riddle. For instance, in the theme of violence there becomes a case that must be solved that creates the presence of a mystery. But the theme of death is ultimately insignificant, and what becomes important are the lies that are woven, and the building of the suspicion of one’s fellow man. There is mysticism to the dialogue and images, as if the film takes place in a dream, and the cuts from past to present are blurred recollections of contradicting happenings.
At one point in the film, a character expresses; “I don’t know my own soul,” and another, “It’s human to lie.” In another part of the film, the character of the priest explains, “It’s because men are weak that they lie even to themselves.” In the hopelessness of this dialogue, Kurosawa’s film highlights the evil virtues of human nature, but reflects on these traits as part of the balance of life; one that is necessary, and universal. The fragility of man’s virtues leaves them vulnerable to the unpredictability of the wind.