(A quick aside before I begin my review. I think I’m going to start putting promotional posters for the film as the original picture instead of the screencaps that I will use in the rest of the review. I’d love to hear feedback about this decision)
Akira Kurosawa made his mark in history as the peerless director of samurai movies, but even a casual examination of his most famous films (Ran, Seven Samurai, Kagemusha), whether they’re samurai movies or not, reveal that he brought so much more to the table. Along with Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick, Kurosawa certainly has to be considered one of the greatest visual directors of all time (I could honestly watch Ran with the sound off. It’s that gorgeous), and as showcased in Rashomon, he had a mastery of postmodern metatextualism before that was even a recognized “thing” in cinema. His 1950 masterpiece Rashomon was a light years ahead of its time meditation on storytelling and the perspective of fiction along with a deeply cynical (though with some light at the end) take on human nature that created an entire subgenre of cinema in its wake.
A film that is more about the telling of the stories we hear than the actual murder mystery at the heart of the film, Rashomon is a film dripping with as much visual style as it is narrative stylings. As a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) try to take shelter from a storm in the Rashomon temple, they are joined by a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) and seek his advice on a mysterious unsolved murder they can not solve. The woodcutter claims that he found the body of a samurai (Masayuki Mori) that had been murdered. When the woodcutter reports the crime to the authorities, he and the priest are witnesses to the trial as the two other principal parties to the murder, a notorious bandit named Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) and the samurai’s wife (Masako Kanazawa), as well as the samurai’s ghost provide wildly different versions of what transpired.
According to Tajomaru, he was resting in the forest when he saw the samurai and his wife walk by. When he instantly fell in love with the wife, Tajomaru tricked the samurai and tied him up. After he seduced the wife, she forced Tajomaru and the samurai to fight to the death over their honor, and Tajomaru killed the samurai in a fair duel. According to the wife, she was raped by Tajomaru and when her husband refused to speak to her or look at her after Tajomaru fled, she killed her husband in anger. According to the samurai’s ghost (as summoned through a medium), he decided to end his own life because he couldn’t bear the shame that was brought on to him by his unfaithful wife. None of the stories are compatible and when you hear a fourth version of the events from the woodcutter himself (which in itself wasn’t necessarily reliable), it’s anybody’s guess as to who was really telling the truth.
Although some may say that the performances were overwrought, a lot of the melodrama of the film makes complete sense within the context of the stories we’re being told (which all show their respective narrator in the best light possible). Toshiro Mifune was the stand-out performance of the whole film as the bandit Tajomaru (even if his evil laughs were kind of outrageous). Often shot in tight close-ups which captured his sweat-drenched face, there was never a version of the story where he seemed like a good guy, but Mifune’s ability to capture every single possible motivation and alternative personality of Tajomaru was endlessly exciting. Masako Kanazawa was electric in the scenes told from her perspective as her desolation after her rape slowly transforms into murderous rage to the husband who has forsaken her after her violation. Similarly, when you see a more manipulative side from her during the woodcutter’s version of the tale, she is equally impressive.
As always, Kurosawa’s visual aesthetic is second to none. Shot in a gorgeous black and white, Rashomon took advantage of immersive and intensifying close-ups, long and gorgeous tracking shots, expert lighting, and wonderful location shooting. I watched this movie today and the first third two days ago (because I worked all day yesterday and was watching this before I went to bed on Friday), and while it makes it harder to pick out all of the great individual shots, there are still plenty of obvious highlights. The scene from the wife’s point of view where she’s approaching her husband to kill him was shot with her entire body in profile with this hellish light washing over her. When the story is told from the samurai’s perspective, there’s a great moment where the dagger he uses to kill himself is shot like it’s Excalibur in the stone as all of the light in the scene is directed towards it. Kurosawa’s eye is second to none.
Still, the most important part of the film was how Kurosawa turned the whole notion of cinematic storytelling on its head. Prior to this film (and with almost no other exceptions that I can think of), what you saw on screen was what happened? The camera was meant to be used for truth (or in the case of a fictional film, presenting the “truth” of the narrative). Kurosawa realized that you could use cinema to show competing and ultimately contradictory points of view on the same event, and that discovery’s influence on legions of writers from Quentin Tarantino to Charlie Kauffman to Wes Anderson has been felt for half a century now. He wasn’t simply playing around with linearity (such as what Orson Welles did in Citizen Kane); he was rewriting all of the narrative rules for the cinematic form in terms of perspective and closure.
If you’re looking for one of the definitive films of Japanese cinema (and one of the greatest works from Japan’s master, although I prefer Ran slightly more) or simply one of the definitive films of world cinema period, you need look no further than Rashomon. It’s got a compelling narrative that offers no easy solutions. It has some less than positive things to say about human nature and how cruel we can be to one another. It’s got action (though not as much as Kurosawa’s more specific samurai films). And it’s a gorgeous film even though it was obviously shot on a budget that wasn’t as expansive as his later epics. If there are directors that are guaranteed to almost never disappoint, Kurosawa has to be one of them.
Final Score: A