The Rashomon effect

Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves -Akira Kurasova

Nishanth Nazeem

A woodcutter, a priest and a commoner takes cover from a downpour at the partially collapsed Rashomon gate which opens to the precincts of Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. The woodcutter talks about an incident which happened in his life three days before – The rape of a woman and the apparent murder of her husband, a Samurai.

The priest who witnessed the trail shares his side of the story including the different testimonials given by those involved in the incident – the murderer, the victim and the diseased (who gives his account through a magical medium). With each account conflicting and difficult to reconcile the story is unexpectedly ended putting the reader in a position to figure out their own conclusions.

This formed the idea for Rashomon, an 11th century period film by legendary Japanese film director Akira Kurasova.
Rashomon marked the entrance of Japanese film to the international audience.

It won several awards including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and an Academy Honorary Award at the 24th Academy Awards in 1952. The overwhelming attention to the movie made Kurasova a global phenomenon. Film critics all around the world voted the film as their favorite.

The film’s layered treatment which involved the many complex plots told in flashbacks with the various characters providing prejudiced, self-serving and contradictory views about the same incident formed an epistemological model by itself.

Thus the term “The Rashomon effect” was coined to serve as a modern academic reference to similar events.

The Incomprehensible script

After completing his 10th film, Scandal, Kurasova was approached by Daiei studio to make another film for them following their success with the director on their previous collaboration. The script that Kurasova chose was written by a young script writer Shinobu Hashimoto (who later collaborated with the director to write eight more screenplays) based on the Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s novel In a grove.

What strike him was the story line which focuses on the subjectivity of truth but the studio’s president set aside the script marking it “incomprehensible”. Kurasova, came up with a simple explanation for the script –

“Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings—the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are.”

In his autobiography, Kurasova has mentioned that through Rashomon he had discovered yet another unfortunate aspect of the human personality and it was when the same studio president applauded the film and took credits for it during an interview on a television channel. Kurasova had this to say about the incident

“Watching the television interview, I had the feeling I was back in Rashomon all over again. It was as if the pathetic self-delusions of the ego, those failings I had attempted to portray in the film, were being shown in real life. People indeed have immense difficulty in talking about themselves as they really are.”

The long walk to glory

After the purposeful delay, shooting of Rashomon started with a cut down budget. To reduce the cost Kurasova chose to shoot the film mostly in real locations. The only sets which were built were the big gate resembling the Rashomon gate at the opening scene and the court room. The cast and the crew stayed together while filming progressed.

The cinematographer, Kazua Miyagawa broke many taboos while shooting. He experimented with many contrasting shots, series of close-up shots, triangular compositions and even shots which were pointed directly into the sun.

To avoid delays in shooting, a parallel schedule was made – On sunny days filming was done in the forest and on cloudy days the rain scenes were shot at the gate set.

To create the rainfall, fire engines and big fire hoses were brought. To make the rain visible in the shots the water was mixed with blank ink. The crew worked braving scorching temperature and the wild forest. Kurasova has mentioned this account in his autobiography –

“When the location moved from the Nara Mountains to the Komyoji temple forest in Kyoto, The sultry summer sun hit with full force, but even though some members of my crew succumbed to heat stroke, our work pace never flagged. Every afternoon we pushed through without even stopping for a single swallow of water.”

Rashomon, on its release in Japan, garnered only a moderate success. Most of the Japanese critics gave the film a thumps down. They called the film’s treatment western oriented. After the mediocre performance of Rashomon, Kurasova went on to make his next film which ended up as a big failure at the cinemas.               

With these setbacks the studio reserved from backing further movies of him. Disappointed on hearing the news, Kurasova took a long walk back home mulling over on the things which went wrong and eventually accepting his fate. Kurasova arrived home depressed and tired. Suddenly his wife came running out. She yelled “Congratulations, Rashomon has the Grand Prix”

Kurasova was 71 when he was asked by his many well-wishers to write an account of his life, an autobiography. Contemplating on this idea the man spent many days swaying through his memories to pen down but all he could recall was his days behind the camera.

He went on to write at the very beginning of his autobiography “Take myself, sub-tract movies and the result is zero”. He ended it by saying this –

“Rashomon became the gateway for my entry into the international film world, and yet as an autobiographer it is impossible for me to pass through the Rashomon gate and on to the rest of my life. Perhaps someday I will be able to do so”.

( Nishanth Nazeem, is an ex-IT engineer and ardent film lover. He can be reached at

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