This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
John Tai’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
I spent a long time reading about this film, both because I wanted to and because there’s so much material about this film. That’s a good measure of the quality of Rashomon. On top of the three books I’m reading, I also listened to the commentary by Donald Richie, which was a joy and full of information.
First of all Kurosawa and his collaborators created a gorgeous visual feast. Kurosawa wanted to go back to silent films and present this story visually and not merely through words (very similar to Hitchcock). In order to achieve that he employed many visual tricks to both convey the story and emotions as well as keep us interested.
The sequence of the woodcutter finding the body is a fine example. The camera shots, the cuts, the compositions, everything puts us in the right mood. The forest setting gives it a mysterious feeling, as if things aren’t so clear, obscured by leaves on branches.
There are many triangular compositions in this film, since most of it is about sets of three characters (bandit/husband/wife, woodcutter/priest/commoner). There are a lot of variations of shots of characters in the right/left/middle of the frame.
There are also many shots where the characters are at three different distances from the camera, my favorite one is:
- Mifune in foreground, we only see his legs open like a triangle
- Inside that triangle are the wife lying on the ground, midway
- And in the background the husband standing, looking at her
In another shot the husband (through the medium) in the foreground talks about someone gently taking the dagger out of his body. In the background we see the woodcutter reacting to this and blinking. He’s the one who took the dagger!! I only realised this while watching the commentary. This is one aspect of filmmaking that I love so much, going back and rewatching it a second time you notice things that you couldn’t have the first time. This is emulated in modern movies like The Usual Suspect (obviously inspired by Rashomon), Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, etc... Of course in this case the woodcutter either did take the dagger from the body (and lied about how the husband really died), or he just reacted to the truth of his stealing the dagger, but he didn’t take the dagger from the body.
The performances here are incredible, especially from the three characters in the flashbacks. They each need to give four different performances while playing the same character.
For example Mifune as the bandit is clearly a little bit crazy and broad, he has the same gestures in all versions of the events (he often scratches himself, squats insects in his body, this confirms to me Kurosawa’s direction to Mifune that he’s a lion), he’s loud and boisterous. But there are also differences: in his own recounting he’s very proud and skilful. But in the woodcutter’s version he’s timid like a little child with the woman, and completely incompetent at fighting.
The wife is fierce and majestic in one version, in another is a victim and weak. Then she’s manipulative and cunning. These two performances from Mifune and Machiko Kyo are my favorite.
But my favorite part of this film is the structure. We get flashbacks inside flashbacks, with five different narrators. At least four of them are lying about something because these versions often contradict each other. And while some contradictions can be reconciled, others cannot. It is not clear why they’re lying, since their versions basically accuse themselves of the murder, not each other. The only thing clear is that in their own versions they’re all proud of themselves, so they depict themselves in a positive way (strong, or noble, or a victim, etc...).
So what is the truth? This is the point of the story: there is no single truth, we all see things from a different perspective and believe our truth, but we also lie to ourselves and each other. We all do bad things and hide them by lying. Even the woodcutter’s story - which at first seemed the most objective one because he was just an observer - cannot be completely believed, since we later find out that he lied about stealing the dagger.
This is a bleak view of humanity, as expressed by the priest, and this is where the original short story ends. However Kurosawa is an optimist and ends the film on a positive note by inserting a baby, symbol of hope. The rain dies down, the sun is up and the woodcutter leaves with the baby.
While I know that finding the truth is not the point of this film, I still find it amusing trying to compare the different versions and come up with the best possible explanation for what really happened. If you’re interested in my version of the truth, check out this spreadsheet.
The first time I watched this I loved the mystery aspect. But with this viewing (and all the reading and listening to the commentary) I realised there’s so much more to it. This is obviously a true masterpiece, one of the many influential films in Kurosawa’s filmography.