11 Classic Facts About Rashomon
More than 60 years ago, a rising star filmmaker put together a small cast, built a giant set, and turned a screenplay almost no one wanted into a landmark feature film. To this day, Rashomon is considered one of the greatest entries in the stellar filmography of Akira Kurosawa. It brought Japan to the world cinema stage, made Kurosawa an icon, and continues to endure both as a work of art and as an example of just how fragile our relationship to the truth can be. To celebrate this iconic film, here are 11 facts about how it got made.
1. STUDIOS WERE RELUCTANT TO MAKE IT.
Akira Kurosawa had the idea and the budget for what would become Rashomon as early as 1948, but for at least two years he couldn’t get a studio to commit to the film. The Toyoko Company, who originally planned to fund the film, backed out in 1948 after determining the film to be too much of a risk. Toho, the studio where Kurosawa made many of his films, said no. Then the Daiei studio signed a one-year contract with Kurosawa and agreed to fund the film after Kurosawa expanded the script to add a more definitive beginning and ending. Even as Daiei backed the film, though, the head of the studio—Masaichi Nagata—wasn’t impressed, walking out of his first screening. Of course, when the film became a darling of international cinema, he was more than happy to take credit.
2. IT’S BASED ON TWO SHORT STORIES.
The script that would become Rashomon began as a slightly short screenplay by Kurosawa’s friend, Shinobu Hashimoto, adapted from the short story “In A Grove” by the Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. The story, like the film, features varying accounts of an incident told by different people.
Kurosawa liked the idea, but felt the script needed expansion, so he used Akutagawa’s story Rashomon, in which characters huddle in the rain under the Rashomon gate, as inspiration. The two merged, and the film was born.
3. ITS VISUAL STYLE WAS INSPIRED BY SILENT FILMS.
While thinking about how Rashomon should look, Kurosawa remembered the days before films had sound, when visuals were the star, and hunted down French avant-garde films of the silent era for research. He saw the film as a “play of light and shadow,” and as a result many of its most famous sequences are built upon the camera, not the dialogue.
“I like silent pictures and I always have,” Kurosawa said. “They are often so much more beautiful than sound pictures are. Perhaps they had to be.”
4. THE MAIN SET WAS SO BIG THEY COULDN’T BUILD THE WHOLE THING.
In researching Rashomon, Kurosawa paid particular attention to how the titular “Rashomon Gate” should look, and did research on other similar gates of the period. In the end, he determined that the gate should be much larger than originally intended. It was so big, in fact, that if they’d built it intact, it would have collapsed on itself.
“It was so immense that a complete roof would have buckled the support pillars," Kurosawa said. "Using the artistic device of dilapidation as an excuse, we constructed only half a roof and were able to get away with our measurements."
5. AN ASSISTANT LEFT THE FILM BECAUSE HE DIDN’T UNDERSTAND THE STORY.
Rashomon’s now-famous nonlinear storytelling style might seem commonplace to modern viewers, but it wasn’t in 1950. As a result, three of Kurosawa’s assistant directors came to him during production to ask him to explain the script. He explained that the film was about “the impossibility of truly understanding human psychology,” and two of the assistants left to read the script again. A third kept asking for further clarification, to the point that Kurosawa eventually asked for his resignation.
6. THE CAST INVENTED THEIR OWN DISH DURING THE SHOOT.
Rashomon’s small cast became a tight, energetic group during production, enduring grueling shooting days and then going out drinking together at night. According to Kurosawa, they eventually created a meal together, which they called “Mountain Bandit Broil.”
“It consisted of beef strips sautéed in oil and then dipped in a sauce made of curry powder in melted butter," according to Kurosawa. "But while they held their chopsticks in one hand, in the other they’d hold a raw onion. From time to time they’d put a strip of meat on the onion and take a bite out of it. Thoroughly barbaric.”
7. LEECHES WERE A PROBLEM.
For the iconic forest scenes, Kurosawa chose the pristine Nara forest, and the cast and crew happily headed out into the trees to shoot there. There was just one problem: leeches. They would drop out of the trees, crawl up cast members’ legs, and generally plague the entire production. So, the cast and crew came up with a simple solution: salt.
“Before we left for the location in the morning we would cover our necks, arms and socks with salt," Kurosawa said. "Leeches are like slugs—they avoid salt."
8. THE ICONIC RAIN SCENES WERE CREATED WITH INK.
Anyone who’s ever seen Rashomon remembers the iconic shots of characters crouched under the Rashomon Gate, sheltering themselves from torrential rain. While shooting, though, the production had trouble getting the rain (created by fire hoses) to show up on camera when silhouetted against the sky. So, to make it more visible, black ink was added to the water to create contrast.
9. IT BROKE THE RULES OF CONTEMPORARY CINEMATOGRAPHY.
To further emphasize his “light and shadow” metaphors, Kurosawa wanted his camera to sometimes point directly at the sun, creating a lens flare effect. At the time, this technique was so frowned upon that some believed it would literally burn the film, rendering it useless. Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa was willing to take the risk, though, and the result is iconic.
10. IT IS CREDITED WITH INTRODUCING JAPANESE CINEMA TO THE WORLD.
After making Rashomon, Kurosawa went on to direct an adaptation of one of his most beloved novels, Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. The film was greeted with very poor reviews, and he was crestfallen. Then, at the peak of his despair, he got a call informing him that Rashomon had won the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, a festival he didn’t even know the film was screening at. It would then go on to win an honorary Academy Award for Outstanding Foreign Language Film. To this day, Rashomon is credited with bringing Japanese cinema onto the global stage.
11. ITS NAME IS SYNONYMOUS WITH UNRELIABLE NARRATION.
Since its rise as a global pop culture phenomenon, Rashomon’s narrative has inspired a particular phrase used everywhere from TV shows to courtrooms: “The Rashomon Effect.” This describes a situation in which different people have different accounts of the same incident, perhaps in part because they lie to make themselves look favorable.
The Films of Akira Kurosawa, by Donald Richie