A priest, a woodcutter and another man are taking refuge from a rainstorm in the shell of a former gatehouse called Rashômon. The priest and the woodcutter are recounting the story of a murdered samurai whose body the woodcutter discovered three days earlier in a forest grove. Both were summoned to testify at the murder trial, the priest who ran into the samurai and his wife traveling through the forest just before the murder occurred. Three other people who testified at the trial are supposedly the only direct witnesses: a notorious bandit named Tajômaru, who allegedly murdered the samurai and raped his wife; the white veil cloaked wife of the samurai; and the samurai himself who testifies through the use of a medium. The three tell a similarly structured story - that Tajômaru kidnapped and bound the samurai so that he could rape the wife - but which ultimately contradict each other, the motivations and the actual killing being what differ. The woodcutter reveals at Rashômon that he ... Written by
I, for one, have seen hundreds of men dying like animals, but even I've never before heard anything as terrible as this. Horrible, it's horrible! There's never been anything, anything as terrible as this, never! It's worse than fires, wars, epidemics, or bandits!
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"Rashomon" was Akira Kurosawa's first national hit (becoming, at the time, the highest-grossing foreign film in America) and even gained an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, but almost sixty years later it still hasn't lost any of its impact. It is widely revered as one of the most influential films of all-time, but unlike some other movies, it is not a film that feels dated. The revolutionary methods of Kurosawa are still effective and on-par with the cinema of today -- this isn't a movie where you say, "Yeah, fifty years ago it might have been different, but now it's done in all the movies." Kurosawa's techniques are still superior to most of his imitators. Look at the 2003 John McTiernan film, "Basic," which copies a good portion of "Rashomon's" concept. Which is the better film? It's not a hard choice.
The film begins under a structure which reads "Rashomon" on its exterior, in a small Japanese village. It's raining outside and a woodcutter (Takashi Shumura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) inadvertently find themselves in the company of a wandering commoner (Kichijiro Ueda), and as he asks them what is the matter they both begin to relay the most horrific story they claim to know -- of a brutal murder a few days prior.
Kurosawa then switches to flashback and we see three different versions of the exact same event -- the slaying of an innocent man (the murderer played by Kurosawa film regular Toshirô Mifune) in the woods outside the village. Was it because of lust? Betrayal? Envy? Or insanity? We hear from the murderer, the wife of the victim, and a woman channeling the spirit of the dead man.
"Rashomon" is brilliant. Some people have complained that the ending is a cop-out and sentimental hogwash, but I think Kurosawa was fond of sentimentality to a point (he uses a good deal of it in "Ikiru") but the difference between what he does with sentimentality as opposed to many filmmakers of today is that he uses to to ENRICH the story, not provide an easy solution to all the problems.
Is there resolution in the finale of "Rashomon"? To a degree. But, like "Ikiru," it also leaves an open answer to its audience -- this film questions us, and our humanity, and it says something about the human condition and our weaknesses as a species. Yet it also proposes that along with the evil is an inherent good, and in my opinion the message of "Rashomon" is just as important and effective as its film-making techniques and acting.
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