I’m not sure why, but sometimes seeing foreign films feels like homework to me. It shouldn’t because I’ve seen a few (Rififi, Das Boot, The Killer) I’ve really enjoyed, but there it is. I watched this on a computer and I cannot wait to see it on the big screen.
A woodcutter, a commoner, and a priest take shelter from a torrential rain storm and tell the story of a horrific crime. They describe how a samurai (Masayuki Mori), his wife (Machiko Kyo), and a bandit (Toshiro Mifune) meet tragically in a lonely clearing in the woods. One man dies and the resulting trial reveals a great deal about the people involved and much larger issues. In a method which would later be known as the Rashomon effect, each of the participants tells his side of the story and the audience is left to discern the truth.
Rashomon played in only a few theatres outside of Japan during its initial release but introduced the western world to its director, Akira Kurosawa (Yojimbo, Ran). Kurosawa and his cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa (Ugetsu, Yojimbo) made a beautiful film about an ugly crime and in so doing brought Japanese cinema to the world’s attention. The actors tell the different versions of the tale using every part of them. The performances are feral and nuanced at the same time. These actors pull feelings out of their souls. I couldn’t look away. Kyo (Gate of Hell, Ugetsu), as the samurai’s wife shows tremendous range and Mifune (Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood) looks like he’s spring-loaded. He is all energy and extremes which give his bandit/sociopath character an almost child-like quality. The priest and the wood cutter, Minoru Chiaki and Takashi Shimura, had long and prestigious careers in Japanese cinema as well acting in kaiju films, detective stories, and Shakespearean epics and give wonderful performances here. You see the pain in their faces as they recount the terrible crime to the unfeeling commoner Kichijiro Ueda.
Rashomon touches on morality, shame, the place of women in society, and the very nature of man. That it does so with such sparse dialogue (Japanese with subtitles), few locations and sets, and seven characters serves as a testament to the acting, direction, and writing in this absolutely incredible film. I was blown away. Watch this film as soon as you can.