Akira Kurosawa is known for his distinct style of shooting and editing. Unlike many other directors, he does both for most of his films. This way, he ensures that the camera acts as a visual medium of interpretation— interpreting the reality he wishes the audience to view. In his film, Rashomon (1950), where the truth is skewed and filtered, Kurosawa uses the camera to emphasize how perspective defines reality. He uses several techniques, such as panning to capture everything happening in the action, close-ups to further develop and emphasize important characters, and wide shots to establish the setting.
This scene shown below is the establishing shot where the characters who are taking refuge at the Rashomon gate are introduced: the commoner, the Buddhist priest and the woodcutter. First, a wide shot sets the story at the gate, capturing the whole big picture of the big building. The entire gate is shown from far. It shows the whole area and the rain storm, which is a key element of the story. Kurosawa incorporates nature to be symmetrical with the action of his films. After showing the entire setting, the camera zooms in a bit closer. Then, it gets closer and closer. It shows the woodcutter and the Buddhist priest from a medium shot. Then, it tracks in closer and closer, until it ends up in a close-up of the Buddhist priest’s face. Kurosawa emphasizes the confused and baffled expression on his face. It is important to show the disillusionment he feels in human kind after hearing the different accounts of the murder. In this technique of tracking in, Kurosawa represents the setting of this story as a secluded and isolated area all to itself. He repeats this same technique when showing the setting of the murder, which takes place in the woods.
There are three main settings in the film. First, there is the Rashomon gate where the three men are waiting for the rain to pass and re-tell every version of the murder story. This represents the present. Then, there is the setting of the trial, which represents the past. And then there is the setting in the woods, which represents a more distant past and mostly told in flashbacks. This setting is the one that is the most questionable. In the setting of the woods, Kurosawa emphasizes the role that perspective plays in the construction of reality.
Throughout the film, Kurosawa uses two opposing types of camera shots. James F. Davidson explains in his article, “Memory of Defeat in Japan,” that the “court sequences (where the film audience is the tribunal) in passive face-front contrast to the restless movement of the camera in the woods.” Initially, when the witnesses are sitting before the court re-telling their recount of the murder that had taken place in the woods, the camera is positioned facing the witnesses directly from a higher perspective, which places the audience in the seat of judgment, looking down at the witnesses. As the woodcutter is giving his testimony, he is looking up at the tribunal from the floor. Then, a shift occurs in perspective as the film cuts to the flashback of the woodcutter walking into the woods
This scene of the woodcutter naïvely walking into the woods, where he will soon encounter the murder scene, is one of the most effective panning shots in the film. Although this scene may seem unnecessarily long and lacking in action, it cleverly sets the frame for the rest of the film. It first starts out with the camera moving at the same pace the woodcutter is walking and with the lens looking up at the sky. The camera shows the trees in the woods and the sunlight; this expresses Kurosawa’s constant connection between the action of the film and the nature setting. A few seconds after that, the camera changes perspective and shows the woodcutter from the back, as of the camera was walking right behind him. The focus of this shot is placed on the axe he is holding and the sun’s reflection of the axe. This foreshadows the murder scene he is about to encounter. The camera shows him from the front, so the viewer can directly face him. And then, it follows him from a bird’s eye view. This angle from above places the character in the setting of the woods as it shows the entire space of the woods.
The camera angle then shifts to an outside perspective; it shows how another person in the woods would view the woodcutter. And then, it shows the woodcutter from a lower angle as he walks across a log. The camera is placed on the ground and looks up at him the way an animal on the ground would see him. It switches to a move ambiguous angle, where the camera is simply advancing through the woods looking up and only the scenery is shown. This appears to be what the woodcutter would be seeing if he looked up. However, the woodcutter is not looking up because in the shot that follows, the viewer can see the man from the back as he keeps walking forward, facing what is directly in front of him.
Before returning to the shot where the camera is facing up at the sun, there is a moment when the camera pans in closer to the character, approaches him, meets him, and then crosses over and pans out again but in a different direction. It follows the pattern of a crossroads, which the character is encountering although he is not consciously aware of it. After heading in the direction he is heading, the woodcutter’s existence will never be the same. The pace of the camera following him picks up (or the man’s walking pace picks up) in order to build up anticipation for the big moment. The camera’s visibility is limited by the leaves and tress that get in the way, but it continues to follow the man. It abruptly stops once the woodcutter runs into a hat that was left behind by the wife.
These many dynamic shifts in camera perspective coincide with the shifts in personal perspective that Kurosawa will make in the film as each character tell his own memory of the murder.
Maria P. Uribe