Few works of art have become synonymous with an understanding of the subjective nature of reality. There are Philip K. Dick's novels, maybe some of Lawrence Durrell's works (where he explored the same story from four different angles), and a movie: Rashomon. Even people who have never heard the name "Kurosawa" know of "Rashomon syndrome." And like Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (which was to follow four years later), Rashomon became more than just one of Kurosawa's greatest movies, but also a model for many other movies to follow, some of them good and some of them awful.
As with Samurai, Rashomon stands apart from its successors. Kurosawa had just been released from his contract with Toho Studios, and Rashomon would be the fruit of his one-year deal with Daiei. The studio was hesitant about the film; no one had ever attempted this kind of fragmented storytelling in a Japanese movie before, and they were worried they would not make their money back. Happily, they were wrong, as the film was a success both at home and abroad. Rashomon turned out to be the movie to "break" Japanese films into the world cinema market, but with unexpected consequences: many people assumed all Japanese movies were structured in a similarly unique fashion. This was of course not true and Kurosawa grew tired of having to explain this over and over.
The story itself is actually less complicated than it might seem. Two men, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a Buddhist priest (Minoru Chiaki) take refuge from an endless downpour of rain under the ruins of the Rashomon gate. Times are hard; the two men talk uneasily about pestilence, war, famine, fires, earthquakes. But none of that is as strange as something the woodcutter witnessed. He explains the whole thing to another man, a day-laborer (Kichijiro Ueda) who also comes there to get out of the rain.
Two days ago, on the road, a bandit named Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) murdered a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and and raped his wife (Machiko Kyo). The woodcutter had stumbled across the dead man and reported the whole thing, and soon enough the bandit himself was captured and delivered a bragging, self-indulgent confession. Then the woman herself is asked to testify, and she delivers an entirely contradictory version of the same events. Kurosawa nicely foreshadows this major break in the story by having a minor incident (the bandit's capture) also described in different ways by different people.
Things only grow more complicated when yet another, equally contradictory version of events is delivered by the dead man as summoned through a spirit medium. In his version, he wasn't killed in a squabble over the wife; he committed suicide in shame after his wife was violated! The priest listening to the recounting of these versions is even more dismayed. Knowing that human beings are capable of such deception is damaging to his faith, but the day-laborer only finds it a cynical confirmation of his own beliefs. People lie all the time. Why should it be any different here?
Then the woodcutter himself reveals that he himself saw everything that happened from behind a bush. And, of course, his version is the most disparate of them all, with the woman inciting the bandit to murder her husband, among other things. The final acts, in both the main story and the "flashbacks," are reminiscent of Harold Pinter or even David Mamet, where people accuse, posture, badger, attack, justify, and go round and round in cycles of unending verbal torment.
Kurosawa finds endless ways to invest the material with fascination and visual flair. His trademark compositions are in almost every shot. In the ruined gate, he often puts one of the figures in the extreme foreground, not quite looking at us, while the others sit far in back and assail each other, creating a sense of isolation. His crew used mirrors to bounce sunlight through the trees onto his subjects, throwing glittering patterns of shadow on their faces, obscuring and revealing them at the same time.
Magnificent acting abounds, of course. Most of the cast are made up of Kurosawa's regulars — Takashi Shimura, and of course Mifune himself, who starred in endless Kurosawa films. I paid particular attention to Machiko Kyo, who plays the violated wife. When she begins her deposition, she's face down on the ground, weeping; afterwards, she's sitting up with a languid expression of near-boredom. Her character runs through just about every conceivable emotional state: indifference, rage, horror, fear, lust, retribution. Mifune's performance is alternately manic and coldly arrogant; he always did a great job of playing men at both extremes of the spectrum.
Rashomon was derived from a pair of short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, one of Japan's most revered authors. The title story bears little resemblance to the action in the film, but one of the themes — self-justification — is identical. "In A Grove," the second story, is more the obvious source for the film, consisting of transcribed interviews with the main characters. As in the story, we never see or hear from a voice of authority in the film. The characters speak directly to the camera when interrogated, responding to unheard voices. Like Akutagawa, Kurosawa doesn't want a final voice of judgment on events. He wants us to make up our own minds about what has happened, and what it all means.
Seeing Rashomon reminds me of how everything old is new again. With most movies today mired down in lockstep three-act plotting, special effects, explosions, one-liners and cheap shots, a movie like this is like something that would come out of the most extreme avant-garde of filmmaking today. The fact that it was made over fifty years ago only tells me how much more conservative and timid movies have become, and how some innovations can seem as offhanded as breathing to their creator.