Rashomon (1950)

D: Akira Kurosawa
S: Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori

Powerful cinematic treatise on the nature of representation which stunned audiences at the 1951 Venice Film Festival and established the name of its director in the canon of film history. The film is composed of sections detailing the different accounts of a single event presented by four eyewitnesses. But never for one moment does it even suggest that any of them might be telling the truth. The truth, the film points out, is subjective and unknowable and only a person's honour can define it, and then only for themselves.

A man travelling through the woods with his wife is set upon by a bandit who has sex with the woman and kills the man. But was it rape or seduction, love or lust? Was it murder or suicide, bravery or cowardice? With each telling, the story is different, defined every time by the individual teller's interpretation of the event as it relates to their own sense of themselves. The bandit brags of his prowess, the woman weeps at what has happened to her, the man (through a medium) tells how his lost honour necessitates suicide, and an eyewitness, who may be in some way culpable, describes all three as liars.

Fascinating in concept, beautifully executed, the film deservedly brought recognition to Kurosawa and to long-time collaborator Mifune (whose marvelously unhinged performance ranks among his best and marks sharp contrast with some of his later roles). It subscribes to several prevalent cinematic ideas, notably of montage and modernist opposition, but inflects them with an eclectic dramatist's concern for a morality play without a moral, at least until a closing coda attempts to restore a sense of belief in humanity which the rest of the film suggests has been lost by everyone.

It is not necessarily easy viewing, and is, in fact, predicated upon the idea of disturbing the viewer. It has dated a little in this regard, and some of the more theatrical moments jar as outmoded stylisation. But on the whole it flows beautifully and is as rich and complex a work of cinema as any in Kurosawa's distinguished filmography. Though on a certain level, the film is impenetrable from an Occidental perspective, Kurosawa was often criticised in his home country for relying too heavily on western conventions. In general, it is an intricately realised and well acted film which anyone with enough predisposition to the material to choose to watch it should enjoy and find rewarding.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.