Rashomon ★★★★★

"It's human to lie. Most of the time we can't even be honest with ourselves."

You know when you essentially coin a term with permutations in law, philosophy, psychology, history, sociology, and literature, and it's based in the name of a film you made… you might have a future in this movie-making business.

Akira Kurosawa's first masterpiece -- and some say, still his greatest -- Rashomon has been called by some as the "finest film ever to investigate the philosophy of justice." Deeper still, the layers of the human psyche unearthed in this Kurosawa essential bring upon, as Pauline Kael described, "the classic film statement of the relativism, the unknowability of truth." Based on the short story "In a Grove" by Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, the picture that put Japanese filmmaking on the world stage also still happens to be one of the greatest ever made, and at a taut 88 minutes demands multiple viewings.

Tonight, in earnest, shall be my first.

Revolving around, presumably, a samurai who has been killed, four versions of vastly different events are told in a courtyard for adjudication. The bandit Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune) claims it was a duel in which he fell. The samurai's wife (Machiko Kyō) claims to be a victim of a heinous crime; when she awoke, her husband was dead. The deceased samurai himself (Masayuki Mori) has his story posthumously told through a medium, with shocking revelations. Yet the woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and the priest (Minoru Chiaki) -- two men recounting the events at the beginning of the film -- may know that we're all entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts.

To say any more would surely be spoiling the tension and brilliance of the tiny morsels revealed in the film, for those like me who had not yet seen it before tonight. Rashomon is a psychological thriller at its most riveting, not with violence or horror but with precise storytelling in non-linear flashbacks, a revolutionary technique nearly 70 years ago that would -- and did! -- stun audiences who had never before seen a picture like this.

How to explain such a baffling and purposefully enigmatic storyline and screenplay? Kurosawa gives a typically astute and Descartesian answer:

Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings—the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are.

Indeed, it can be -- and has been -- argued that Rashomon raises questions rather than provides answers. Isn't that what viewers typically want? "Satisfy me!" we demand. While many of us like to be challenged, we want that mental workout to be worth it, to culminate in a big reveal, a dramatic twist that solves everything. Not so in Rashomon.

Here, humanity is deeply deeply flawed, nefarious even. And also clumsy and rarely of sure foot; just look at that katana battle! How perfect that it takes a film which relishes in dishonesty and deception to craft a sword fight where the combatants surely would have wished for a do-over. The kinesthetic style of the narrative matches such a wild and chaotic scene, and how the unreliable narrators' stories crash together.

This reviewer, though, knows nothing about cinematography or sound or other technical elements of film, and doesn't pretend that he does. So, I'll quote critic and professor Stephen Prince from Criterion, about those flourishes:

Kurosawa was consciously attempting to recover and re-create the aesthetic glory of silent filmmaking. Thus, the cinematography (by the brilliant Kazuo Miyagawa) and editing are incredibly vital, and many passages are composed as silent sequences of pure film, in which the imagery, ambient sound, and Fumio Hayasaka’s score carry the action. One of the best such sequences is the long series of moving camera shots that follow the woodcutter into the forest, before he finds the evidence of the crime. These shots, in Kurosawa’s words, lead the viewer “into a world where the human heart loses its way.” Only Kurosawa at his boldest would create such a kinesthetic sequence, in which movement itself—of the camera, the character, and the forest’s foliage—becomes the very point and subject of the scene. Mesmeric, exciting, fluid, and graceful, these are among the greatest moving camera shots in the history of cinema.

Couldn't have said it better myself. (No really, I can't.)

While I've spent the last year watching the Kurosawa films I hadn't seen before -- that was all of them except Seven Samurai -- I've been entranced by Ikiru, captivated by Ran, thrilled by Yojimbo, wowed by Throne of Blood, and blown away by High and Low. And now, finally, I understand the brilliance of Rashomon. It's been a run ride. Maybe I'll explore more, but with a watchlist around 2,000 films, I need to spread the love.

Added to Akira Kurosawa ranked.
Added to My Subjective List of the Best Narrative Films.

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