Rashomon(1950) was director Akira Kurosawa’s 11th feature and his first to gain a sizable international audience. It’s also a film of enduring popularity whose title has become so synonymous with its central concept — that different people can experience and remember the same event in very different ways — that it’s become a kind of pop shorthand, having achieved the ultimate cultural compliment by being a joke reference on “The Simpsons.”
Set in medieval Japan, the incident that generates the varied remembrances is the rape of a noblewoman (Machiko Kyo) and the murder of her husband (Masayuki Mori), a crime apparently committed by the infamous bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune). During a trial, each of the participants (including, through a medium, the dead husband) gives his or her version of events. The bandit’s telling is colored by his amoral braggadocio; the woman wasn’t so much raped as conquered and he never intended to kill the husband until the wife insisted. In the woman’s version, the rape is a fatal humiliation; in a haze of shame and despair she kills her husband herself. When the husband has his say, he, of course, turns out to be the one who was savagely wronged. It’s only a fourth version, told by an apparently disinterested witness, that has the ring of truth, combining as it does the randomly brutal with the pathetically comic.
Despite the philosophical implications, the main pleasures here, as in most of Kurosawa’s work, are more sensual than intellectual: the pitiless rain at Rashomon gate and the dappled light in the forest scenes, all filmed in glorious black and white; the arresting deep-focus compositions which would become a Kurosawa trademark; the ribald relish with which Mifune throws himself into the role of Tajomaru, the cowardly maniac.
It’s also a film that manages to be both deeply cynical and cautiously optimistic, a combination that partially arose from its having been created in the ambivalent atmosphere of postwar Japan and one that still, in our post-everything world of shifting realities, resonates strongly.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].