Four different people give their accounts of a rape and murder. One of them is the spirit of the deceased, channelled through a medium that contorts herself around a makeshift altar. One of them is a woodcutter who happened to pass by the scene of the crime. We relate to him the most because he provides the most objective point of view. But the whole idea behind Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is that no point of view is ever genuinely objective.
It’s hard to see Rashomon now and fully appreciate its greatness. This is the first time I’m seeing it, and it’s a shame because similar — and less powerful — movies have come and gone since 1950. Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, released in 1995, employed the same use of flashbacks to tell a story that was intended to be objective and truthful. Its biggest downfall was that the flashbacks arrived at a conclusion, which provided the movie with a twist ending, and twist endings usually make or break a film. Then in 2008, a movie called Vantage Point skirted even closer to Rashomon by using multiple points of view to recount the events of a major explosion. Like Usual Suspects, Vantage Point arrived at a conclusion and completely demolished its potential by engulfing its third act in a preposterous car chase.
Both those films were produced by Hollywood, who took Rashomon’s formula and altered it to suit the general moviegoing public. People these days need solid narrative conclusions to satisfy their appetites. I remember the muted uproar stirred by the audience when I saw No Country For Old Men for the first time. It had one of the most abrupt endings of any Hollywood feature, and it refused to give us a resolution. Good old Anton Chigurh ended the film loose and still very dangerous.
Such comparisons only strengthen Rashomon’s charm as a movie that not only pioneered the flashback technique but used it so understatedly that we are naturally drawn into the plot.
It begins with a broken wooden temple being battered by heavy rain. The woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) take shelter and are both flabbergasted by the stories they have just heard — “I just don’t understand”, the woodcutter repeats. A wayward traveller (Kichijiro Ueda) runs into the temple to escape the deluge and is immediately enthralled by the two men’s confusion. And so the story begins; the woodcutter sits the traveller down and tells him about the lady (rape victim), her samurai husband (deceased), the bandit (culprit), and the trial they all attended.
The trial is shot interestingly. We never see or hear the judge. The camera sits close to the ground while all the characters prop themselves in front of it and speak up, as if to someone behind it. They answer questions without hearing the questions. The lady even has a full break down as she tells her version of the story. Who is she breaking down for? The judge, or us? Kurosawa and his cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, implicate us in these trial scenes by making the iris of the camera reflect our own.
All four stories indicate a different killer and a different reason for the killing. I shall not disclose what they are; to do so would be to ruin the effect of the film. What I can say is that by the end, Rashomon leaves us with more questions. We are inclined to believe the spirit of the dead samurai, because dead men tell no tales, right? But what about the woodcutter who has nothing to gain by lying? Is he not also trustworthy? Ah, this is where Kurosawa snags us. His priority with Rashomon was not the characters or the locations. It was not even the plot. It was the deceit of the plot, how stories told by people will never — and can never — be factual. Humans, by default, embellish their stories to embellish themselves. The woodcutter is the most objective party, yes? Rashomon’s entire story is told from his point of view. This in itself negates his objectivity.
Best Moment | The lengthy and tiresome showdown between Tajōmaru the bandit and the samurai.
Worst Moment | The morally ambiguous ending.