I finally got around to watching Akira Kurosawa’s groundbreaking and influential 1950 masterpiece about the nature of truth. Though many movies since have borrowed its unconventional narrative structure and the idea of multiple perspectives of the same event, the film still remains an effective and striking watch today.
I vaguely remember watching parts of Rashomon dubbed into Russian many many years ago, but at the time most of the story had gone completely over my head and I could only recall the very basics.
In many ways it’s a deceptively simple film, with maximum three characters appearing onscreen at any given time, and limited to three principal locations. At the very beginning, three people seek shelter from the pelting rain under a ruined gate: a peasant, a priest and a woodcutter. When the peasant, who quickly reveals himself to be a rough and cynical individual, engages the other two into conversation, he learns that the priest and the woodcutter were both recently involved in a court case that has disturbed them greatly.
The bare facts of the matter are that a samurai has been murdered, his wife raped, and a local bandit accused of both crimes. The woodcutter, who claims to have found the body of the samurai, and the priest, who passed by the couple in the forest earlier, are summoned to testify in court. There they also get to listen to the testimonies of the captured bandit, the samurai’s wife, and even the ghost of the dead samurai himself who speaks to the living through a medium. Closer to the end, there’s yet another account of the events from a character who wasn’t telling the full truth earlier on.
The most daring and fascinating aspect of the film is that all four versions of the events are incompatible with each other, and the viewer is given no visual clues or signals on which version is true: you are simply left to judge the matter all by yourself. Complicating the matters even more is the fact that two main players claim to be the killer, and a third character could at least be reasonably believed to be one. The notion that anyone would falsely claim being guilty of murder or suicide doesn’t sound so preposterous when you consider the medieval attitudes to fighting prowess and personal honour, and disdain towards the “ruined” women; the broken relationship between the samurai and his wife after the rape figures strongly in all accounts.
The last testimony from an outside observer could initially be assumed to be most objective and truthful one, but even this story has holes and inconsistencies, and so the uncertainty persists. Many films since explored the idea of unreliable narrator, but Rashomon is still unique in refusing viewers a resolution to its mystery – you don’t even get to learn the final verdict of the court.
There’s much more to Rashomon than its use of flashbacks, which make the story more engrossing the more they contradict each other. The film is beautifully photographed and edited, making great use of its three elemental settings: the torrential rain in the present story enhancing the characters’ grim view of humanity; the complex play of light and shade in the woods, a secluded faraway world where the characters’ morals fall apart; the starkness of the outside court filled with white gravel, in theory a place of purity and order.
The acting admittedly took some time getting used to; let’s just say that Rashomon has zero interest in naturalistic performances and instead goes for the heightened, emotionally expressive, larger-than-life style you’re more likely to see in old silent movies. Once you get over the wildly exaggerated facial expressions and grandiose gestures, this artistic choice makes sense, especially since so many of the sequences are practically silent. I also have to give a special shoutout to the female medium who becomes the vessel for the dead samurai; her contortions while being possessed are as unnerving as anything seen in a modern horror film.
The philosophical dialogue between the characters is somewhat less successful and the movie kinda oversells the despair of the priest, who claims to have lost his faith in humanity over the incident. I don’t think I’m too cynical for saying that there’s nothing particularly revelatory about the idea that every person’s perspective and memory can be distorted through selfishness, pride and self-interest. The conclusion of the film offers an unlikely hope for humanity among the bleakness; while my heart was duly moved my brain insisted that it was all too amazingly convenient. But then maybe my pedantic brain was too hung up on “realism” in a film that’s primarily about ideas.
All in all, more than seventy years later Rashomon is still a unique and powerful film that explores weighty philosophical themes while remaining entertaining and accessible.