Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) is a black and white film narrating a story of a woman raped by a bandit in front of the eyes of her samurai husband, who is later murdered. Based on Akutagawa’s short story “In the Grove,” the film gives accounts of all the participants of an incident, as well as of two witnesses present at the trial. Although neither Kurosawa nor Akutagawa gives an answer as to who kills the husband, the film remains classical not because of its mystery but because of its metaphorical language, modern filming techniques, and black and white graphic of silent movies. For the analysis of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, I choose the scene of raping, as it perfectly illustrates film’s cinematic techniques. The scene impressed me with its deep symbolical meaning and profound film photography.
The scene of raping begins at the moment when Tajōmaru the bandit drags the wife to demonstrate her husband who is allegedly sick in the clearing, deep in the forest. Kurosawa applies his favorite method of triangle to show the alignment of forces among the participants. The wife dressed in white is standing on the left, in the beam of light; her husband is sitting on the ground between his wife and the bandit; while the bandit is standing on the right, in the shadow. The music creates an atmosphere of suspense, uneasiness, and anxiety. No one knows what is going to happen. To show that a wordless question is in the air, Kurosawa uses contrasting shots. First, he shows the man from the back in the foreground with his wife in the background: he is raising his head and looking at the bandit. In the next shot, the bandit cannot bear his stare and looks away, at the woman; the woman returns his gaze and the bandit looks back at the samurai. Finally, the samurai looks questioningly at his wife who takes his gaze as an incentive to act. The music increases its tempo and gives a disturbing feeling. The samurai’s wife grabs the dagger from behind her sash and lunges at the bandit. Tajōmaru is pleasantly surprised with such fierceness and takes pleasure in dodging and ducking away from the woman’s stabs. As the scene takes place in the forest, dappling light covers the participants of the action. There is a moment when the woman falls on the ground. When she is rising up, the shot frames her and Tajōmaru in full height, while the samurai is seen in the distance as if jammed between them. As it will be seen later in the film, the bandit and the woman seal the samurai’s fate. The shot where he stays in the foreground between the standing bandit and the woman emphasizes how much his destiny depends on one of them. The desperate woman, not being able to hit or stab the bandit, starts crying and wailing. Tajōmaru laughs loudly and grabs her while looking at the samurai. The samurai is sitting in the shade of the tree and is seen side-on. He closes his eyes and lowers his head. Tajōmaru draws the woman close against himself. When he begins kissing her, she thrashes him, and there is a sequence of the tops of the trees seen from below swirling around. While the bandit keeps kissing her the woman eventually quiets down. She looks at the swirling trees and sees the sun peeking from behind the leaves. Looking at the bright sun for a few second, the woman closes her eyes and at that moment the dagger falls out from her hand and it lands upright point down. The next shot shows Tajōmaru from the back kissing the woman: her hand climbs up his back and pulls him closer. The scene is finished with a wipe.
It is commonly known that the light symbolizes truth, reason, and goodness, while the darkness means evil and lie. An opposition of reason and emotions can also be established in the play of light and darkness. Inasmuch as Kurosawa explores the theme of truth in the film, in the majority of scenes, dappling light signifies ambiguity and inability to distinguish the truth from the lie or choose reason over emotions. In the scene of rape, the samurai’s wife looks directly at the sun trying to think of a way to overcome her predicament, but eventually she closes her eyes and plunges herself into the darkness. She forgoes the necessity to break free and gives herself to the bandit. Additionally, the director chooses the forest as the scene location not accidentally. The thicket can be associated with unconscious desires or tangled thoughts. The fact that the bandit chooses a clearing in the wood where he leads the husband and the wife can symbolize people’s hidden desires. Finally, the dagger falling to the ground point down and entering it upright has a strong sexual connotation.
The scenes in the forest are shot in a rather conventional way with usual methods of sequencing and changing shots within the axis of action. The three protagonists are shown in long shots, medium shots, and close-ups. However, the sequence leading to the raping scene is shot in an unconventional, modernist way. While Tajōmaru and the woman are running through the forest, Kurosawa uses rapid montage, which reminds of Impressionist paintings. Rather than telling something, this method creates an atmosphere and an impression.
In his article “Rashomon,” the author Donald Richie also comments on the discussed issue by arguing that the walk through the forest produces “cinematic impressionism” when “one literally receives impressions: the passing trees overhead, the sun, the glint of sunlight on the axe” (14). Furthermore, Richie argues that the masterful use of composition lent Kurosawa’s film the aesthetics of silent movies. Shot in black and white, the film is established on the stable composition method. As has been mentioned earlier, the director used triangles in the composition.