Lighting and Meaning in KurosawaÕs Rashomon

by Asa Fitch

Akira KurosawaÕs Rashomon (1950) was a groundbreaking film for the western world in many ways. The cinematography was inventive, the sets were monstrous and beautiful, the actors were incredibly emotive, and the theme of the film was unlike anything Classic Hollywood could churn out. As Bosley Crowther remarked in his review for The New York Times, "RashomonÉisÉan artistic achievement of such distinct and exotic character that it is difficult to estimate it alongside conventional story filmsÉ.[I]t isnÕt a picture of the sort that weÕre accustomed to at allÉ" In this essay, I will examine the film with particular interest in the aspects of lighting and the dichotomy of light and dark that brings so much meaning to the film. The goal of this essay, then, is to prove that the lighting in this film is essential to its theme, and to illustrate the subtle ways in which the profound message of the relativity of the truth, central to the thematic landscape of the film, is reinforced visually.

Rashomon is based on two stories, "Rashomon" and "In a Grove," both by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Its structure (the telling of the same story from different perspectives) and theme come from these original works. Kurosawa, we might be inclined to say, does little more than retell a great story from the eleventh century . Of course, this is very far from the truth. KurosawaÕs contribution of this beautiful world of light and darkness gives the text a universe far outside AkutagawaÕs imaginings. Kurosawa also adds much substance to characters that are empty in the original stories, which are very short, hardly containing the elaborateness of the film.

The thematic function of light and dark is in no way accidental. It was KurosawaÕs aim to be as symbolic as he could with light and shadow, saying in his autobiography that the film "goes into the depths of the human heart as if with a surgeonÕs scalpel, laying bare its dark complexities and bizarre twists. These strange impulses of the human heart would be expressed through the use of an elaborately fashioned play of light and shadow"(Autobiography, 182) It is these strange and deeply imbedded impulses, rather than rationality, that guide the characters in their lies. Light and shadow, as Kurosawa explains, represents not only good and evil, but also rationality and impulsiveness. Rationality is equated with good for obvious reasons; when we act rationally, we do the best thing. The same relationship exists between evil and impulse. Impulsiveness is considered bad because it causes us to do things according to our desires rather than our logical reasons.

The film begins with a torrential downpour outside of gigantic, dilapidated, broken old gate in Kyoto called the Rashomon. The gate itself is nearly totally destroyed, but it still provides adequate shelter for anyone unfortunate enough to be stuck outside in the rain. This is where the story begins. Inside this dark gate, the heavy rain blurring all surroundings, almost acting as walls, we find a priest and woodcutter, both in bewilderment. It is totally unclear, at first, why they are so confused: "I canÕt understand it. I just canÕt understand it at all."(Rashomon, 35) A commoner who comes in from the rain aids the discovery of the cause of bewilderment. He acts both literally and figuratively as someone outside the story looking into it, curious. His position is most like that of the viewer in this first scene. He is perplexed by the bewilderment of the priest and woodcutter, and wants to know more. The presence of the rain provides an excellent excuse for the story to be told.

In these first dark and rainy scenes, Kurosawa paints a bleak picture of the world. First, there is the rain, gushing down like a gigantic faucet from the sky. Then, the destroyed gate, its apparent grandiose scale and strong foundation reduced to utter ruins. Thirdly, the clothing of the men is ragged, dark and dirty. Light in this scene, to put it lightly, is sparse. The only glint of light in the scene reflects off the commonerÕs naked upper body. This nakedness, as Keiko McDonald suggests, is representative of the commonerÕs selfish desire to be the absolute truth, this absoluteness represented by his bare body, not covering anything up. Going deeper, though, the commoner being in some way a representative of the movie audience (he is spectating the story much like the audience is), he represents the bare-bones, primitivistic nature of man; stripped of clothing, the commoner reminds us of the importance of the body in driving manÕs mind. His nakedness might reflect the assumed pessimistic view of the audience that man is inherently impulsive and irrational, or at least that man is more desire-driven than logical in his choices.

The chief debate that underlies the whole film, and this whole dispute of rationality versus impulsiveness, is simply the question of manÕs inherent goodness or evil. This theme is illustrated by the charactersÕ accounts of the rape and murder in the forest, which in some aspects is the truth and in others only the distorted shadow of it. Whether people in general are more inclined to tell the truth as they see it or to distort it a little bit to favor them and their social position is a central question of the film. The woodcutterÕs version of the story is rich in symbolism regarding this question. As he walks through the forest in search of firewood, the sun shines in on the woodcutter through the forest canopy, obscured by trees. This creates the beautiful cinematic effect of patches of light and dark, shadows of the foliage dancing across the woodcutterÕs face, clearly reminding us of the duality of light and dark, good and evil, rationality and impulsiveness, and truth and fiction in all human beings.

The effect of pointing the camera right at the sun in this scene and in others is an innovation in cinematography. Until Rashomon was made, pointing the camera directly at the sun was unheard of. It did not occur to anyone that pointing the camera at the sun would do anything more than burn the eyes. Rashomon proved this wrong. "These days it is not uncommon to point the camera directly at the sun, but at the time Rashomon was being made it was still one of the taboos of cinematography."(Autobiography, 185) Not only is the effect pleasing to the eye, but it gives us an interesting perspective in the forest, looking up at the canopy, the blinking eyelid of the sun. Kurosawa thought that he had to somehow include the sun itself in the picture because of its importance as a symbol in the film; this is where the idea came from. The metaphor of the human heart as a forest, something that is wild and hard to understand even for humans themselves, of which we have patches of knowledge and patches of obscurity, is also emphasized by this camera work. Venturing into the human jungle-heart, we find both good and evil, sun flickers tickling the dark forest floor.

When he made Rashomon, Kurosawa wanted to return in some ways to the silent era in which he grew up. He remembers clearly in his autobiography the beauty of the silent film that talkies have lost: "Since the advent of the talkies in the 1930Õs, I felt, we had misplaced and forgotten what was so wonderful about the old silent movies. I was aware of the esthetic loss as a constant irritation."(Autobiography, 182) Kurosawa searched for, and found, this beauty again in Rashomon. The scenes in the forest, like the one just described, use light and shadow in such a way which is meaningful and beautiful, and like silent films, which is almost understandable without dialogue.

The police headquarters scene where all of the characters are interrogated about the crime starkly contrasts the other two important locales in the film, the ruined gate and the forest. It is extremely bright and sunny. The sun in this scene, which illuminates everything and everybody, can be seen in this context as an attempt to shed light on the shadowy truths of this crime. Ironically, as bright as the sun is, it fails, and each of the three people actually involved in the rape and murder in the forest, Tajomaru the bandit, Takehiro the samurai, and Masago the wife, blame the murder on themselves. Each has his or her own reasons for not fully disclosing the truth, perhaps for fear of shame, and thus the testimony just leads to confusion.

The first person to testify at the police headquarters is the priest. His role in the crime is very external. He saw the murdered samurai and his wife traveling on the road before they were killed. His story is just verification that the murdered samurai and his wife were in fact on the road where the murdered man was found. The priestÕs stance on human nature comes through here and in the gate scenes. He is idealistic, and believes that man is inherently good. The recent crime brings his position into question and he begins to doubt himself: "I, for one, have seen hundreds of men dying, killed like animals. YetÉeven I have never heard anything as horrible as this before."(Rashomon, 38) He again asserts this position on the issue of manÕs nature quite clearly: "[I]f men do not tell the truth, do not trust one another, then the earth becomes a kind of hellÉ.I trust menÉ.I donÕt want to believe that this world is a hell."(Rashomon, 87) Though the priest says this, his beliefs have definitely come into question. This is shown at the end of the film when a baby is found crying, and the woodcutter reaches out for the child, wishing to take it and care for it, which is interpreted by the Priest as an attempt to steal the babyÕs things. The Priest does not trust the woodcutter, who actually does want to care for the child. His faith in man has broken down to some extent. The darkness of the PriestÕs clothes in the gate scenes perhaps represents the this modified view that man can appear externally dark and evil, but internally and intrinsically good.

The commonerÕs standpoint is in direct opposition. He believes that man is inherently evil. "[M]en are only men. ThatÕs why they lie. They canÕt tell the truth. Not even to each other."(Films of Kurosawa, 74) This is the central message of the film, and these are the types of people that Kurosawa wished to portray. Idealists about humans and their nature, like the Priest, should put their views on the chopping block, hold a knife, and think about it. "Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beingsÐthe kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better than they really are,"(Autobiography, 183) said Kurosawa himself of the film. The characters deceive even themselves; they refuse to face or acknowledge the truth because they fear it. The commonerÕs standpoint is that all men and women are like this, and it is a property of mankind to lie and embellish reality even to itself. The priest thinks that people lie because they are weak and cannot restrain themselves; they are impulsive because of this weakness. The bandit argues against this notion of human weakness, saying that we are very aware of embellishments, and are also strong but primitive. We are guided by impulse not because we cannot resist it, but because we do not want to resist it; it is our nature to be impulsive. Ironically, the truth of the matter lies somewhere between these two polar views: like the sun shining through the forest canopy, human nature is both light and dark, good and evil, rational and impulsive.

The next part of the film focuses on Tajomaru. First, the police agent who caught him recounts their encounter. The agent says that the bandit was inept at horse riding and fell off his stolen horse as he was being pursued. Tajomaru has a different account of even this story. He says he fell from the horse because he drank bad water. Both parties have reasons to lie in this case, but I would venture to say that the audience immediately recognizes Tajomaru as a liar. His crazy cackling and mad expressions make us doubt his story. Yet the agent has reason to lie too; it is clear that Tajomaru has committed the crime, and it would be nice if some type of immediate retribution in the form of being thrown from the horse he stole were to have happened. This degrades the bandit even more and shows him petty and dishonorable, which is what the police agent wants. The hot, sunny scene ends with a picture of puffy cumulonimbus clouds, with shadowy and light parts, further reinforcing the light and dark of human nature.

After the police agent leaves, we come to TajomaruÕs version of the rape and murder. Since he seems to have ample reason to lie about the events, we almost expect him to proclaim his innocence. Instead, he tells a viable story, in which he is guilty of the rape and the murder. There is some doubt to his story, however, because it seems unlikely that his fencing skill would be up to par with that of a samurai. Perhaps this part is an embellishment, though it is entirely possible that the samurai was a very weak swordsman, and failed in defending himself and his wife as a result. In any case, his story seems at least plausible, if not probable.

After TajomaruÕs testimony, the wife gives her story, different from the banditÕs in many ways. In her account, the wife kills her own husband, not realizing that she will stab him as she faints. This version seems to benefit the wife, and is quite suspicious. Although the blame for her husbandÕs death rests on her, she is more honorable to kill her husband than to leave him alone. He failed in defending her against this rapist bandit, and it is only noble for her if he is killed, and even more appropriate if he is killed "accidentally" by her own hand.

The husbandÕs story, which ensues, is also very suspicious. It is told through a medium (he is murdered in the forest), and although he is dead, the samuraiÕs story seems suspicious. In his version, the killer is himself. He commits suicide, the only honorable thing to do after his wife has been taken advantage of and has run off with Tajomaru. This story is the most honorable for the husband. For a samurai to be killed in swordfight by a lowly bandit is a great dishonor to himself and to his name.

The final recounting of the events in the forest is by the woodcutter. His story is again different from all the others. It recalls moments in some form from all versions of the story. The woodcutter, who seems at first to have no reason at all for telling any lies, becomes suspect of the same type of distortion of the truth that some of the characters are clearly guilty of. His inability to account for the location of the expensive dagger that was important in the forest scene casts some suspicion on him. Perhaps he lies in his account to hide the fact that he has stolen the dagger from the scene. Perhaps he has even more to hide, though. Could the woodcutter have killed the husband? It seems very improbable considering his demeanor, but it would explain his cover of the truth.

The characters of the woodcutter and the bandit are very interesting in that they fall in-between the priestÕs and the commonerÕs ideas about human nature. The bandit, who outwardly seems evil, crazy and impulsive, might actually be telling the truth. On the other hand, the woodcutter, who seems peaceful and humble, may actually be covering up his actions with lies. Both of these views fall between the priestÕs idealism and the commonerÕs realism. They represent exactly the type of people that Kurosawa was referring to when he filmed the forest scenes with brilliant use of light and shadow. These two represent the middle ground, the truth about humankind.

Many people find it hard to understand this film, and wonder if it has a point or a message. It was reviewed negatively in its time by many people who did not really understand the film. Even KurosawaÕs own assistant directors initially had trouble understanding what the film meant, what it was principally about. How can the truth be relative? How can humans be both impulsive and rational? Good and evil? After having seen the film, it is hard not to understand it. It is simple and beautiful, and KurosawaÕs use of light and shadow makes it so.


i. Bosley Crowther. "Rashomon." The New York Times. 27 December 1951 (one day after the filmÕs release on the 26th.) ii. The century in which Rashomon is supposed to take place is actually a subject of dispute. When the film was released, subtitles at the beginning announced twelfth century Kyoto as the filmÕs context. Kurosawa himself, however, says that it was meant to be eleventh century Kyoto, during a time of famine and war. In any event, it was certainly the late Heian period (794-1184) iii. Autobiography refers to Akira Kurosawa. Something Like an Autobiography. Trans. Audie Bock. New York: Random House, 1983. iv. Rashomon refers to the screenplay by Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto. "Rashomon." Rashomon. Donald Richie, ed. New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1986. v. Keiko I. McDonald. "The Dialectic of Light and Darkness in KurosawaÕs Rashomon." Rashomon. Donald Richie, ed. New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1986. vi. Donald Richie. The Films of Akira Kurosawa. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1965.
Page last modified 14:35:49 on 10/10/98 by Asa Fitch