A man has been murdered and a women has been raped by anotorious bandit. Only a lowly woodcutter witnesses theevent, and each person present for the crime must retelltheir versions of the story. But when none of the storiesmatch up, we must decide who is telling the truth and whichversion of the story is real.
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Rashomon is hands down one of the greatest mystery moviesever made. Awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice FilmFestival in 1951, along with an Oscar win in 1952, Rashomonhas stood the test of time and still has the awe inspiringpower to captivate audiences today that it had when it wasreleased. The first thing to know about Rashomon is thatitís one of the first films in history to present to us themystery of whatís real, instead of whatís true. Thatís whatthis films begs of itís viewer from the very opening scene toitís climactic finish. How can we tell whatís real?
The film is set in ancient Japan and starts out in thepouring rain. Two men, a woodcutter and a priest, sit underan archway, clearly distraught. A third man, a commoner,approaches them and can immediately tell that something iswrong. When he inquires, they respond that they have justheard a tale more horrifying than any they have ever heardbefore. The commoner laughs at this, claiming that every daypeople die of plague and murder, how could this story be anyworse? The priest responds that heís heard thousands ofconfessions of all the horrible acts of man, but this time,he may of finally lost all hope in humanity.
What Kurosawa does here is not only brilliant, but bold aswell. He has basically set the bar as high as it can go. Wehave a priest who claims heís never heard anything sohorrible in his life. When challenged, the camera slowlyzooms in on the distraught manís face and when he claims thatthis time heís finally lost all faith in humanity, we areleft with an overwhelming sense of curiosity and mystery.What could of happened that was so horrible? How do youfollow up a claim like that? What could these men havepossibly seen that would make them loose their faith in thecommon good? The bar is set, and Kurosawa delivers.
What follows is the woodcutter retelling several differentversions of the story. He tells his own version of thestory, about how he came across the womanís hat, a clothsheath, some cut rope, and then, finally, a murdered man.He quickly rushes to the authorities to tell them whathappened. Now here is where the bulk of the film takesplace. The woodcutter is summoned to speak in front of ajudge, along with the priest(who saw the woman and themurdered man before the incident), the bandit(Toshiro Mifune,in one of his greatest roles), the raped women, and even themurdered man(who speaks through a spiritual median, in one ofthe creepiest moments in filmed history). Each person tellstheir version of what happened.
Whatís so wonderful about this is how everything is set up inthis film. During the court hearings, each character facesthe screen while speaking to the unseen judge. This makes usthe judge, so it is up to us to make out what actuallyhappened. As the stories are told, an overall sense ofmystery and intrigue are conveyed through the use of theforest where the crime was actually committed. The forestitself looms over what happens, casting strange shadows andcovering whatís real from us, hiding the truth. Thedirecting is so sound that if you watch carefully, youíllnotice that each time a character has something to say, theyalways come forward toward the camera to say it. There arenever any more than three characters on the screen at anygiven time, and they are always standing in a triangle.Everything about the way this film was shot is perfect. Thelighting, the camera work, the sets, the shading, everythingcontributes to this masterpiece.
When the stories are unveiled to us, we begin to seesomething strange happen. First of all, throughout theentire film, we never see what actually happens. What we seeis what each person tells us happened, and each story differsin many ways. The bandits version of the story paints apicture of him laying eyes on the most beautiful women in theworld and besting her husband in noble combat. By killingthe man, he has won the right to take his wife by force. Thewomen tells a story in which the bandit did not kill herhusband, but instead tied him up and raped her in front ofhim.
Her story is my personal favorite because something trulyhorrifying happens. Something worse than anything Iíve everseen. After she is raped, the bandit simply leaves. Thewomen cuts her husband free and falls into his arms, weepinguncontrollably. She looks up, only to see that he isdisgusted by her. His face is that of pure hate andcontempt. Kurosawa has taken the most horrifying thing thatcan happen to a women, raped her and left her traumatized.She looks up to her husband, so vulnerable and helpless,desperately seeking aid, a shining light, something in herlowest point. What she finds there instead is disgust. Sheis brought down lower than any human should have to go and isthen taken lower.
How horrifying to be the victim of something so tragic and behated for it, to be looked down upon and spat on for it.Gives me chills right now just thinking about it.Next up, the murdered man tells a story of how his wifewished for this death after willingly sleeping with thisbandit in front of him. The bandit, disgusted by the wifeísdeplorable actions, cuts the man loose and leaves. Thehusband then kills himself with the shame of knowing his wifehas left him and he could do nothing to stop it. Finally,the woodcutter tells of how he actually witnessed the wholething, contradicting his earlier story of simply finding theaftermath.
Whatís so amazing about all of this is how there are so manystories within stories. The current present is under thearchway in the rain, but there the woodcutter tells the storyof these other characters telling the story of what happened.Each character is presented as being truthful. None of themis ever caught telling any lies, they all honestly believetheir versions of the story. So by the end, we are simplyleft with what? Nothing, all we know is that everything ishorrible around us and we are no closer to discovering thereality of what has happened. This film challenges thenature of reality, and also the nature of man. We see whatpeople are capable of at their lowest. There are times inthis film that the characters transcend themselves and simplybecome symbols of our lowest, darkest feelings.
The film does, however, manage to end on a positive note,giving us hope yet. I wonít spoil that for you, but what Iwill say is that Rashomon is a film like no other. It pullsyou into a mystery that can not be solved, into a realitythat isnít there, and into a world where we canít trustanything, not even our own eyes.