Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 Japanese classic “Rashomon” is a mixture of simple storytelling and psychological complexity. Just when you think you may have a handle as to what the film is truly about, it raises questions, offers subtle symbolism, and has some things to say about human nature.
Labeled the film that put Kurosawa’s name on the map and had him declared one of the best film directors of all time with his further-coming films (“Seven Samurai,” “The Hidden Fortress,” and so forth), “Rashomon” has a great story idea that is very effectively handled here and has gone on to be copied in other films and TV shows, such as the 1996 war drama “Courage Under Fire.” The central story is about the murder of a man (Masayuki Mori) in a remote wooded area, most likely by a bandit named Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune, who would go on to appear in other Kurosawa’s films) who wanted the man’s wife (Machiko Kyo) for himself. But the story is told through four different perspectives. The strange thing is neither of the four stories told by the witnesses match up. We see from each perspective presented in flashback as each person tells the story. The characters and the details are roughly the same, more or less, but the accounts of the incident are presented differently.
The film begins as a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) stay dry from a rainstorm, beneath the Rashomon city gate. A commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) joins them as he wonders what’s troubling them, as they are upset about something not making sense to them. They tell him they witnessed a disturbing story, which they begin to describe to him. The woodcutter claims to have found the man’s dead body and reported it to the police. At the courthouse garden, he and the priest listened in to three different testimonies, describing what happened. The bandit Tajomaru was brought in to tell his part of the story; he accepts the responsibility that he did commit the murder but states the rape of the woman was of mutual consent. The woman’s story follows, as she claims Tajomaru attacked her. Then comes the story of the dead man, told through a medium, which states that there was betrayal from his wife and he committed suicide. It makes very little sense to anybody, since so many details are changed in each story, but then the woodcutter reveals that he not only found the body but saw the event first-hand. His story intertwines elements from the other stories so everything makes more sense.
But did he really see anything at all? Whose story is the more accurate one? What really happened in those woods? What does it say about human nature when you consider all the perspectives about the horrific event in the first place? These questions are all raised, especially by people who try to comprehend the chronology of the incident, and those people aren’t going to find real answers except for those they come up with in their heads. What just about everyone will find in “Rashomon” is what they can learn on the news, when another horrific crime with very few witnesses comes up—that we have hardly a way of knowing the truth unless we were really there ourselves. And even if we did see anything, how will the people we tell our story to interpret it? Perspective is different from reality; it’s how things are seen in retrospect than what happens in the moment that lives within us as time goes on. Therefore, when someone thinks he remembers things clearly, is it really as clear as it seems? We also know people lie, and we know some of these people in this film are lying, but we don’t know who and therefore we don’t know which side to take here. What really happens in “Rashomon” is unsure and not absolute; what do we know for sure? This is why ‘Rashomon” works so well and still holds up after all these years—its themes of unknowable truths, perceptions of innocence & guilt, and variations of human nature are evident and very profound.
Kurosawa’s script is wise and intelligent, but his filmmaking is also very sharp, tightly focused, and quite thrilling and riveting, especially when each of the four stories are told. By the time the fourth story comes about, something happens in the storytelling that makes the visuals and the emotions even grander than before. It makes for a riveting climax that left me on-edge the first time I saw it and still gets to me today. The cinematography (by Kazuo Miyagawa) is gorgeous and really captures the feel of that semi-tropical forest the action occurs in, and there are moments in this film that owe more to silent film than to the Westerns that Kurosawa’s work associated with in the future, particularly in the swordfight sequences between the bandit and the man and also in the first flashback which shows the woodcutter’s journey through the woods before he comes across the body.
The actors must be given due credit as well, since they are asked to play four different variations of the same character. The actor who pulls it off the most is Toshiro Mifune as the bandit Tajomaru; whether playing it dirty or violent or even frightened, he gives an excellent performance, riveting throughout. I can also say the same for Machiko Kyo as the woman in question, who probably has the most difficult challenge of playing the damsel in distress, a fierce, manipulative siren, or a spiteful, sexy vixen.
It’s a brilliant move on Kurosawa’s part not to reveal what really happened in the woods. Every time I watch “Rashomon,” I find myself having a different opinion as to how everything played out. Surely, everyone else who watches the film will have their own opinions, each of them different, but that’s what makes film a great art form; the secret, subtle resolutions can be the way you want it to be, especially with films like “Rashomon.” It’s a great film, it’s still a classic today, it only gets better each time I see it, and I find myself thinking about it a lot more afterwards.