If you haven’t read “Toshiro Mifune, and Akira Kurosawa’s “NORA INU / STRAY DOG”, please check that out first. This post is a continuation of that thought.
Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune are the two actors most closely associated with Akira Kurosawa’s work. Shimura had perhaps the longest run as an actor under Kurosawa, beginning before the end of World War II, and continuing until the end of his life (in 1982).
Shimura appeared in the director’s debut film Sanshiro Sugata (1943), and the last film of Kurosawa’s in which he acted was Kagemusha (1980); Kurosawa specifically wrote a part for him. His roles include the doctor in Drunken Angel (1948), the veteran detective in Stray Dog (1949), the flawed lawyer in Scandal (1950), the mortally ill bureaucrat in Ikiru (1952), and the lead samurai Kambei in Seven Samurai (1954).
He was known for his “impressive and beautifully modulated performance(s),” and that acting ability helped Kurosawa elevate movies like Drunken Angel into a multi-faceted film that William Bernhardt suggested was, “a deeper probing of postwar Japanese life than one expected in a story of a tubercular petty racketeer and the drunken doctor who tries to save him despite himself.”(1)
Rashomon (1950) is a story about how impossible it is to find truth in human memory, since the various views of the past are presented as being both similar and vastly different. The death of a samurai and possible rape of his wife are pinned on the young bandit Tajōmaru, portrayed by Mifune, while Shimura takes the role of a nameless Woodcutter. The Woodcutter is the only character who is both at the scene of the crime, and at the discussion of it afterwards, but the character shows us that knowing the truth doesn’t matter if you don’t come forward when necessary.
Tajōmaru, fearing dishonor more than death, boasts of killing the samurai but the dead man’s ghost swears otherwise. Just as he refused to admit that he’d fallen from the stolen horse he did not know how to ride, Tajōmaru refuses to admit that he was both afraid to fight a trained samurai and disinterested in fighting for the man’s wife.(2)
Shimura, as the Woodcutter, could have stepped in to be Tajōmaru’s surrogate father. He knows how the murder actually happened but because he stole (and sold) the samurai’s knife, he lies about what he knows in order to save himself.
In this role, Shimura is cast as the abandoning father, opposite to the supportive, caring, men he played in Drunken Angel and Stray Dog. He has six children of his own at home that he is trying to support, so he clearly knows the importance of looking out for the younger generation — considered an important aspect of the ideal man — but chooses to ignore that ideal in this case.
The young bandit could have been saved if the Woodcutter had spoken the truth at the trial. It is this betrayal that Shimura’s character tries to redeem by adopting an abandoned baby at the end of the film, but is that act enough?
Kurosawa’s direction and Shimura’s superb acting certainly imply that if the Woodcutter hasn’t found redemption by that point, there is hope for his future. What seems a very cynical film — lies, selfishness, wrongful convictions — closes on a shot of the sun coming out from behind the clouds after the rain.
That moment becomes a cliche over time, as a thousand filmmakers used it as a kind of shorthand in later films, but just then, it’s a relatively new way to show good fortune smiling down on us. Everything you’ve endured watching Rashomon through to that ending is worth it. Every misgiving you feel about humanity is lessened, a little, by knowing we can make the wrong choice, but that doesn’t stop us from making the right choice the next chance we get.
Would it have felt the same if the Woodcutter had been played by Mifune instead? Do we need Shimura’s age and depth to convince us that his complexity is real?
Rashomon 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, and is now considered one of the greatest films ever made.
If you haven’t seen it yet, make the time.
(1) Donald Richie. “A Personal Record,” Film Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Autumn, 1960), University of California Press. pp. 26.
(2) James F. Davidson, The Antioch Review, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Winter, 1954), pp. 492-501
Note: While the film borrows the title and setting from Ryūnosuke Akutagawa‘s short story “Rashōmon“, it is actually based on Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove“, which provides the characters and plot.