Where to start with Rashomon? Starting at the beginning means talking about the bookends–three strangers stranded in the rain, two telling the third different versions of the same story, each ostensibly true. The rain pours down around them, drowning out their voices. Rashomon is a film without a protagonist; it eschews the very idea of one. That pounding rain contrasts with the rest of the film, which has two further layers of narrative.
The two men telling stories–Shimura Takashi’s woodcutter and Chiaki Minoru’s priest–just gave testimony in a murder trial. One of Rashomon’s mysteries, I just realized, is the resolution of that trial. It’s immaterial. They’re now telling Ueda Kichijirô about the testimony they gave and the testimony they heard. So the trial is the second layer. It’s very quiet, with director Kurosawa using exquisite, precise framing. I forgot–it also has Shirmura and Chiaki promising Ueda their tale of base humanity is the worst he’ll ever here. Kurosawa sets the viewer’s expectations high.
The third layer is the testimony itself, involving Mifune Toshirô’s bandit attacking a traveling married couple. Mifune confesses. The wife, Kyô Machiko, gives conflicting testimony. The husband, Mori Masayuki–arguably in the film’s most difficult performance–gives another. Rashomon isn’t a courtroom picture set in feudal Japan, Kurosawa’s not interested in the truth. He’s interested in the concept of it, something plaguing poor Chiaki, whose performance as the priest is quietly devastating. A lot of Rashomon is people silently reacting to events around them. When action is necessary, no matter how much action, it’s momentous.
That third layer, set in a forest, is usually the quietest. Kurosawa and co-screenwriter Hashimoto Shinobu don’t play narrative tricks; Rashomon is straightforward in how the viewer’s supposed to navigate all the layers. Kurosawa isn’t interested in making the story opaque. He wants the viewer to understand. When Shimura tells his story, he walks the film (and the viewer) into the flashback, into the forest. It’s a visually striking sequence, beautiful photography from Miyagawa Kazuo and Kurosawa’s editing almost appears to be based on the length of breaths. The editing is very important in Rashomon. It practically suffocates the flashbacks, creating tension with the promise of truth and revelation in the silent forest.
Great acting from Mori, Kyô and Mifune, who all have to play the same parts three to five different ways. Sometimes Kyô is best, sometimes Mifune, but Mori’s gives the essential performance. He’s got to convey the forest’s silence, usually with nothing more than an expression or body language. Not to discount the Kyô and Mifune, of course, they’re amazing. Mifune shows exceptional range in what should be the same part.
Technically, the film’s impeccable. There’s a sword fight near the end, mostly in single takes, and Kurosawa gets phenomenal action performances from his actors. It’s exhausting, but so is Rashomon itself; at less than ninety minutes, Kurosawa runs the characters–and the viewer–through a ringer. Because he doesn’t just want to ask questions about truth, he wants to talk about their answers as well, making Shimura, Chiaki and Ueda just as important to the film as the three leads.
Great music from Hayasaka Fumio.
Rashomon has a cast of ten. The closest it comes to comic relief is Katô Daisuke’s mildly dimwitted policeman who testifies against Mifune, but it’s not funny, Katô’s just sort of funnier than anything else. Its present action is short, regardless of layer–I suppose the runtime could correspond to Shimura, Chiaki and Ueda being stuck in the rain, though the rain is already pouring down as the film starts. It’s not a big picture. There’s nothing Kurosawa could do better, could do different. Rashomon’s perfect, devastating.
Edited and directed by Kurosawa Akira; screenplay by Kurosawa and Hashimoto Shinobu, based on a story by Akutagawa Ryûnosuke; director of photography, Miyagawa Kazuo; music by Hayasaka Fumio; production designer, Matsuyama Takashi; produced by Jingo Minoru; released by Daiei Motion Picture Company.
Starring Mifune Toshirô (Bandit), Kyô Machiko (Wife), Mori Masayuki (Husband), Shimura Takashi (Woodcutter), Chiaki Minoru (Priest), Ueda Kichijirô (Commoner), Honma Noriko (Medium) and Katô Daisuke (Policeman).