After Scandal, Kurosawa was asked by the Japanese studio Daiei to direct a film for them.
For this project Kurosawa chose to direct a film based on a short story called "In a Grove" by Ryunosuke Akutogawa.
Kurosawa would write the script for Rashomon with Hashimoto Shinobu, who had already written a script based on the story. Kurosawa and Shinobu would later collaborate on some of Kurosawa's greatest films including Seven Samurai and Ikiru.
Because "In a Grove" was too short to make a feature film out of, Kurosawa turned to another Akutogawa story called "Rashomon".
Rashomon would be the first of two films that Kurosawa would work with one of Japan's most famous and talented cinematographers, Kazuo Miyagawa.
It would be another 10 years before they worked on another film together.
With Miyagawa at the camera, Kurosawa set out to make a film in the tradition of the silent films of the 20s.
Daiei, the company producing the film, was hesitant to allow Kurosawa to film the project, and even more angry when they discovered the cost of the Rashomon gate set.
The film, Daiei said, was too confusing.
It was not until after the failure of Kurosawa's next film, The Idiot, that Rashomon received any recognition.
Unbeknownst to Kurosawa, a Japanese representative from an Italian film company had submitted Rashomon to the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix.
Rashomon would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
This was the film the put Japanese film on the map. Its impact on both Japanese cinema and cinema as a whole cannot be overstated.
Rashomon is set in 11th century Japan during what is known as the Heian period. This era was marked by the rise of the samurai class in Japan as well as the feudal system.
The story begins at the Rashomon gate. During this period, outside the capital city of Kyoto, four gates surrounded the respective sides of the city. The Rashomon gate was one of these.
In order to escape the rain, a man takes refuge under the half-ruined gate where he finds two other men. A priest, played by Minoru Chiaki, and a woodcutter, played by Takashi Shimura.
The two men were returning from testifying at a trial surrounding the death of a samurai.
They begin to recount their tale to the third man. The sort of side story of these men is what is known as a frame story. Another well-known example of this would be Forrest Gump recalling his life story at a bus stop.
The main story of Rashomon has to do with the rape of a samurai's wife, and the murder of the samurai that follows.
This story is told at the trial by the priest, the bandit Tajomaru, the wife of the samurai, the samurai himself speaking through a medium, and finally the woodcutter.
Each story has its own unique differences, and in the end we never do find out whose story is true, but that isn't the point.
The main point of the story is that human beings have a universal weakness. Everyone lies to make themselves look better. But some, as the film shows, are able to redeem themselves.
The mood of Rashomon is set up from the very first frame of the film. It is not established through the use of any dialogue or characters, but by the weather.
Kurosawa was a big fan of rain. In fact, when Kurosawa met one of his idols, John Ford, the first thing he said to him was, "You really like rain."
In Rashomon, the bleak mood of the majority of the film is established right away. At the end of the film, when the priest's faith in humanity is restored, the rain stops, the somber tone gives way to uplifting hope.
Throughout the film, Kurosawa invites the audience to make their own assertions as to what is true and what is not about the story. In all his films, Kurosawa has said, he wants the audience to create their own idea about the meaning of a film. Not one interpretation is correct, he felt.
Kurosawa places the audience in this position using a relatively simple technique. During the scenes at the trial, where the witnesses describe their versions of the events through flashbacks, Kurosawa places the camera directly in front of them, right where the magistrate would be sitting.
He is, in effect, placing the audience in the role of the judge.
Although Kurosawa pointed the camera at the sun once before in Stray Dog, Rashomon cinematographer Kazou Miyagawa is credited with the "first" use of the technique that was considered taboo at the time. It's effect in Rashomon is far more important as well.
During the infamous scene, the woodcutter is walking through the woods. The sun is barely visible through the dense trees.
Kurosawa wanted this entrance into the woods to be a metaphor for the human soul, where nothing is for certain. People can easily lose themselves in a forest, and just as easily within their own souls.
Kurosawa's play of light and shadow throughout the film supports this.
Director Robert Altman describes it well in an interview he did about Rashomon when he says that as moviegoers, we take what we see on screen to be truth, but because the story of Rashomon is told over and over again in different ways, we never know what to take as truth.
Because the main theme of the film is that every human being will embellish to make themselves look better, each character that recounts their story tells a slightly different version of the event, beginning with the notorious bandit Tajomaru (played brilliantly by Toshiro Mifune).
Tajomaru at times seems more like a wild animal than a human being. He hunches down like an animal, scratches like dog, hisses like an snake, and laughs like a hyena. This portrayal was thanks to Kurosawa who, after seeing a film with a lion, told Mifune he wanted him to act like the lion.
In Tajomaru's story, he portrays himself as a fearless warrior, a cunning trickster, and a lover that can make a married woman melt into his arms even though he is raping her.
The fight that ensues between Tajomaru and the samurai is told in favor of Tajomaru as well. Tajomaru constantly taunts the samurai, who appears weaker and less skilled than he.
At the trial, Tajomaru again talks himself up, claiming that no man had ever crossed blades with him so many times.
In a shot that echoes the westerns of John Ford, Tajomaru is seen in silhouette from a distance, fleeing victorious from the crime he has committed.
At the trial he claims that he was captured not because he was overpowered by another individual, but because he drank some bad water and became sick.
The next story is told by the samurai's wife. In her version, her guilt about what had happened shows. She begs her husband not to look at her the way he does, and to kill her for what she's done.
In the end she says she fainted, and when she came to her husband was dead.
Next is the story told by the medium in an incredibly intense scene at the courtyard trial. With the wind howling, the medium recounts the samurai's tragic tale, as told by him from beyond the grave.
The samurai, it seems, is incredibly ashamed of his wife for what happened. He claims that his wife pleaded with Tajomaru to kill him, but Tajomaru turns on her and asks the samurai what he should do with her.
After his wife escapes, Tajomaru returns empty handed and cuts the samurai loose. Because of what has just happened, he does what any honorable samurai would do, he kills himself.
The final story is told by the woodcutter, who previously said he merely happened to come across the samurai's dead body. It turns out he was there all along.
In his story, the two men fight each other, but both are portrayed as weak and cowardly. They constantly trip and fall and flail about as they attempt to kill one another.
Finally, when it seems that all faith in the human soul is lost, an abandoned baby is found in the back of the gate.
After the man who came to the gate at the beginning of the film leaves after rightly accusing the woodcutter of stealing a valuable dagger from the scene of the crime, the priest and the woodcutter are left in silence.
Kurosawa uses several fades that signify the passage of time. After the final fade it is clear the men have spent a considerably amount of time in silence.
Finally, the woodcutter, seeking to redeem himself, decides to take the baby, restoring the priests faith in the human soul.
Kurosawa ends the picture with a glimmer of optimism. Man can redeem himself after all.
Even though it is a period picture, the theme of Rashomon is universal. Many of Kurosawa's period films take on this same quality.
This would be the film that would start Kurosawa's increasing interest in the individual, and the intricacies of the human soul.