If you know anything about crime and eye witness accounts, you will appreciate that a person’s interpretation of the facts will vary depending on their perspective and the circumstances. This is explored in Kurosawa’s 1950 movie Rashomon, where the same murder is interpreted from four different perspectives.
With each passing tale the facts change and it becomes less and less obvious to both the audience and most of the characters what actually happened. How did the Samurai die? Was it a result of an extended sword fight with the Bandit, or was it something more mysterious and unknown? And was the Samurai’s wife raped by the Bandit, or was this an embellishment to the story?
Thankfully, while all of these questions are presented, not all of them are answered in any great detail and it’s left to the audience to interpret which of the stories is their preferred interpretation of events.
Kurosawa demonstrates his usual eye for a great looking shot. Even the quieter, dialogue heavy moments, of which there are many, are perfectly framed. He knew full well that the real drama was in the characters. How else can you explain the many, many shots where the character’s faces are front and centre in the shot?
There’s also plenty of symbolism to get your teeth stuck into. The contrast between light and dark, or long periods of rain contrasted with sunny skies above. The ending too, whilst not giving anything away, is filled with redemption, clarity and a deeper exploration between good and bad motives. One person’s evil is another person’s good deed, for example.
On screen we are given a very small subset of characters – the Bandit, the Priest, the Wood Cutter, a Commoner, the Samurai and his Wife, a Medium, and a baby – a symbol of pure innocence. Everyone is excellent in their roles, in particular longstanding Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune. The creepiest role goes to Noriko Honma as the Medium (Also a regular Kurosawa collaborator), her voice modified to sound like a supernatural version of the Samurai. This is one moment where the close up on her eyes is particularly striking.
Another really interesting aspect is the exploration of human nature, of deceit, of embellishment. There is one moment where the Samurai’s wife goads both the Samurai and the bandit into fighting. This is all the more striking as just moments before she had been lying on the ground in tears, with the Bandit standing over her and saying she cries because all women are naturally weak. This is just one moment of many where convention is turned on its head and the initial idea of the “weak woman” is subverted by how she is able to manipulate the situation to suit her own needs.
Glanced from a distance, the plot of Rashomon may not make a whole lot of sense to some people. My advice would be to fall back on that initial thought. Eye witness accounts aren’t reliable. People will tell a story that is self-serving in order to reach the best outcome for themselves and not necessarily those directly involved. Kurosawa makes a clear statement that the reality is often far more mundane than our desire to tell a good/entertaining story.
In the context of Rashomon, all of the tales are true, and yet none are. They are true in that they are the eyewitnesses account of the event, but false in that each is a singular interpretation. It’s a technique that has been used in cinema to varying effect over the intervening decades, but this remains the best.