Plenty of films remain in the public consciousness after their release, but how many films are so groundbreaking, so innovative, and so thoroughly singular even after 58 years of worldwide copying that the film itself is used to describe a psychological effect? Rashomon is perhaps not Akira Kurosawa's greatest work (though I could never choose between it Seven Samurai or Ikiru), but it is perhaps his most perennially interesting. Where Seven Samurai, copied virtually note for note not only in remakes but every half-decent action epic since, may not seem as fresh as it did then (I don't think it's aged at all, though), Rashomon forever looks as if it was made yesterday, even though it's been copied just as much as Kurosawa's great action epic. But why? What's its secret for remaining so relevant and singular?
The film opens in a rainstorm, as a woodcutter and a priest rest in a ruined gatehouse to stay dry. A bawdy commoner enters, and to pass the time the woodcutter tells the newcomer of the trial in which he and the priest just testified. We abruptly flash back to the woodcutter's story, in which he discovers a dead samurai whilst wondering through the woods. He runs to get help, and then we flash forward to the trial three days later.
The trial itself is divided by the testimonies of its witnesses and defendants. The woodcutter's establishing story gives way to a testimony by the priest, who says only that he saw the samurai and his wife on the day the man was murdered. Then we get into the real heart of the matter when the officials drag out Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune) to testify.
A notorious bandit, Tajōmaru proudly admits to killing the samurai, but another point of contention arises: we learn that the samurai's wife was raped. The bandit claims he decided to kill the samurai the moment he laid eyes on the woman, because he "thought [he] saw a goddess." He tricks the couple, only to tie the husband to a tree and chase down the wife. This leads to one of the most memorable camera tricks in Kurosawa's oeuvre: as the bandit drags the wife along to see her defeated husband, the camera whips around in a frenzy, moving so swiftly that you assume it must be one hell of a dolly shot. Then you notice the slight curve at the edge of the frame and realize that Kurosawa is panning in a circle. I'd hate to have been on that camera as it spun around so quickly.
Kurosawa instructed Mifune to play Tajōmaru like a wild animal, and the actor certainly did just that. Mifune's acting usually seems a bit overstated by Western standards, but he has a knack unlike any other for acting with his entire body, and he practically throws himself into every line. When the wife struggles against his advances you can see a mixture of all sorts of emotions-- from surprise to intrigue and excitement) not only on his face but in every limb.
Following his testimony, we see the wife offer her side of the story, and afterwards a psychic conjures the dead samurai's spirit to recount his own. The real intrigue of the story unfolds when both of those stories touch upon the same basic facts of the events as we know them (samurai killed, wife raped), but they offer up stories that completely contradict the bandit's tale and each other's. Tajōmaru claimed that, after "seducing" the wife, she begged the two men to fight to the death so only one might know her dishonor. The wife, however, claims that she begged for her own death. The samurai himself states that the wife, actually seduced by the brigand, demanded her new lover to kill him.
The brilliance of these segments is to point out man's fundamental inability to tell the truth about himself. Kurosawa gives each person's testimony its own distinctive look and style in order to emphasize our own self-flattery. The bandit's story unfolds with quick, exciting cuts and fast camera movements, backed by a bombastic score that almost makes him out to be some lovable scoundrel, on the level of Robin Hood perhaps. Yet we clearly see him, even in his own story, kill a man in order to rape his wife. The wife's flashback unfolds in close-ups of her frightened face and Mifune's wild abandon; it feels more personal and moving, especially when her husband damns her for being "dishonored." Meanwhile, the samurai presents his story in a refined, proper way that coldly looks upon his wife as a whore, and finally the woodcutter's second testimony plays without music, in matter-of-fact imagery that seems, of all the stories, the most plausible. Of course, we learn that he too lied by the film's end.
Perhaps the most inventive aspect of Kurosawa's direction is his use of light. All of it filters through the trees, breaking up the people and casting everything into doubt. Yet the real trick is his ironic inversion of the symbolism of sunlight. Normally a sign of good and hope, Kurosawa uses sunlight as a sense of foreboding and evil; at times he tilts his camera directly up into the sun, and it's one of the most inexplicably unsettling shots I've ever seen. The director even incorporates this notion into each of the characters' semi-fantasies.
The bandit, proudly self-aware, casts himself in the most sunlight but also bathes the husband, his perverse rival for the affections of the wife, in light to highlight his distaste for the man. All the while he keeps the object of his lust mostly in shadows. The wife herself casts both her and her husband in shadows, choosing to focus all the sunlight onto her rapist, and only lets a small amount of sunlight illuminate her husband when he refuses even to kill her in his rage. Finally, the husband washes both the bandit and his wife in light, his wife more so, actually. It's their way of focusing attention elsewhere (or, in the case of the bandit, firmly on himself), playing with the medium of film, since the officials themselves certainly can't see these flashbacks.
Ultimately we never learn the truth; instead, we get about 60 pieces of a 100-piece puzzle and we have to see what we can make of it. The woodcutter's story, the most pathetic and least self-serving, strikes us as the most plausible, but even his story is cast into doubt. We can guess that perhaps the bandit cannot truly face the real horror of his actions, that the woman may have been more conniving than she lets on (though, at the end of the day, rape is still rape, and some of the condemnations I've seen of her character online make me uneasy), and that the samurai is so rigidly locked in his system of codes that he worries only of his own honor. None of this explains what really happened, but I don't think that's the point; Kurosawa uses the crime itself to teach us a lesson about humanity.
Yet Kurosawa does not leave us in a state of existential despair. The final scene, in which the woodcutter offers to raise an abandoned baby, which casts his own lies and theft in a kinder light. Some complain that this scene is tacked on and undermines the message. What a load of nonsense. It's a film about viewing things from multiple angles; why shouldn't one of them be upbeat?
Rashomon is one of those displays of the director's talent that does not seem obvious at first. While we can see his ability to control monumental action in epics like Seven Samurai and Ran, or in the street hustle of High and Low, films like this and Ikiru showcase his ability to make the mundane seem just as epic as his samurai wars. The film runs only 88 minutes, yet offers hours worth of character depth, story, and thematic exposition. It takes place in three simple locations (the gatehouse, the courtyard where the trial is held, and the scene of the crime), yet feels infinitely larger in scope.
Well, we know the film holds up, but what about the film? Criterion knows how to restore a movie, but their DVD contains a constant hissing and some blemishes in a number of frames. I wouldn't say that it hurts the film, but I am thrilled to know that Criterion is currently working on a new restoration with whatever tools have become available since the 2002 release of the current disc. I believe a Blu-Ray release is planned sometime this year, and it will immediately join that list of films I wish to buy an actual player in order to view.
Rashomon remains a landmark in film history; not only did it expose Kurosawa (and indeed Japanese cinema as a whole) to the international market, it jump-started the burgeoning art-house movement that would come to prominence in the 50s and 60s on the shoulders of Kurosawa and European auteurs like Ingmar Bergman. But even without its historical context, Rashomon can still captivate, even thrill, audiences today with a psychological drama with the pace of an action extravaganza.