Rashomon ★½

Ok, this is the sort of opinion that loses me followers, but I have to take a stand. I love Akira Kurosawa, as a director and as an artist. But Rashōmon, the film that made him world famous, is a hollow mess. It is Kurosawa's attempt to create a film with meaning, which is the polar opposite of why his films succeed. Seven Samurai is a classic treatise on heroism, precisely because it isn't presented as a philosophical think-piece. Ikiru works because it is knowingly naïve and hence cynical. With allusions to truth and the inherent flaws of the subconscious, Rashōmon is the epitome of lazy filmmaking. It can pass off mistakes as purposeful and deliberately be obtuse. For. No. Reason. Kurosawa presents no final statement, besides life's lack of objectivity ... which is such an obvious point that it's not worth even considering. Then, because it has no true conclusion, it is emotionally unsatisfying, which is unfortunate as the opposite is the only reason that Kurosawa's works usually transcend their simplicity.

Even on a technical level, Rashōmon is a failure by Kurosawa's high standards. A lot is made of how his camera faces the sun, as if this innovation was significant. But the reality is that those shots are just grainy silhouettes of leaves that appear as splotches of black. Not only is it aesthetically messy, it also serves no purpose. What is Kurosawa attempting to make us feel with these pointless shots? Apart from jealousy at his supposed mastery of cinema? Even the editing is off for Kurosawa, who served as his own editor, and each variation of the tale is paced differently, creating an inconsistent feel. As a result, for one of Kurosawa's shortest films, it actually feels like one of the longest. I also want to mention the much beloved Toshiro Mifune, who, let's be honest, basically just gurns and overacts in most films. Mostly he plays likeable caricatures and this works in his favour but given the rather muted story of Rashōmon he appears exceptionally bad and annoying. I'm not going to say there's no technical merit to Rashōmon (there is wonderful shots and scenes generally hang together well) but this is far from the highs of Seven Samurai or Ran.

Thematically Rashōmon is a nothing movie. The conclusion that there's no objective truth is interesting for sure, but the execution lets it down. As each story is so wildly inconsistent, it's impossible to pretend this is even a statement on various unconscious truths, as clearly some characters are lying. Instead it's just a game of pretending a clear truth vs lie scenario is actually a 50-50 proposition, where the twist is that both are true. That's not how life works. A better film would minimise such inconsistencies to show us the value of the subjective experience of an objective event. I don't even want to touch the helpless or evil woman tropes, and Kurosawa's bizarre contempt for peasantry. He wasn't a filmmaker interested in women or class and that occasionally exerts itself through harmful stereotyping.

Rashōmon is an influential movie, but there's a certain crass exoticism to the fact that it's essentially the first Asian film embraced by the West. Kurosawa, who always directed in a more westernised manner than his contemporaries (e.g. Yasujirō Ozu), actually made better films when he played with tropes acquired from the West (e.g. Shakespeare, cowboy movies) but Rashōmon, adapted from a Japanese story, shows his limitations. He was a director who transcended cultures to create universally understood movies, and Rashōmon is among his most insular and hence incomplete films. I don't hate Rashōmon because it's a passable time-waster and at least it has an idea (however much Kurosawa messes it up), but every rewatch further solidifies in my mind that this isn't a good film. Sorry.

UPDATE [23/09/2019]: Now that I've genuinely had people I've met in real life think I hate Rashōmon, I want to be clear, this was an APRIL'S FOOLS PRANK.

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