2 August 2003 | MisterWhiplash
Kurosawa's first milestone, one of the top foreign films of the 20th century
Akira Kurosawa was one of those directors, the first from the Eastern hemisphere, to develop the form and structure of cinema in ways it hadn't been. The story he used for Rashomon is now, like Seven Samurai, Hidden Fortress, and Yojimbo, a near archetype that at this point in the history of film has become formula and common knowledge for writers and directors. In that sense, Rashomon is as important and entertaining as a film as Citizen Kane, Battleship Potemkin, Rear Window, or Open City. Tee basic premise- Four different people give four different accounts on the rape and murder of a couple in the woods. A key ingredient to the success of Rashomon, is that the recollections given to the courts by the woman, the bandit, the as well as the four in discussion, is that their emotions reveal their humanity, even if their details reveal nothing, or everything. It's difficult to say whether character goes over story here, or if they have equal importance to understand Kurosawa's psychology with these people.
The opening shot of the house is a perfect representation of the mature of the picture, something that has fallen apart over time due to disasters that go beyond control of individuals. The man who heard the testimonies of the trial says "I don't understand". This has been a discussed line, since essentially he's saying the point right up front. All the information won't ease his puzzlement. The three who discuss the details of the crimes and confessions are crucial- they speak for us, what our opinions might be, and we listen to each version of the story, the characters, the fears, the pride, the shame, and the search for judgment and/or truth in the situation.
Along with being director and co-adapter, Kurosawa's mastery is revealed heavily in his use of editing- there are short, fleeting moments that hint, or rather pronounce, emotions and thoughts. For instance, when we first see Tajomaru, the bandit, played by action-legend Toshiro Mifune, he is looking up at the sky, bound in straps to keep him from moving, and for a second, or less than a second, there's a shot of what he sees in the sky, then back to his face which reveals an expression that borders on skeptical, and a bit crazed, or more. Mifune's part is of a barbarian, but all the more believable as a human barbarian since he acts as such with animal desires- he sees the woman in the woods, and knows he wants her, and while he reflects that he didn't have to have killed the man, he did as a last resort as a man with an urge. This is intensified by a sadistic flee with his actions.
What's intriguing about that first description/recollection of the battle between him and the other man, is that it seems like it could be the truth, and to one viewer it could, and to another it seems like it could all be apart of his hyperactive and trapped imagination. And in the attack of the bandit on the woman, at first to him, it's like a game, then in later descriptions, he feels a little more un-easy, then later, it's of neither pleasure or discomfort, it just is. This kind of technique later happens with the woman who was victim (who has conviction, though is herself an archetype of Lifetime women), the presence who saw it "all", and with the man who in the beginning didn't understand. In each telling the expressions, the cut-aways, the lighting and movement by Kazuo Miyagawa, it's equally startling, exhilarating.
That the film gives off such a hypnotic aura isn't surprising, or perhaps it is for those in the grips of the emotion of it all- the dead man's story is like the hook ripping into a twelve foot bass. The final accouter of the tale proves the most accurate to the common observer, yet Kurosawa knows that's not the point- if he made it as such to be bold AND had a definite concrete point, the ending would be as poignant when revealed is the truth, or what one could believe as the closest thing to it is. We know why that last person didn't want to get involved with the courts with what he knows: his story is no more a revelation, of any comfort or consolation to the listeners, than the others. I highly recommend this to anyone, and to those who have distaste to foreign films should view it once anyway- it's certainly not a long movie, and it won't loose its grip on anyone willing to give itself to the tale(s). For me, it's another to add to my top 50 of all time.