Rashomon

Rashomon ★★★★★

“If you’re not selfish, you can’t survive”.

Widely regarded as Kurosawa’s first masterpiece, Rashōmon is the tale of a bandit, a bride, a samurai and a woodcutter. Their story is the same and altogether very different.

Using storytelling devices that must have been revolutionary in 1950, Kurosawa recounts multiple versions of an incident that took place in the woods three days prior to where we pick up.

As the woodcutter, the priest and the commoner sit beneath the gates of Rashōmon, the woodcutter begins his disturbing story of how he discovered a body in the forest.

From here, still in flashback, we are taken back to the court proceedings following the discovery, where the two surviving parties are summoned to relay the events that led to the murder. First, we have the bandit, followed by the bride.

In a mesmerising showcase of style, Kurosawa buries the viewer within each memory as the characters practically break the fourth wall, addressing the audience directly as if we are their jury. And we judge with all the prejudice of a modern day audience, now so familiar with protagonists and antagonists: the bandit is the villain; the bride, the victim.

But of course, all of these notions are dispelled as the story builds. It doesn’t stop with the bandit and bride. There is a truly extraordinary sequence involving a medium that further mystifies what is being presented.

And finally, everything is brought to a startling close as the woodcutter tells his version of events, only for a further twist in the tale to occur. The structure of this film is so expertly executed, there are very few films in history that can boast such a perfectly rounded form. I liken it in that respect to Citizen Kane in the way that the reveal is at once shocking, but at the same time, completely coherent within the placement of the story.

From a technical standpoint, the film is a marvel. The cinematography is some of the greatest in cinematic history. Kurosawa showcases his famed action set pieces with the brio expected of a master, but equal to this are the close-ups of the actor’s faces, the aforementioned court sequences, the way the camera stalks through the leaves of the forest, the rain-soaked Rashōmon gates.

The actors are all stellar but the highest acclaim has to be afforded to Toshiro Mifune as the bandit. Of course, Mifune would go on to work with Kurosawa so many times throughout his career, but here, he instantly delivers. Crazed, amusing, repulsive - it’s all there in a captivating performance.

A landmark achievement in cinema.

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