Rashomon (1950)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * ½

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In Medieval Japan, two men who have taken refuge from a downpour under the Rasho Gate in Kyoto relate to a third the events they had earlier witnessed at the trial of a bandit (Toshiro Mifune). They tell of how a man and his wife, while travelling through a forest, were met by the highwayman, who murdered the man and raped the woman. Their presentations of the testimony of each of the persons involved in the crime make it apparent, however, that each of the individuals involved saw the events in which he was participating in a different way than had the others, or, at the least, represented those events very differently.

Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, while it falls short of being a cinematic masterpiece, is, as a narrative, a truly great work. The director provides not only a number of insights into the human mind but, while doing so, is also able to question the nature of truth itself. By so engaging the viewer with such meditations, Kurosawa envelops him in the story he is telling and leaves him feeling profoundly touched by the sorrows of the human condition.

Wisely, Kurosawa gives each of the three versions of the story of the robber's attack on the man and his wife equal weight so that the viewer is never made to think that the director is trying to imply that one of them is true and the others lies. Instead, the viewer is made aware of how people can perceive the same physical occurrences in radically different ways. Whether the film's characters, and human beings generally, merely interpret what they have seen or done according to their own opinions and assumptions about the world or transform the events themselves, molding them into whatever new narratives are required for their emotional well-being, their differing representations are not overt lies, that is, representations known by the given person telling them to be untrue, but can be, in fact, accurate reflections of that person's understanding of the events he has witnessed. By so letting the moviegoer see the world from the perspective of each of the individuals around whom Rashomon revolves, Kurosawa not only reminds the viewer just how fluid reality is, but also allows him to engage with each of the film's characters.

The viewer is, consequently, not simply affected by the tragic murder of a man, the rape of a woman, and the execution of their attacker, but also by an awareness of how human beings are unable to deal with the universe around them without imposing upon it whatever constructs are needed to make that world an easier place for them to inhabit. For example, in the story told by the murdered man, which is related by a medium, the viewer sees how the man perceives himself as a completely innocent victim, betrayed even by his wife, who is revealed as a faithless creature who callously begs the robber to murder her husband and take her with him. In the wife's tale, by contrast, it is the man who is cruel and heartless, who is ready to abandon a spouse he sees as being tainted by the rape she has suffered. Each person interprets the events occurring to him as colored by his own often selfish perspectives so that whatever wrongs are committed are always done by others and never by himself. This is not to say, however, that such views of the world are presented as being cynical, or even that they distance the viewer from the movie's characters. In fact, by making these perspectives overt, Kurosawa submerges the viewer in the differing worlds each of his protagonists inhabits and allows that viewer to feel the emotions of these persons with a remarkable poignancy.

The performances of the actors are, without exception, nuanced, fascinating, and skilful. Mifune, in particular, demonstrates just how great of an actor he was. This is not to say, however, that his fellow cast members do not also deserve credit. Thanks to its universally good performances, Rashomon's capacity to affect the viewer is considerably enhanced.

Whatever its virtues, I must, nevertheless, concede that Rashomon is not, by any means, a flawless work of art. It is generally pedestrian visually and is weighed down by a frequently overwrought score. In fact, there are times when the film's music infuses the narrative with a melodramatic quality that seriously detracts from story's ability to involve the viewer. Fortunately, the movie's narrative is so enthralling that it always keeps this fault from becoming a crippling problem.

Even if it does not quite rise to greatness, Rashomon is still one of the most fascinating and involving films I have encountered.

Review by Keith Allen

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