Before The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, there was Rashomon. Released in 1950, the film was the first to introduce legendary director Akira Kurosawa and Japanese cinema to Western audiences, and went on to win the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival and an Honorary Academy Award.
At its core, Rashomon is a timeless tale of “he-said, she-said” set in feudal Japan. Based on two short stories written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (In A Grove, Rashomon), Rashomon tells the complex story of a murdered samurai through four mutually conflicting viewpoints. The film opens with a woodcutter and priest taking shelter from the rain by sitting under the Rashomon gate in Kyoto. Before long, the woodcutter recounts how three days earlier, he had found the body of a murdered samurai whilst looking for wood in the forest. From here, the plot slowly thickens as the details of the samurai’s murder gradually come to light through various testimonies from the woodcutter, the samurai’s wife, the bandit responsible for the murder, and the dead samurai himself through the help of a medium. Aside from a few undisputed facts—primarily, the samurai’s eventual murder and his wife’s rape at the hands of the bandit—crucial aspects of each character’s testimony are called into question by that of another’s.
It’s in these conflicting stories that Rashomon truly shines. Kurosawa never outright states which story is the “true story”, wisely leaving it up to viewers to interpret for themselves. At the film’s end, it’s impossible to know 100 percent what actually happened, however, in Rashomon’s case, the objective “truth” is perhaps, not quite as important or interesting as the lies told to cover it up. Rashomon also illustrates Kurosawa’s skills as a master storyteller and director; while there are only three or four different settings within the film (partly for budgetary reasons), the film never feels limited in scope. On the contrary, the cinematography in Rashomon is superb for its time, and it’s a joy to watch Kurosawa experiment with light in a way that has been arguably absent in the age of special effects and advanced technology.
Admittedly, Rashomon is a much slower, moodier film than Kurosawa’s later films. While this isn’t necessarily a drawback, Rashomon is more likely to appeal to fans of character dramas than fans of more traditional samurai flicks. To that end, both Toshiro Mifune and Michiko Kyo deliver strong performances as the unhinged bandit and emotionally volatile samurai’s wife—though that perhaps goes without saying. Arguably, the major flaw within the film is Kurosawa’s attempt at the end to neatly wrap up loose ends by revealing the woodcutter’s good intentions toward the abandoned baby. It’s perhaps a bit nitpicky, considering it’s a very minor change from Akutagawa’s original story. The “truth” is still left up to the viewer for interpretation, but it does feel a bit false considering the lengths Kurosawa has gone to preserve the moral ambiguities and motivations of each character.