In Medieval Japan, an elderly warlord retires, handing over his empire to his three sons. However, he vastly underestimates how the new-found power will corrupt them and cause them to turn on each other...and him.
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
To what extent does subjectivity affect perception?
"Rashomon" tells a very simple tale in a very complicated manner, presenting four 'versions' of the truth, each from a party either witness to or involved in the incident depicted. It is not the film's intent to have you piece together a puzzle since that would be impossible based on how drastically the four tales differ. We know that lies don't enter the equation since the participating persons all claim to be guilty. "Rashomon" is not about choosing a version of the incident you believe is true; it is about human perspective and how it shapes what we see. Even if we truly believe what we have seen is true, is it really?
The film opens when a priest and woodcutter are encountered by a man who engages in a conversation about crime with them and subsequently learns that a samurai has been killed in the woods and his wife raped by a bandit. These two details are the basic, practically undisputed facts which make up the foundation of the four versions of the story we hear: the bandit's, the woman's, her husband's (through a medium), and the woodcutter's (the only presumably objective account, which still does not make sense in relation to the others). In many ways the best thing about "Rashomon" is that it never reveals what actually happens (or if any of the four accounts is in fact true), and although we are not meant to solve the mystery (the idea here is that there is no objective truth since humans are too selfish and dishonest to view anything without bias) the story structure is still brilliant and adds a lot of ambiance to the film. The narrative flow is strong and the method seems fresh and inventive today despite countless imitations (including one inexplicably popular one- "The Usual Suspects").
"Rashomon" is very much a visual film. It would be reduced to unimportant and insignificant fare without the cinematography, which captures the mood and feel of the jungle perfectly, as does the score. The film achieves an epic feel very rare for films filmed in fullscreen, especially during the battle between the bandit and the samurai during the last telling of the story. Kurosawa was also wise enough to choose a location for the film that would accurately capture the eerie, slightly disturbing mood of the story. Just picture the events taking place anywhere other than a jungle.
"Rashomon" is not without its (minor) flaws, however. While theatrical acting (Kurosawa was fascinated with silent film) worked perfectly with films like "Seven Samurai" and "Throne of Blood", it does nothing but take away from the realism of this oft claustrophobic human drama. Yes, Mifune (Tajomaru, the bandit) does provide an interesting spin on his character for each telling, and Takashi Shumura (the woodcutter) seems as honest and real as any character could possibly be, but nearly all of that effect is lost every time Machiko Kyo appears on screen. It is hard to take her seriously and during moments when I should have been close to tears I was much closer to laughter. I'm not sure how much blame I would place on her as Kurosawa probably asked her to act exactly as she does. While discussing actors I have to (unconventionally) note Fumiko Honma as the medium, who brings a wonderfully eerie air to the film during its greatest scenes.
I don't think "Rashomon" is Kurosawa's best or most important film, but it is still a masterful piece of cinema which is absolutely essential for any film lover. It's extraordinary how much Kurosawa accomplished at such an early stage in his career and without the benefit of the lavish budgets he was allotted for later projects. The film's main question is also still relevant and confusing today: is what we think we see really the truth, and to what extent does subjectivity affect perception?
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