Sep 2, 1998 at 12:00 am

Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) was the film which brought its director his first international acclaim and, like all his best work, it succeeds on several levels: as an affecting morality play, as a visually poetic example of what cinema can be, and as a clever and rousing entertainment.

Set in medieval Japan, its premise is both simple and cunning. A woman (Machiko Kyo) has been raped and her husband (Masayuki Mori) murdered, apparently by the infamous bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune). This seems fairly clear, but as each of the participants in the event tells a version of it, and we watch in flashback, the story changes to suit the best interests of the teller.

The bandit's version is colored by his amoral braggadocio --the woman wasn't so much raped as conquered; he never intended to kill the husband until the wife insisted; once the swords were drawn, the husband turned out to be a valiant opponent, and so forth. In the woman's version, the rape is a fatal humiliation which leaves her in a state of suicidal despair during which she somehow, blinded by grief, kills her husband herself.

Then the dead husband gets his say, channeled by a medium, a Kabuki-like figure of indeterminate sex. Not surprisingly, this time he turns out to have been the true victim, savagely wronged and unavenged. Just when we're totally confused -- each version has its merits -- a fourth and seemingly disinterested party emerges claiming to have seen what really happened. By now we're very suspicious and yet this last rendition does have the ring of authenticity, being randomly brutal and pathetically comic.

One could say that Rashomon is an examination of the elusive nature of truth, but that seems a rather dry assertion concerning a film with so many juicy pleasures: the pitiless rain at Rashomon gate and the dappled light in the forest scenes, all filmed in glorious black and white; the stunning deep-focus compositions which would become a Kurosawa trademark, painterly but never gratuitous; the ribald relish with which Mifune throws himself into the role of Tajomaru, the cowardly maniac.

It's also a film which manages to be both deeply cynical and cautiously optimistic, a combination which partially arose from its having been created in the ambivalent atmosphere of postwar Japan. Yet it's a mixed feeling which still resonates today -- one which is wisely, if sadly, timeless and universal.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].