Rashomon ★★★★½

Rashomon is a film that tells the same story four times over, but each time it's told the facts are so different that it becomes impossible to know what really happened.

The basics are always the same: a bandit waylays a travelling couple, rapes the wife in front of the husband, and the husband is stabbed to death. The first we hear of this is from a woodcutter, who found the body, and a priest, who was the last to see the husband alive. They recount their experiences in court and then tell all this to a commoner, including the testimony of the bandit and the wife. That's where things start to get complicated. According to the bandit, the wife, after attempting to kill him, asked her to fight her husband to the death, which he did so honourably. But in the wife's account, the bandit fled, and she killed her husband out of fear of his expression of hatred for her. The husband gives his account from beyond the grave via a medium, and according to him he killed himself with his wife's dagger. But that's not the end of the story, because there's one last account to be revealed.

In this way, Rashomon stands not as a teasing narrational puzzle but as an examination of the motivations people have for distorting fact. Why, in each of the three stories, does the person telling the story position themselves as the killer? And how does their choosing to do this reflect on what is revealed in the final account of the incident, told by none of the three people involved? Is this final account even real, or does it also have omissions of its own? By drilling down to the very essence of objective truth and the lack thereof, Akira Kurosawa taps into what makes us human. To lie is in our nature, and that should be our shame; it means that the place of trust in a fundamentally dishonest world is thrown uncomfortably into question. However, unlike the director's deeply pessimistic late masterpiece Ran, Rashomon actually comes to a comforting conclusion: yes, people lie, but even though it's so embedded in our nature, we simply cannot afford to abandon our faith in human decency.

Kurosawa lets rip with some awesome visuals, as expected. Any one of his films can be relied on for some of the most dynamic cinematography ever, and here is no exception. Each shot in Rashomon is unmissable in one way or another, with all the components of the frame creating as much drama as the script. The use of movement in the flashback scenes is sensational, while the dense mise-en-scene of the forest setting and the complicated lighting that goes with it work together to enhance the feeling of obscured truth. However, as is often the case, it's the performances that nudge the film into the realm of greatness. Once you accept that realism isn't Toshiro Mifune's forte, you become accustomed to the manic zest of his performance, while Machiko Kyo (later to mesmerise in Ugetsu Monogatari) is magnificently emotive, more so even than Mifune.

There's a slightly uneven feel to Rashomon in the sense that it only becomes truly peerless in its closing scenes, but what's gone before does a fine job of setting up that conclusion. All in all, it's impossible to disagree that the film and its famous conceit have aged beautifully.

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