Check out that composition!
Rashomon is the story of a rape and murder, as told in a series of conflicting flashbacks. Sound familiar? Yes, they still make Rashomony films today. The basic facts (though these are subject to change!) are that, one sunny day in 12th century Japan, a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyō) were walking along in the forest. At one point, they ran into the notorious bandit Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune), and then a series of ambiguous events occurred which resulted in the samurai's death and the rape of his wife. But who killed the samurai, and whether the rape was really a rape, are all thrown into question. Three characters tell the story as a flashback-within-a-flashback: a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), a Buddhist monk (Minoru Chiaki), and a peasant (Kichijiro Ueda). The three protagonists - the samurai, wife, and bandit - also have their say. And with each flashback, we become more convinced that the flashbacks preceding it were false and this one, no, this one, is the right one. Of course, in the end, even this conviction is questioned, and we are left confused and adrift in a sea of possibilities.
Machiko Kyō as the samurai's wife, kicking butt.
There are lots of visual triangles in this film.
While the trope of an unreliable narrator certainly didn't start with Kurosawa, using several unreliable narrators to present conflicting views of the same event - while never actually hinting at which narrative is the "true" one - is certainly unique. The few facts that remain constant in every version - the dead guy stays dead (though, in one of the best sequences, he too gets a chance to tell his story thanks to a "medium", and we learn that apparently dead men can lie too), the fancy dagger that gets lost, the hat in the trees - are even then thrown into question, as Kurosawa's main aim in the film seems to be, "With so many versions, what is reality?" The Criterion Collection copy of this film has an excellent commentary by Donald Richie, who says that Kurosawa's main aim was showing that every version is real, in that people's subjectivity influences their memories (e.g. in the bandit's memory, he's a fearsome warrior, in the woman's version, he's an infantile idiot), and there is no other reality apart from people's experience of it. Sound a bit like the proverbial lonely tree and other mind-bending kōans? Indeed!
If epistemology sounds a bit fancy for you, fear not! This film a rollicking good time, and no philosophical thinking is required (it's just a bonus!). Kurosawa is infinitely impressive for balancing lovely technical details (he was one of the first directors to shoot straight at the sun, and his overall use of lighting is amazing) with just meaty crowd-pleasing moments, such as the creepy medium or the crazy bandit.
Toshiro Mifune: our favorite actor, of all time, of anywhere, forever.
While everyone is very effective in the film, the standout performance is Toshiro Mifune. Compared to his other roles - such as in Yojimbo or Hell in the Pacific - this is a zany, over-the-top performance, and he chews up the scenery much like Gary in The Professional. Toshiro Mifune is our all-time favorite actor (hence the Dance Offs are actually deciding the second best actor), and his screen presence is so incredibly magnetic. In the very first moment we saw him, we immediately exclaimed, "Who's that guy?!" His awesomeness just cannot be contained. It's like Kung Fu Panda exclaims, "It is said that his enemies would go blind from over-exposure to pure awesomeness!"
Overall, we cannot recommend this film highly enough. It is one of the best films ever made, technically flawless, inventive, profound, and fun. Go, go! Watch it!
(Actually, you can. Because the internet is a many-splendored thing, and because it's old enough to be in the public domain (apparently), you can view the entire film online at Google Video.)