Written by: Akira Kurosawa & Shinobu Hashimoto
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki
A plethora of sayings exist out there about the importance of truth from it setting you free and being the proper way to live life. These sayings proliferate and get repeated often because we, as humans, like to lie not because we’re inherently deficient but because our lies flatter and absolve us from things we have done with Rashomon serving as an excellent showcase of how this appears among three individuals all experiencing the same situation.
On a voyage, a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyō) come across a bandit named Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune). When they cross paths and horrific events lead to the death of the samurai, each individual testifies to the truth of what occurred on that terrible day with many differences amongst those in their retelling.
Seen as one of Akira Kursoawa’s best features, with good reason, Rashomon utilizes a storytelling style others have attempted to emulate but never quite capture its greatness. This occurs partly because Kurosawa remains unmatched as a filmmaker but the ruthlessness employed by the filmmaker and the honest truth he lays out creates an incredibly impressive feature. We all come in with our own preconceived notions of who we would believe in the circumstance and as a result, it says plenty about the audience member. However, anyone who would believe the story given by Tajōmaru is someone I would not want to associate with. Each retelling has kernels of truth and getting to the root of it becomes the obstacle for the audience to take on.
If anyone takes anything away from this feature other than the impeccable artistry involved, it will undoubtedly be Toshiro Mifune’s performance as Tajōmaru. One could argue his most memorable role as he employs what has made him a legendary actor but the distinct feature of this character comes from the boisterous and evil laugh he employs. Almost aggressive in how it gets utilized as a way to mock; every time I watch this film, I hear echoes of it in my brain for multiple days following. It all culminates in the creation of a truly despicable character in every sense and Mifune plays it so incredibly well in how he evokes every movement and line delivery.
Saying this feature utilizes an unreliable narrator would be the understatement of the year seeing as it becomes difficult to believe anything these characters say, especially when they directly contradict each other. It all comes back to the idea of who has the incentive to tell the truth and in areas where lying could render better results, can one be deemed trustworthy in what gets shared as their recollection of the events? I certainly have my thoughts based on the gender dynamics on display but the back and forth allows for the conflicts of interest to stand out in a glaring manner as we learn plenty about these characters and what motivates them.
Tasked with showing the same sequence of events displayed with different perspectives, each retelling has a distinct freshness not only because of where the lies separate them but how they get presented visually. With different angles employed and sly tricks utilized by the actors to provide distinct little changes along with the larger ones to demonstrate how much gets embellished and exactly how much it flatters or absolves the person telling it. Not only do the actions have their differences, but also the different ways in which the action sequences get depicted in demonstrating that particular character’s version of the events. For example, the fight sequence between the samurai and Tajōmaru contains vastly different interpretations from the competition involved to the end result. Differences even lie in the ferocity of the conversations and the force they use when swinging their swords. It truly gets at how three different individuals could have such vastly conflicting accounts of an objective circumstance, which the film continually answers by showing the benefits of lying.
As much as truth and lies play into the core of this feature a larger idea about the good of humanity runs throughout the film, especially when it comes to the individuals sitting in the rain talking about this incident as a whole. A discussion expressing the goods and evils of humanity hoping to have a sense of optimism and positivity about a larger outlook of our shared experience. Going through the trial where these individuals give their sides of the story certainly pushes the line of thinking back and forth of where these characters ultimately land in their final assessments. When the film digs into this facet of its larger theme it hits an emotional nerve I did not expect when experiencing the first two-thirds of the film. This outlook on life pairs so well with the lies versus truth mostly dominant where it sneaks up on you and adds to its profundity.
Having so much on its mind on a thematic level, Rashomon has some of the best pacing and efficiency in telling its story I have ever witnessed as a lover of film. It packs so much within its 88-minute runtime and manages to accomplish more in that limited time than many films stretching well past 150. Every second of this narrative gets put to good use in either moving the plot along or delving into the psyche of these characters as it explains the decisions they make and their general outlook on life. You cannot miss a moment as everything layers and folds into each other in such a meaningful way.
Operating as a true masterpiece, this film continues to impress in each subsequent viewing in how it manages to tell a layered and thematically rich story surrounding one encounter between three different individuals. Where the film goes on philosophical levels adds an extra degree of greatness on top of the sheer entertainment factor Rashomon presents in every scene. A wholly enjoyable film demonstrating why Kurosawa belongs on the Mount Rushmore of film directors and why Mifune served as the perfect partner as he crafts one of his best performances.