I have wanted to watch Rashomon ever since I heard Aaron Sorkin talk about its influence on The Social Network. I think everyone has a faint idea of what the story is about because they've heard about the "Rashomon effect". I'm going to give the barest of bare plots and say that it's about the varied accounts that four different people give of the same murder that has taken place.
I don't want to say more because the fun of the film is going in without much knowledge, especially in regards to two of its narrators. I did not see them coming at all and it just added an extra layer of intrigue to an already fascinating film.
Of course the major point this film makes is how malleable even something like truth can be in a world like ours. There is no absolute truth and that can terrify us, like how it did the wood cutter and the priest, or turn us into cynics, like the listener who comes their way, or we can be the silent, unseen judges who listen to the whole case but whose judgments remain unsaid. It is an unsettling and profound idea that the film explores and one that I haven't yet made my mind about fully.
I also loved the place of ego and societal expectations of what men and women should act like in the whole conflict of who is telling the truth. The main focus of the stories is an incident that takes place between a samurai, his wife and a bandit. In (SPOILERS) each of their narrations, they present themselves as the more heroic figure, whether it is in terms of strength or suffering or inability to live with shame on their honour. It is also interesting to note how all of them take the responsibility of the crime to prove this point, which is again something I did not expect at all because I feel the usual assumption is that most people would do the opposite. This is put into a sharper contrast by the last narration we hear because it subverts the portraits the others had painted of themselves in their own versions. (END SPOILERS)
The cinematography is another huge reason why I was so impressed with this film. It is absolutely stunning. The film has only three settings- the Rashomon gate, the woods and the courtyard. All of them by themselves and in contrast to each other provide some great visuals. The interplay of light and shadow in the woods, the starkness of the courtyard especially in the scene with the medium, the closeups of the lady and the scene when she has been "had" by the bandit- all of these have left an indelible impression in my mind.
The acting of the film is also very good. I especially liked Machiko Kyō who played the samurai's wife. I felt that she had great control even in her melodramatic parts because she was often on the brink of going overboard but then did something completely unexpected instead.
Kurosawa co-wrote the film with Shinobu Hashimoto and it was based on two stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. Many film theoreticians believe that the ambiguity of truth in the film reflected Japan's defeat in the second World War which was something added to the story by Kurosawa because the original stories were written before the war. I think that is an interesting little historical setting but it doesn't really affect my reaction to the film because it explores questions beyond just a specific time period. I was much more absorbed by the fact that even the actors kept asking Kurosawa which version of the truth is real and he refused to tell them because he knew that that would defeat the purpose of the film.
As I wrote above, the film has only three settings. My final reason of loving this film so much is its apparent simplicity. It is under 90 minutes which seems improbable because of all the themes being examined but there is such economy and clarity of focus that it becomes obvious why it is regarded as a towering cinematic achievement all over the world. The only other Kurosawa film that I have seen in its entirety is The Seven Samurai and though that is 3 hours long, I had come to the same conclusion that I did with Rashomon which is that nothing in these films is unnecessary. Everything is full of meaning and significance and maybe it's just the English major in me talking but that enriches the film even more. That a film doesn’t have to be complicated and confusing in order to be complex felt like such a refreshing concept to me.
Yeah, so, I loved it. It was everything I thought it would be and so much more and all the other clichés of the same ilk. If you guys haven’t seen it yet, please do. It is uber short, and cool and entertaining and thought-provoking! All the other blind spots this year officially have a lot to live up to.