One of the most profound movies ever made about the true colors of the human soul.
Rashomon is the story of a priest, a lumberjack and a passing commoner in Feudal Japan who find themselves waiting out a torrential storm by recounting the trial of a recent murder case that has left them numb, distraught and hopeless. Told through the testaments of those involved and those just trying to make sense of it, the three men find themselves confronted with the ugly face of human nature while unraveling the truth behind a woman’s rape and her husband’s death.
I don’t why it’s taken me so long to get around to writing this. This has firmly been in my Top Ten since the fateful day in High School when I got my wisdom teeth removed, rented it from the library on a whim and was flat-out floored by it in a way no movie had affected me before or since for that matter. The only excuse I’ve got is that I had to watch it just one more time before giving it the rundown it deserves, but considering that this is also the first Kurosawa movie I’ve reviewed, I might as well contemplate seppuku for the shame I’ve brought upon my family.
So there are a good deal of movies out there that have shaken me up, made me bawl, made me cheer or plain old pissed me off, but like any movie that strives for the same emotional weight as Seven, Kramer vs. Kramer, Back to the Future or The Tillman Story, that’s to be expected. But then there’s Rashomon, and with the exception of The Seventh Seal, I can’t even think of one other movie that comes close to the haunting power this movie carries on such a universal subject as the inherently flawed state of man.
The plot plays out like a cross-examination, jumping back and forth between those on the witness stand and the men weighing in on the validity of their testimonies. The trial begins with an arrogant thief who confesses to raping the woman and then murdering her husband after a lengthy duel. Next is the said woman who claims that the thief forced himself upon her, but she instead confesses to murdering her husband after he refused to forgive her for allowing the disgraceful act to happen. Third is the deceased husband – speaking through a medium – who claims that he took his own life after allowing the thief to run away with his wife after raping her because she was no longer worthy. And then there’s a fourth surprise witness, an individual with no ulterior motive who saw the reality of the situation first-hand but opted to confess long after a verdict was reached for fear of sticking his nose in places it didn’t belong, but I’ll let you figure out who that is for yourself.
As the “truth” comes out, the facts just get buried deeper until the only certainty left to go off of is that even in shackles, even in mourning, even in death, people will stoop to any low and ruin anyone regardless of the damage caused as long as it gives them a good name. Though their intentions might seem righteous upon first hearing, no one is innocent. Why? Because that’s the way people are.
It’s as utterly disheartening as it is brilliant and it’s sad because, in many ways, it’s true. Just turn on the news and see for yourself. It forces the cast and audience alike to take a step back and measure out which side of the spectrum they want to be on even if they might not be able to control it in the first place.
But Akira Kurosawa, man. From the script to the final product, this all goes back to him. This guy is a legend for good reason and this here is a wonderful little crash course in why that is. The dude was mastering non-linear storytelling way before non-linear storytelling was cool, he used light and shadow in ways that film makers had never seen or even thought to utilize, and word on the street is that he drained the entire water supply of the town he was filming in just to create his outrageous rain storm.
Doubt those villagers were too happy with the guy, but talk about epic.
But the beauty of it all is how deceptively simple the whole thing is. It’s a no-frills picture, Kurosawa always keeps his characters at the forefront of things and makes them drive the story rather than letting his skills behind the camera do the work. As good as it looks, it never fails to be a human struggle told by human beings, and to dress it up as something else would just take away from the dark heart that makes it stand out.
And the acting ain’t too shabby either. Machiko Kyo is solid as the manipulative wife, Masayuko Mori is solid as her stern husband, and Takashi Shimura is both solid and heartbreaking as the lumberjack. But Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune totally steals the show as the crazy-ass bandit, Tajomaru. The guy is just so far out there in comparison to everyone else that’s he’s impossible to ignore. Maybe could have done without him hamming it up so much, but whatever, the act ultimately ties in quite nicely to the final impression we get of the guy.
So it’s black-and-white, it’s 60-years-old, it’s got subtitles, the scenes drag on here and there and the pacing is a bit on the slower end of things during the first Act, but do not write this off. You’d be crazy to write this off, it’s only 88 minutes long anyway.
Folks, Rashomon is the kind of movie that would make Sartre clap in his coffin, but as memorable as it is for being so ruthless and dire, it’s the brief silver lining that really brings it all home in the long run. Yeah, you can turn on the news and chances are 95% of it is gonna be pretty depressing, but there’s always that 5% right at the very end that brightens your day, makes you forget about all that other noise and reinvigorates your faith in the goodness of man. Human history has always had its ups-and-downs and that’s probably the way it’s always gonna be, and while that existence is far from a perfect one, it’s amazing the way a small display of selflessness can speak volumes far louder than a tsunami of greed.
A damn fine place to be introduced to Kurosawa and one of the greatest movies ever made.