Rashomon ★★★★½

Rashomon is a story about storytelling. It’s about how different perspectives influence narrative. It’s about how we play to the audience - embellishing for effect, saving face and showing off. It is about performance. The famous quartet of versions of the same event as told by the four participants are sometimes held up as an example of how witnesses perceive the same thing differently. But I think the film is more about how people manipulate their telling to influence the audience’s perception of them. The bandit, the wife and the husband are all unreliable narrators. They have reasons to lie to cover for their moral failures. It is only the woodcutter, whose role comes closest to being a neutral observer, who carries any credibility. As the film clearly shows, his perspective is also affected by self-interest, but not to the extent of undermining his version of the main events. For him it plays in terms of what he leaves out of his story, rather than what he changes. The woodcutter’s story is the only one that credibly exposes the lies of the others. The reason is he is describing them, while the others are describing themselves. When the bandit, the wife and the husband tell their tales they are performing. When the woodcutter recounts, it is documentary. The three performances appeal to our narrative expectations of heroism in the face of danger. They are accompanied by dramatic and emotive music which supports their embellishment. When the woodcutter finally tells his tale there is no music. He is telling the truth, or if not the whole truth, then at least the part he chooses to tell.

I first saw Rashomon when I was younger and I disliked it, so I was delighted to find my perspective has changed in the twenty-five years since. The camerawork is terrific with its fluid movement, and its startling angles, which mirror the different perspectives of the characters. There are only three settings, but they are symbolically significant. The fixed, highly lit, and bare platform of the court, appears designed to expose the truth, but in effect becomes a stage for the three performances. The forest with its dappled light and shadow is designed to obscure what actually happened. And the torrential rain at the ruins evokes the confusion and collapse of truth in the retelling, and yet it ends up revealing a ray of light when it is least expected. The story is not the turgid four-square retelling that I recalled, but a dynamic and free flowing procession of fascinating variations on a theme. The acting is for the most part very good. Toshirō Mifune as the bandit Tajôrmaru is like a forest sprite, laughing maniacally, itching and scratching, and dancing, stalking and bounding along. I found his laugh distracting and I wish he’d turned his performance down from 11, but there’s no denying the force of his character, and he’s well contrasted with the other three primary actors in less showy roles. Yet possibly the best turn is by the medium (Noriko Honma) who channels the story of the dead husband. Her section brings a Japanese ghost story variation to the film, which adds variety and interest and her performance is gripping.

As I’ve already alluded, the film’s music plays an important role in the telling of the four stories. It’s a fascinating score on at least three counts. Firstly, in the way it decorates each telling to suit the teller’s version. The music supports the way the characters wish to be perceived, and in doing so it’s a model example of the way music can be used to manipulate film audiences. Also of note is the way the music joins with the camera to make what could have been a relatively static and repetitive film, set in only three locations, flow dynamically with both grace and drama. And thirdly, the music is notable for its strange blend of western and eastern influences. The spirit of Ravel’s famous Bolero pervades the score even before we get to the wife’s story, at which point the music comes close to being outright plagiarism. The likeness is distracting for those familiar with Bolero, which is, let’s face it, everyone. However, the composer, Fumio Hayasaka cleverly inflects his version with Japanese instruments and stylistic tropes to make it its own thing, and there’s no denying its success in providing a mellifluous backdrop that seduces us with its sensual flow into accepting the tall tales it accompanies.

Twenty five years ago I would have rated Rashomon 2.5 stars. Today I’m giving it 4.5. It seems fitting that the film is the same, but my perspectives are very different.

In my Top 200 Films list. Also in my Best Music (Scores and Soundtracks) list.

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