Perhaps Kurosawa Akira’s greatest work, Rashomon led to the recognition of the Japanese film industry by the West. I saw Seven Samurai a few years back, I was eager to watch this masterpiece of conflicting retellings.

Semi-spoilers follow.

Rashomon concerns several unreliable narrators describing an alleged rape and murder by a bandit (played by Mifune Toshirou). Apparently it was the original movie depicting subjective recollections, something used very freely nowadays. Characters present their testimony to the viewer, who occupies the position of a magistrate.

I found the opening a bit clumsy (“Wakaranai… Sappari wakaranai…”), and the semi-theatrical style of acting a bit off-putting – though I liked Mifune Toshirou’s deliberately larger-than-life characterisation. He’s very good at playing somewhat crazy people, and as the first version of the events in question there are some surprises: the bandit employs trickery rather than outright assault, and there’s a duel instead of plain murder.

There’s a little lost in cultural understanding, such as how the woodcutter stumbles upon a woman’s hat, and then that of a samurai; Kurosawa performs a neat trick with the viewer’s expectations in this discovery sequence. This (despite hundreds of hours of anime) was also the first time that I saw a miko becoming (via Shinto ritual) a medium employed as a tool for crime-solving.

For much of the movie I didn’t actually realise that human virtue and honesty were being put to trial by the travelling priest, though I enjoyed hearing him remark poetically and philosophically「人間の命などは儚いものでございます」 (“Ningen no inochi nado wa asatsue no youni hanakai mono degozaimasu” – human lives are things transient as the morning dew). There are a few memorable exchanges, in particular the wife’s furious retort to a claim that “women are weak by nature” – she utters the immortal line: “A woman loves a man who loves passionately”.

I really enjoyed the contrast of characterisations between the stories, in particular the pathetic struggle portrayed in the woodcutter’s second retelling.

Rashomon shows its age somewhat, and some of its greatness is due to its groundbreaking technical and narrative innovations. However if you enjoy Japanese cinema and are interested in a piece of history, I recommend it.

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