A man is dead, a woman was raped, and that's all that can be definitely said. Somebody has committed murder, but nobody knows whodunnit. Genius filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" is a classic for its skillful direction, suspense and wonderful acting. It's one of those movies you think must be vastly overrated until you see it, and are blown away by it.
At the Rashomon Gate in eleventh-century Japan, a man (Kichijiro Ueda) takes shelter with a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) during a rainstorm. The woodcutter is depressed and the priest is horrified, over a recent crime: the vicious bandit Tajômaru (Toshirô Mifune) was arrested for murdering a man named Takehiro (Masayuki Mori) and raping his wife Masako (Machiko Kyô). But when taken before the police, Tajômaru claims that he has his fun with the woman and killed her husband honorably in a fight.
But Masako begs to differ; she claims to be the victim first of the sadistic bandit, then of her cold-hearted husband. And when a medium calls up the spirit of Takehiro, he claims that Masako was unfaithful, asking the bandit to murder him, then spurned by Tajômaru. Her actions drove Takehiro to suicide. And the woodcutter himself claims to have seen the altercation -- and his version is wildly different from them all.
During the filming of "Rashomon," director Akira Kurosawa stated that the film is a reflection of life, which doesn't always have clear meanings. The same could be said of truth. Questions are raised by the events of "Rashomon," but given no easy answers -- sometimes no answers at all (my biggest question was how Masako's gown stays so white if she's always weeping on the ground).
Light and shadow whirl and dance in a frankly beautiful woodland setting, serving as a pretty backdrop for some very ugly acts. The fight scenes are masterful -- they look like real fights, as opposed to choreography. Tajômaru's are more stylized, whereas the woodcutter sees two guys rolling and staggering around with swords, obviously freaked out. Kurosawa was even brave enough to touch on the unique idea of having the deceased testify. The spinechilling seance scene, starring a downright spooky, stark-faced Fumiko Honma, is a haunting classic scene.
Are Kurosawa's insights dark and depressing? In a fascinating, hypnotic way... yes. But while calmly pointing out the ability of human beings to lie even to themselves, he acknowledges that there's good in there too (a scene where the woodcutter adopts an abandoned baby as the priest watches). We lose our illusions and innocence as the priest loses his, forced to look on how despicable people can be, but while being comforted with the knowledge that people aren't all bad, and that unadulterated truth isn't really necessary to have good in you.
Toshirô Mifune chews the scenery with gusto as the barbarian bandit, laughing and jerking like a hyena just to see people jump. At first glance, Machiko Kyô seems to be overacting, until you see how unhinged her character has become by whatever happened. Masayuki Mori doesn't get to act as much as the others (the poor guy spends most of his time tied to a tree), but is good when the camera zooms in on him. Minoru Chiaki and Takashi Shimura add an extra dimension as the innocent young priest and the tormented woodcutter.
Gloomy, thought-provoking and ultimately quite freaky, "Rashomon" still defies conventional filmmaking and will suck you right in. It's brilliantly crafted and exceptionally directed, and must be seen by all lovers of cinema. And that's the truth!