July 17, 2013

Movie Review: Rashomon (1950)

What is truth? What is the nature of truth? Can we ever know what the truth really is? These are questions that are asked in Akira Kurosawa's classic film Rashomon, the film that introduced both Kurosawa and Japanese cinema to a global audience.

The story is simple on its face. A samurai and his wife are accosted by a bandit. The wife is raped and the husband killed. But how those events occurred, and why they happened are what we cannot figure out. Each participant, including the dead husband (channeled by a medium) give conflicting versions of the events.

We learn of this tale from a priest and woodcutter seeking shelter from the rain at the Rashomon Gate outside Kyoto. The woodcutter found the samurai's body and, we learn later, also saw the events in question. His recounting of what happened adds a further layer of doubt and, despite being the most unbiased, cannot be taken at face value either.

Kurosawa's movie was daring in many ways. He gave viewers a plot that provided no answers (and confused a lot of Japanese film critics at the time). He shot many scenes along with his cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa into direct light, a long-standing taboo in film-making. He shot the film using multiple cameras so he could splice together different cuts depending on which he like the best. Rashomon was a major risk for Kurosawa to take, but it paid off wonderfully.

It's impact globally is obvious, with multiple films and television shows using the basic concept of "competing truths". But unlike Rashomon, they all provide us with an answer. Rashomon is defiant, not giving us the "truth" we want. In the end, we have to choose what we believe is the truth. And what we choose may be different.

To give a personal example, I went through a divorce a few years ago. If you asked me or my ex-wife why we got a divorce, we would likely give some of the same reasons but also different ones. If you asked our friends, you'd get more responses. All would share some basic commonalities but each would be different in the end. And each would be the "truth". And we would all believe our version was the right one.

It's a Hell of a topic to tackle with a film. And to not provide a definitive answer is what makes Rashomon more than a classic, but one of the best films ever made. Because that, as much as we may not want to admit it, is how it is in life.


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