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  • Writer's pictureKathy Michelle Chacón

Rashomon: An Alternative Reading to a Notoriously Cynical Classic

By Kathy Michelle Chacón

In 1951, six years after the end of the second World War and the devastating defeat of Japan at the hands of the atomic bomb, a Japanese film won The Golden Lion at the 12th annual Venice International Film Festival — Rashomon (1950) (Gazetas 161). Its unconventional approach to storytelling and bold exploration of profound philosophical inquiries has cemented the film in cinematic history and has even influenced culture at large (Prince). What is so compelling—and deeply troubling—about the film is that it denies its viewers the truth. While this concealment of truth commonly invokes a cynical reading of the film, this essay, through utilizing a historical framework, will explore how this film calls for a radical national awakening, a move to individualism, and a more nuanced understanding of the human soul.

After their surrender in World War II, Japan was left to reconcile their involvement in the war. In Feminizing National Tropes of War, Japanese and Media Studies scholar Setsu Shigematsu discusses how this attempt for reconciliation manifested itself in the feminization of Japan’s national narrative (Shigematsu 5). In the mid-1950s, this feminized Japan presented itself as a peace-loving nation who upheld non-violent values unless in the name of self-defense (Shigematsu 7). This reimagined national consciousness is both demonstrated and produced through films such as Keisuke Kinoshita’s Twenty-Four Eyes (1954). Twenty-Four Eyes depicts a caring community whose members are complicit in wartime efforts not as a result of individual evilness, but as a result of their loyalty to the government. The film, and the feminized nation, absolved the people of Japan for their involvement in the war and instead placed the accountability onto an invisible authority figure. Released in 1950, Rashomon anticipates this reconstructed national narrative and calls for a radical shift in the way its viewers navigate truth and decision-making.

As previously mentioned, the philosophical richness of Rashomon derives from its unique narrative structure and concealment of the truth. The film employs effective character devices and a non-linear storytelling to instill viewers with an important lesson on individualism and informed decision-making. For a large majority of the film, the three men who take shelter at the Rashomon Gate, the woodcutter, the priest, and the commoner, act as an extension of the film’s audience as they mirror our interests, curiosities, and skepticism surrounding the firsthand accounts of the crimes. Upon hearing Tajōmaru’s retelling of the incident, the first account depicted in the film, the commoner is satisfied with his version of the truth and implies that it is a shut case. The commoner uses his previous conceptions of the bandit and the confession not only to decide a guilty verdict, but also to accuse Tajōmaru of an unrelated crime, stating, in an English translation, “Tajōmaru is famous for being a womanizer… Last fall, a young wife… and her maid were found dead in the mountains. That must have been him too” (Rashomon 1950). As the film progresses and more witnesses share their version of the story, the commoner changes his mind, “I see. The more I hear the more confused I get” (Rashomon 1950). He and the two other men are not alone in their tendencies to jump to conclusions. As a reflection of the audience, a reflection of us, these men take us step by step through the process of seeking answers and truth. Like them, we are given the evidence available and encouraged to use our best judgment in deciding what we believe. The back-to-back narration of the stories teaches us patience and the open-endedness of the narrative invites us to form our own opinion on the events without being told what to believe. This is a profound message to send in 1950, a moment where Japan is at a crossroad between its kamikaze culture of World War II and its soon-to-be adoption of a feminized national consciousness.

Akira Kurosawa, however, does not meet us at this crossroad with judgement or cynicism — instead, the filmmaker uses this opportunity to highlight the complexities of the human spirit. Throughout the various firsthand accounts of the crimes, we experience different versions of the same event, but also different versions of the same person. Their conflicting stories, albeit meshed with potential facts and potential make-believe, highlight the multifaceted nature of the characters on screen. Throughout the film, there is a great sense of ambivalence surrounding the nature of humankind. This ambivalence is most clearly examined in the film’s final scene. In this scene, the three men at the gate, who have mostly acted as spectators up to this point, discover an abandoned infant. This discovery prompts an examination of their individual characters and moral compasses. When the woodcutter criticizes the commoner for stealing the baby’s kimono, the commoner confronts him about the pearl dagger which was not recovered from the scene of the crime. Later, when the woodcutter reaches for the baby, the priest scolds him as he believes he is an immoral person for stealing. The woodcutter breaks down into tears and reveals that he wishes to take the baby in because he has six children of his own. At this moment, the woodcutter is not fully good and not fully evil. He is human. This depiction of nuanced characters challenges the binaries of black and white and good and bad. The film insists that the human soul is more complex than that.

Neither cynical nor mean spirited, Kurosawa crafts Rashomon as an open-ended question not only to his home country, but to the world. In doing so, he encourages us all to question each and every truth so that we may enrich our sense of individualism and understanding of the human condition.

Works Cited

Gazetas, Aristides. An Introduction to World Cinema. Jefferson, McFarland Incorporated Publishers, 2016.

Kurosawa, Akira, director. Rashomon. Daiei Productions, 1950.

Prince, Stephen. “The Rashomon Effect.” The Criterion Collection,

Shigematsu, Setsu. “Feminizing National Tropes of War: Empire, Movie-Magic and Maternal

Love.” ILearn,



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