Rashomon (1950, Akira Kurosawa)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Rashomon is about an encounter in the woods. A man, a woman, a vagrant. A rape. A murder. The events recounted by three people — one of them now dead — and illustrated to us on film. Their stories incompatible. Reality is buried, but just faintly perceptible under the chaos of it all. Rashomon is about self-interest and the elusive nature of truth, and about how, as one character puts it, “maybe goodness is just make-believe.”

Forget the innovative plotting for a second. What matters most about Akira Kurosawa’s world-cinema touchstone is that it’s among the most visually beautiful movies ever made. Almost from start to finish, it’s a painfully lovely shadowplay emerging before our eyes. Those shots of the sun through the trees, the way the camera hugs the varied mystery of Machiko Kyo in all her psychological disguises, and of course the rain. The rain is just gorgeous. John Ford was correct in his assessment that rain is what makes Kurosawa Kurosawa.

Forget pretty pictures for a second, though, and notice also that some of the movie’s curiously gut-level power comes out of its cinematic eccentricity. For so many reasons —– its mischief, its conviction, its weirdness, its high-level glory and power —– the scene of the medium’s interpretation of the dead man’s testimony is instantly recognizable as one of the greatest narrative sequences ever put on celluloid. It’s harrowingly scary but humbling in its pretty perfection, the direction and editing both majestic in every way. The laughing is what gets you. The laughing starts to invade and spins you around until you’re not sure what you’re seeing is really what even the summaries and ideas you read beforehand begged you to see. Something’s going on here: human nature as nightmarish, impenetrable labyrinth.

Forget Kurosawa for a second and keep in mind the wild, across-the-board experimentation of a movie this offbeat in its structure being released in 1950. Even now it would turn heads. By the standards of any time period, the exercise of a repeated incision into the events of a few minutes on a single day, over and over and over again, is wild. Rashomon is an experiment. It is immensely rewarding. It pays off in spades. It’s wondrously vital, because it is an insightful and distressing dream so far out on its own strange limb.

Forget film experimentation; anything you see or read now with nonlinear plotting or multiple perspectives surely owes something to this. People who’ve never seen the movie know what “a Rashomon-like structure” is. We’re still seven years ahead of The Killing here; Rashomon is the original movie mindbend. But if you expect an intellectual exercise, think again; its far-reaching pessimism and poetry are what really transcend its mystery novel-like structure, and moreover Kurosawa is a master at finding ways to inject moments of remarkably affecting emotion and depth where you don’t expect them. Expressions of love, hatred, need, loss… — there’’s so much in this movie. So much to see, plenty more to discover in your head afterward.

The only real issue is that the film could lose several minutes at either end, but it feels extremely petty to argue with Kurosawa on such a small point. (I don’t go for the casual sexism, either, but this does take place in 14th century Japan.) Kurosawa doesn’t succumb to allegorical trappings until all the preachy business with the baby at the end. This negates the message of the movie; instead of acknowledging that every version of the episode was that person’s vision of the truth, the movie conveniently alleges that dishonesty is the source of great evil in our time, and if we feed babies and take care of them, we’ll be okay. You almost expect D.W. Griffith’s Jesus ghost to show up in those last frames.

It’s amazing that the weak intervals in Rashomon come not from the cold calculation of the script but the overreaching attempts to provide context to the insanity. Fakery is a bore, and so is rationalization. The opening twenty minutes of the movie are dominated by several characters droning on about how shocking and depressing the story you are about to witness is, repeatedly. Rashomon doesn’t need such a warmup or prelude; it needs only the courtroom, the reenactments, the rain. It gets close enough.

[Expansion of a review first posted in 2007.]

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