. . .Rashomon remains a grimly cynical view of human beings' indulgent evaluation of their own despicable behavior. The four different eyewitness-participant accounts of the same incident, showing the subjectivity of truth, constituted a revolutionary format and message for the film medium. Its refusal to select one truth from the many presented as the final, conclusive truth took Europe by surprise and ranked Rashomon as an overnight classic of world cinema. . .
Audie Bock, Japanese Film Directors, p. 170.
Rashomon was the most profoundly pictorial and cinematic work anyone had seen in years. Its visual flamboyance was quite unexpected and all the more startling. Not since the silent cinema of Eisenstein and Murnau, it seemed, had narrative been conceived as such a flow of pure imagery. . ."Everyone seeing the picture will immediately be struck by the beauty and grace of the photography, by the deft use of forest light and shade to achieve a variety of powerful and delicate pictorial effects" [says a critic]. Other critics called it "a symphony if sight, sound, light, and shadow" and praised its "boldly simple, essentially visual technique."(127)
[T]he film seemed to reflect upon important philosophical questions: the loss of faith in human beings, the world as a hell, the human propensity to lie. (128)
Perhaps the most striking is the sequence showing the woodcutter walking through the forest just before he finds evidence of the crime. . .These are among the most sensuous moving camera shots in cinema history and the entire sequence has a hypnotic power. Much of the effect is due to its "silence," to the absence of dialogue and ambient sound. Fumio Hayasaka's percussive, rhythmic score [Revel's Bolero] is the only aural accompaniment to the images. (132)
As [the characters] cackle wildly, shriek, or cry, in an excessive style that Joseph Anderson termed "reverse anthropomorphism," their language is made strange by its very excess. The familar is defamiliarized in the way the formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky meant. Through these strategies....Kurosawa creates a displacement between visual and verbal modes... This displacement is, indeed, what the film is all about....The physical world of events and objects is reconstructed verbally, but language is an unreliable mediator. The stories do not match. Gaps and contradictions prevail between word and event. The "inner relationship" between word and reality is denied....The failure of language to to grasp the world of events is a story about the human fall from grace into a world deformed by heterodoxy and multiplicity. (134)
. . .Rashomon conducts its inquiry into the constructedness of reality at the level of the signified. The film deals with fragmentation and relativity in terms of the content of the narratives, not their structure. (135)
Stephen Prince, The Warrior's Camera
What makes Rashomon such a special film is first and foremost its formal experiment, particularly its audiovisual form and narration. The focus of the film is how the story is presented as much as what it is about. To give the film a sense of formal unity and coherence, Kurosawa extensively relies on the power of geometric abstraction. and juxtaposition of extreme opposites, which create symphonic rythymn and architechtonic beauty.
. . .By not constructing any complex logical scheme underlying the testimonies of the defendants and witnesses, Kurosawa foregrounds the fundamental affirmativeness of narration in film image. If Rashomon has an optimistic outlook, it is not necessarily because of its affirmation of human compassion and goodness but because of its jubilant celebration of film as a medium of storytelling.
This does not mean that Rashomon is devoid of any connection to the immediate sociopolitical context of its production. It was, after all, made in Occupied Japan, only five years after the Japanese defeat in World War II. The tumultuous conditions of wartime and postwar Japan can easily be compared to the chaotic situation depicted in the film set in the late Heian period. . .In the existing version of the film, the fact of the Occupation is most clearly registered in the absence of the magistrate in the courtyard scenes. Even though the principal characters seem to be answering the magistrate's questions, we neither see him nor hear his voice. Consistent with the overall design of the film, the censoring eyes of the Occupation are formally inscribed on the film's textual surface as structural absence.
Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, Kurosawa, pp. 182-189
Two men--a Woodcutter and a Priest--are seeking shelter underneath the crumbling Rashomon gate to the city of Kyoto. The city has apparently recently been ravaged by wars and natural disasters. The Woodcutter is talking to himself. "I don't understand! I just cannot understand it!" A third man, a Commoner, joins them to get out of torrential rains. What cannot the woodcutter understand? The Priest comments that he, too, has never seen the likes of what he has seen today.
Priest: A man has been murdered.
Commoner: What, just one? There are always five or six bodies around this gate. No one worries about them.
Priest: I, for one, have seen hundreds of men dying like animals, but even I've never before heard anything as terrible as this. Horrible, horrible. It is worse than fires, wars, epidemics or bandits.
Commoner: Priest, let's not have a sermon. I just wanted to hear this story t keep out of the rain. I would just as soon listen to the rain than your sermon.
And so begins the telling of a story that is Rashomon, a story that will unfold in four different versions. Some parts of the story are told before a tribunal of some sort though we never see who the inquisitors are. And the versions of the story differ so we never know who is telling the truth. The Woodcutter comments:
Woodcutter: It's a lie. They are all lies.
Commoner: Well, men are only men. That's why they lie. They can't tell the truth, even to themselves.
Priest: That may be true. Because men are weak, they lie to deceive themselves.
Commoner: Not another sermon! I don't mind a lie if it's interesting.
Priest: Dead men tell no lies. I can't believe that men would be so sinful.
Commoner: I don't mind that. After all, who is to be trusted nowaday. (Laughter) Look, we all want to forget something so we create stories. It is easier that way.
The coda in Rashomon, which is built around the foundling baby, is something that I have often heard being criticised. George Barbarow (1952, reprinted in the Rashomon book) for instance likened the ending of the film to "a cliché so wild that Broadway audiences were able to recognize it as a joke in Boy Meets Girl..." (145), and this is in fact a sentiment that I have heard from quite a number of people that I have watched the film with.
The ending is often also criticised for not seeming to be entirely true to the characters (especially the woodcutter's action here seems contradictory to what we assume about his earlier actions), as well as being something of a "deux ex machina" invention with which Kurosawa could force his sentimentalism and "simplistic humanism" (don't remember whose term exactly) into the story....I tend to think of the three characters at Rashomon in terms of their functions regarding the narration of the testimonies. While these roles are not entirely clear-cut, I think that it is fair to say that the woodcutter is (largely) the storyteller, the priest the moral interpreter, and the commoner the one who the story is being told to. In other words, what we have are the source, the moral reflector and the observer. Which, if I may stretch this line of thinking even a bit further, could correspond to the woodcutter metaphorically standing for the story (the movie Rashomon itself), the priest standing for the interpreter (the director, or Kurosawa) and the commoner standing for the audience (us).
Richie, for example, notes that the final scene is what actually crucially differentiates Kurosawa's Rashomon from Akutagawa's 'In the Grove'. In his words, whereas Akutagawa "is content to question all moral values, all truth," Kurosawa "insists upon hope, upon the possibility of gratuitous action." (71)
Goodwin, meanwhile, also points out that the scene appears to indirectly confirm that the woodcutter had stolen the dagger, (138 ) leaving us to question even the woodcutter's second account.
In this way, Rashomon becomes very much a narrative of itself, or a narrative of the act of narration, something that is clearly not a novel idea, but perhaps the above is at least in some ways a novel way of arriving to this conclusion.
What the baby therefore allows is for the meta-narrative to unfold and to be fully displayed. Also, keeping in mind the metaphorical identities I have argued for here, the fact that the commoner turns out to be a thief would also seem like some kind of a statement about the audience -- that when it all boils down we are no better or more honest than the characters portrayed in the film. Our realities are no more objective than anyone else's. (Vili Manula from the Akira Kurosawa Forums http://akirakurosawa.info/forums/topic/rashomon-the-babys-function-and-the-identities-of-the-three-men)
We might also do well to recall Yoshimoto's take on this when he writes (as quoted above as an epigraph to this page): "If Rashomon has an optimistic outlook, it is not necessarily because of its affirmation of of human compassion and goodness but because of its jubilant celebration of film as a medium of storytelling." (189)