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Thirty Years Apart: Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON (1950) & KAGEMUSHA (1980)

[This article is an edited version of an assignment originally written for my MSc.]

Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and Kagemusha (1980) are separated by thirty years, yet maintain similar themes and stylistic directorial traits. Rashomon is a film framed by a narrative that examines the truth given in a triptych of stories which detail the murder of a Samurai. Kagemusha is about a Feudal Japanese Lord who dies, and leaves his identical impersonator in his place.

The similarities between a singular director’s oeuvre can be examined through the auteur theory. Initially theorised by François Truffaut in 1954, it is easier to present the theory through the discussion that followed by Andrew Sarris. In his piece ‘Note on the Auteur Theory’, Sarris agrees with his contemporary Ian Cameron, in that “…the director is the author of a film, the person who gives it any distinctive quality.” (pp. 62-63) Sarris does go on to disagree with Cameron’s other comments on the auteur theory, but this is not relevant to understanding the simple idea behind auteurism in film, and then applying this to Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Kagemusha. Sarris does provide more detail to this simplicity, “Over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristic of style, which serve as his signature. The way a film looks and moves should have some relationship to the way a director thinks and feels.” (64) He does then imply that American films are generally superior than their foreign counterparts on this point, which undermines his initial point, but again this is not relevant to the forthcoming discussion.

Truth and the obscurity of it bridges the two films. The narrative of Rashomon is such that each of the differing retellings of events, first from the bandit, then the wife, then the dead Samurai (through a medium) and finally from the woodcutter, is a deliberate narrative choice. Each of the events is similar in minute details, for example the location of the bush where the Samurai gets killed is shared by the story of the wife and bandit; but the most important detail, of whom is responsible, differs. This leads to the woodcutter, whom is the only eyewitness, to provide the ‘true’ events to the priest and the peasant; all three of which grapple with what is actually true. But it is implied that he himself cannot be trusted, as he refused to get involved at the initial court hearing, and could be responsible for the theft of the ornate dagger.

In Kagemusha, Lord Shingen hires a petty unnamed thief to be his double to confuse his enemies after his death. The unnamed thief, the eponymous kagemusha, in an act of self-deception takes over the role of the deceased Lord Shingen. He leads his forces into victory, after ignoring the initial advice of the generals. Here the truth of who he is has gone, he takes on the role of the Lord Shingen that he attempts to ride Shingen’s horse. He falls off, as the horse knows that the kagemusha is not his master, revealing himself to his troops that he is the imposter. After being exiled, the kagemusha witnesses the defeat of the forces, and in an act of self-deception and loyalty charges against the enemy forces. He dies in the river, trying to reach the fallen banner. Both films show that truth only matters to the individuals willing to believe it. In the case of Rashomon, each of the accounts show the truth as it is to them. In Kagemusha, the truth matters to the unnamed thief, the lie became his truth ending in his death.

Donald Richie calls the cinematic traits of Rashomon to be “rhapsodic impressionism” (77); he goes on to say in reference to the woodcutters walk through the forest that it is, “…pure cinema impressionism – one literally receives impressions: the passing trees overhead, the sun, the glint of the sunlight on the ax.” (77) The rape of the wife also contains these “impressions”, the light shines through the branches from the point of view of the wife. The “cinema impressions” are glimpses into the psychological states of the characters. For the wife, the obscuration of light represents the loss of her purity. For the woodsman, the walk through the woods can indicate the lack of clarity that is to come. The narrative that frames the stories, is filmed exclusively in heavy rain. The water thrashes the fallen gate, drenching anyone who sets forth into it, the rain falling is as important as the light. Here Kurosawa focuses on the water falling from roofs, onto the ground and puddles that have formed. According to Peter Wild, “Kurosawa uses the rain to punctuate periods of intense self-reflection, ‘gut-wrenching periods of enlightenment.’” (68) This reinforces the idea of the nature of truth being grappled with by the woodcutter, priest and peasant.

With Kagemusha, the “cinema impressions” that Kurosawa employs are more obvious. After the initial shot taken on Lord Shingen’s life, his armies retreat. Some of the soldiers are discussing the rumour of the attempt on his life, but the kagemusha fools them. Here the light is yellow, shining behind the troops, silhouetting the figures. During the nightmare sequence, the kagemusha dreams of the deceased Lord Shingen confronting him. The painted backdrop is impressionistic and otherworldly, his state of mind fragmented and confused. As he stumbles and runs on the sand, he attempts to confront the Lord but he vanishes, leaving him alone. Walking on the water he looks past the camera, Kurosawa slowing down his movements, watching the water splash violently from his movement. Here, the kagemusha indicates that he surrounded by enemies, lost in this void of identity. As explained previous, the truth of who he is has gone, the impressionistic nightmare sequence is indicative of the self-deception he is undertaking.

Both films contain similar themes and have a similar visual language. Kurosawa even after thirty years, still had a singular directorial voice which is shown in both Rashomon and Kagemusha. Even in Ran (1985), which followed Kagemusha, are the same themes and visual language present. There is however, much more in both of the films, but enough has been shown to reinforce the idea that the auteur theory, as summarised by Andrew Sarris, applies to Akira Kurosawa.



Richie, D. (1970). The films of Akira Kurosawa. (Second edition.). University of California Press.

Sarris, A (1981). Extract from Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes on the auteur theory in 1962’. In J. Caughie (Ed.), Theories of Authorship. (pp. 62 – 65). Routledge.

Wild, P. (2014). Akira Kurosawa. Reaktion Books Ltd.

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