Film & TV

What Is Rashomon? Learn About the Influential Japanese Film, Plus 4 Key Takeaways for Aspiring Filmmakers

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 28, 2019 • 3 min read

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Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is widely regarded by critics and filmmakers as one of the greatest films of all time. The film introduced a highly influential narrative style that explored human memory and the nature of truth through a single narrative told from several points of view.

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What Is Rashomon?

Rashomon movie poster

Rashomon is a film by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa starring Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyō, and Takashi Shimura. The film is based on a short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa called In a Grove.

The film’s narrative revolves around the murder of a Samurai told through four different accounts from four different characters.

  • The film opens in the middle of a torrential downpour, with three men, a commoner, a woodcutter, and a priest, huddling to stay dry underneath the Rashōmon Gate in Kyoto.
  • The woodcutter has just found the body of a murdered samurai and is soon summoned to court to testify.
  • Audiences then see the story of how the samurai was murdered play out through four separate retellings from four flashbacks seen from different character’s perspectives.
  • Each story is slightly different but each accounts for the samurai’s murder at the hands of a bandit who may also have been responsible for raping the samurai’s wife.
  • In the end, no firm resolution is reached with regard to how the dead man was murdered.

The film was honored at the 1952 Academy Awards, winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

What Is the Rashomon Effect?

The Rashomon effect is the term used for a storytelling technique made famous in Kurosawa’s film. The effect describes a single narrative arc told several times from different perspectives.

The film Rashomon presents four different plausible accounts and forces the audience to reckon with the unreliability of human beings and human memory. Since Rashomon, other filmmakers have emulated the technique and used it to great effect.

A Rashomon-style narrative allows the audience to see a single story through multiple lenses and get a multi-dimensional sense of characters based on the way their version of events unfolds.

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4 Key Takeaways From Rashomon For Aspiring Filmmakers

Aspiring filmmakers should be aware of the Rashomon effect and the pioneering influence Kurosawa had on narrative structure in film. Some of the most influential aspects of Kurosawa’s direction in Rashomon include:

  1. Unreliable narrator. Rashomon presents four contradictory interpretations of its central narrative from four different people. The facts of each narrative differ from each other and the audience is led to believe that none of the narrators’ accounts can be taken at face value. By using unreliable narrators, Kurosawa forces us to question the motives of each individual and also explores the fallibility of human memory. Filmmakers continue to use unreliable narrators in their own work in ways similar to Rashomon.
  2. Lack of resolution. Kurosawa chose to conclude his film with an ambiguous ending. Though viewers might expect the movie to be driving towards some conclusive reckoning of the facts and solution for the samurai’s murder, Kurosawa is much more interested in exploring the nuance of human memory and selfishness which is inherent to human nature.
  3. Simple production. Kurosawa was influenced by the simple production style of silent films when he developed the script for Rashomon. Accordingly, he decided to constrain his story to only three locations. Choosing to limit your story and confine its scope can help you focus on a few narrative themes and dig deeper into your characters and their motivations.
  4. Innovative cinematography. Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa utilized several new and experimental techniques when filming Rashomon. Some of the techniques Miyagawa used include using a series of single-shot close-ups and relying on contrasting shots to emphasize relationship dynamics between characters.

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