One of the very few films that can genuinely be considered a work of genius, Rashomon is probably the most important landmark in narrative cinema since a gurning Al Jolson excitedly told the audience “you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” Winner of both an honorary Oscar and the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, it’s the film that introduced the world to Japanese cinema and it’s still the best thing you’ll see this Summer when a digitally restored print will be released in time for director Akira Kurosawa’s centenary.
In feudal Japan, three very different men, a monk, a commoner and a woodcutter, shelter from the rain and discuss a recent court case; a case that has shaken the monk’s faith in humanity. A samurai (Masayuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyo) are travelling through the forest when they’re attacked by a bandit (Toshiro Mifune). The wife is raped, the samurai killed, the bandit caught. These facts are beyond dispute but as each participant including, via a medium (in scenes of near hysterical horror that could give the Ringu movies a run for their money), the murdered husband, gives their own wildly different account of the incident, the question becomes what really happened in the woods that afternoon?
The genius of Rashomon is that it never gives you a definitive answer. What’s really on trial isn’t Mifune’s bandit but the very concept of objective truth itself. Essentially we are given four flawed accounts of what happened (the wife’s, the bandit’s, the samurai’s and the eyewitness account of the woodcutter) but each account contradicts the others: Was the samurai’s death murder or the result of a duel? Or the suicide of a proud man? Was the wife raped or did she give herself passionately to the bandit? Was the fight between the samurai and the bandit a balletic clash of skilled, honourable equals or a grubby scrap between two scared, desperate men? Was there even a fight at all? The perceptions of each protagonist skew their testimony; they unconsciously embellish their tales in their own favour. None of them is flat-out lying. Truth is subjective. In his memoir Something Like An Autobiography, Kurosawa reflects “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves,” Rashomon is built on the lies we tell ourselves that allow us to look at the face in the mirror.
While Masayuki Mori is a model of Japanese stoicism and subtlety as the doomed samurai his wife, played by Machiko Kyo, swings wildly from shamed innocence through hysteria to cold, calculating temptress depending on whose eyes she’s seen through. Kurosawa’s alter ego, the brilliant Toshiro Mifune, gives a barnstorming performance as the swaggering bandit. A creature of lecherous appetite, he is a lusty, vigorous presence, his sweaty, animal physicality overpowering the screen but hinting at the insecurity and desire that drives this almost elemental force of nature. Though Mifune dominates the film, it is Takashi Shimura’s flawed but fundamentally decent woodcutter that illicits our sympathies, a man trying to survive in a hostile world without losing his humanity, he ultimately restores not only the monk’s faith but that of the audience.
Boldly eschewing the cinematic conventions of the time, Rashomon’s reliance on flashback was innovative and daring, allowing Kurosawa to present multiple perspectives and, for the first time, giving the audience the freedom to consider each alternative take on events. Shooting into the sun, Kurosawa and cameraman Kazuo Miyagawa have given the forest scenes a sun-dappled, dreamlike feel, creating a natural world of primal instincts, desire and sin. Hypnotic and intimate, the film is tighter than a Shoreditch twat’s skinny jeans, the tension repeatedly rising to the crescendo of the samurai’s death and it may be the most visually beautiful of Kurosawa’s early films, shot in a crisp, ravishing black and white.
Arguably entering the global consciousness in a way no other film has, Rashomon has influenced generations of filmmakers. Any film since with a tricksy, too-clever plot, a disjointed narrative and conflicting perspectives from simple Hollywood fare like Vantage Point to the indie cool of The Usual Suspects to more oblique French New Wave fare like Last Year at Marienbad we a debt to Rashomon. It’s even inspired The Simpsons. But they’re all just standing in Rashomon’s shadow. 50 years after release, Kurosawa’s meditation on the fleeting nature of truth, memory and perception is still as absorbing and exciting as ever, a genuine work of art.
And if you don’t believe me, try watching the American remake The Outrage with Paul Newman (doing his best Speedy Gonzales impersonation in the Mifune role) and William Shatner (”KHAAAAAAAAANNN!!!”).
Even the Shat can’t improve upon perfection.
(A version of this piece appeared at filmjuice.com)