Over the years, Akira Kurosawa has perhaps become best known for his "Japanese Westerns," many of which have found their way back into Hollywood's cinematic culture via re-makes. Rashomon, however, is a much different kind of movie. Made before Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Red Beard, Sanjuro, The Hidden Fortress, Ran, and all of Kurosawa's best-known films, Rashomon owes a greater debt to silent films than to Westerns. Instead of an action movie, it is an enigma that meditates upon the unknowability of truth and the unfathomable pit of human nature. Most of Kurosawa's films impact the viewer primarily on a visceral level. Epics like Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress get the blood pumping. But Rashomon, which puzzles out questions with no clear-cut answers, appeals most strongly to the mind. Every time I watch the film, I marvel at how much the director crammed into a package that's two minutes shy of an hour and a half. As a result of its triumphant receipt at the 1950 Cannes Film Festival, Rashomon became the film that introduced Kurosawa to the world. Like the great filmmaker's other works, this movie has had a widespread impact, influencing everything from mainstream American movies (Courage Under Fire being the most popular example) to television series ("Boomtown"). More than a half-century after its completion, Rashomon remains not only one of Kurosawa's best, but holds its place among the greatest films to emerge from the foreign market during the 1950s.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The story told by Rashomon is both surprisingly simple and deceptively complex. The central tale, which tells of the rape of a woman (Machiko Kyo) and the murder of a man (Masayuki Mori), possibly by a bandit (Toshiro Mifune), is presented entirely in flashbacks from the perspectives of four narrators. The framing portions of the movie transpire at Kyoto's crumbling Rashomon gate, where several people seek shelter from a pelting rain storm and discuss the recent crime, which has shocked the region. One of the men, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), was a witness to the events, and, with the help of a priest (Minoru Chiaki), he puzzles over what really happened, and what such a horrible occurrence says about human nature. In each of the four versions of the story, the characters are the same, as are many of the details. But much is different, as well. In the first account, that of the bandit, the criminal accepts culpability for the murder but refutes the charge of rape, saying that it was an act of mutual consent. The woman's story affirms that the bandit attacked her, but indicates that she may have been the murderess. The dead man's tale (told through a medium) claims rape and suicide. The only "impartial" witness, the woodcutter, weaves a story that intertwines elements of the other three, leaving the viewer wondering if he truly saw anything at all.
Many people watch Rashomon with the intent of piecing together a picture of what really occurred. However, the accounts are so divergent that such an approach seems doomed to futility. Rashomon isn't about determining a chronology of what happened in the woods. It's not about culpability or innocence. In the end, we are left recognizing only one thing: that there is no such thing as an objective truth. It is a grail to be sought after, but which will never be found, only approximated. Kurosawa's most brilliant move in Rashomon is never to reveal what really happened. We are left to make our own deductions. But not knowing remains a source of fascination, not one of frustration, and therein lies Kurosawa's greatest achievement. Today, fifty years after it was made, Rashomon has lost none of its fascination or power. It's still a marvelous piece of cinema that asks unanswerable questions of great import.
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