It's my favourite of the samurai movies I've seen to date, even if I say that as someone who doesn't really like samurai. It's a revisionist samurai film, basically. You know, just as they were starting to do revisionist Westerns around this time (High Noon, Shane, etc.) I don't know whether that was Akira Kurosawa's deliberate intention in making the film, while the cast were baffled enough to go up to Kurosawa en masse during shooting to ask what the script meant. His response was that it reflected life, which doesn't always have clear meanings. I'm sure that made everything clear, then.
The title's pronounced with a long "o" in the middle syllable, by the way. I got corrected on that this morning.
I'd better define some terms. What made High Noon a revisionist Western, for instance, was the fact that it wasn't dealing in archetypes or trying to make fighting and killing look heroic. Instead it's tackling emotions, moral issues and the darker side of human nature. Now in cinematic terms samurai are often compared with cowboys and it's easy to remake their movies as Westerns, which happened a lot in particular to Kurosawa. The Hollywood remake of this film is The Outrage (1964).
I should admit now that there are of course revisionist samurai films and that this doesn't seem to be generally regarded as one. The 1960s apparently saw a wave of them, with one famous example being Harakiri (1962), which sounds as if it's much more clearly attacking the honour-bound feudalism of the Edo period. Rashomon in contrast isn't a political film at all. It's focused only on a tiny cast and a single incident in the forest. Nothing here is attacking anyone's political or ethical beliefs, although the events it's portraying aren't exactly jolly. However what makes me call it revisionist is the way in which it's setting up and then knocking down the traditional heroic ideas and imagery around samurai. It's an unreliable narrator story, in which we see the same events as told by different people. There's a sword fight for instance, which the first time we see it is rather impressive and makes Tajomaru the bandit even look noble. However the final version of it makes everyone look pathetic. Both men are shown to be terrified and the samurai even begs to be allowed to live, which is unforgiveable in the bushido code. (Samurai must never show fear.) Similarly the fighting itself isn't a dazzling display of swordsmanship, but a scrambling, artless mess, with one particularly ridiculous moment involving both fighters simply falling over.
It's worth mentioning the "unreliable narrator" bit. We've all seen movies, TV episodes and even comic books like that, but this is the film that did it first. Admittedly that's only true in cinematic terms, if only since the film's a literary adaptation of two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. However if you don't believe me, look up "the Rashomon effect". It's a psychological effect describing the way in which witnesses of an event can all describe it in very different but equally plausible ways and it was named after this film.
Structurally it's a tale within a tale within a tale. The outer framing story involves two people who say that they've been shaken by the most horrible story they've ever heard, worse than war, plague, famine, etc. This is brave of Kurosawa. However the third member of their group is a scummy peasant who's not impressed and is only staying to listen because he doesn't want to go out in the rain.
The inner framing story involves a courtroom (well, courtyard), in which our two narrators are the first to speak and then the trial judges keep coming up with ever more unlikely witnesses. An unusual touch here is that we never hear the court's questions. It's like a telephone conversation. The actor will simply pretend to be listening to something, then reply. This isn't a huge detail, but it's important since the court is really just a storytelling device for presenting the different versions of this story and it would have been distracting for the film to let us start wondering about who was going to be found guilty or innocent. That's simply not important. We never even learn the trial's final outcome. We're meant to be weighing up the truth of the different stories for ourselves, not palming off the responsibility on to other people.
The inner story though is the heart of the matter, in which a bandit attacks a couple in the woods and rapes the wife. The husband is later found dead. This is all fascinating. All the stories contain emotionally significant material and sometimes the strongest psychological clues are what seems to have been changed. It's not as simple as "he lied or she lied". Everyone's trying to make themselves look good, but in a warped Japanese way that has everyone trying to claim the credit for the death of the victim. I see that as another (possibly accidentally) revisionist element to the film, by the way. Rashomon isn't painting in a positive light the Japanese fetishisation of death. The events being described are theoretically simple, but even early on there will be suggestive undertones and omissions to get you wondering dark thoughts even before the subtext has been promoted up to text.
However the film's not over when it's over. We come back to the outer framing story and there's some business with an abandoned baby. This has absolutely nothing to do with anything else, but ironically this is also the bit of the film that's taken from the short story called Rashomon. Most of it came from the other Akutagawa story that's being adapted, called In The Grove. This bit at first makes human nature look disgusting, but then it ends on a positive note and the film manages not to be a complete downer. This odd little epilogue is doing all kinds of things. It's casting yet more doubt on what we've been told and it's saying that the inner story's messages don't just apply to the unfortunate people who'd happened to be involved in it, but also to the people listening, i.e. us. The scummy peasant is appalling, yes, but his attitude of "I don't care about truth or morality as long as it's entertaining" is exactly what we're doing when we sit down to watch this film in the first place.
That's the story stuff. However a film isn't just a script.
The direction is unusual. In an era of languid dream-like elegance for Japanese cinema, Kurosawa's creating a completely different effect. It's a short film for him, under ninety minutes, and it's got a lot of different shots and some fairly quick editing. A couple of edits I'd even call jarring. Its minimalism (e.g. with the sets) might look more quintessentially Japanese, but Kurosawa's motive in this simplification was to borrow from modern art and the way he's shot the story-within-a-story is a lot like silent film. These scenes aren't dialogue-free, but a lot of the time they are. Even if you're not normally aware of what a director's doing with the visuals of a film, there's a lot in this one to notice.
As for the actors, the big name here is of course Toshiro Mifune as the bandit. I keep talking about the physicality of this generation of Japanese actors and this is yet another example, with Kurosawa apparently having told him to be like a wild animal, especially a lion. Personally I thought he seemed more ape-like, with that shrieking laugh, his scratching and the way he jumps. It's certainly quite a performance and Mifune would seem to be both quite an athlete and remarkably gifted at transforming himself. It hardly needs saying that everyone's excellent, though. Personally the one I most enjoyed watching was Takashi Shimura (the lead in Ikiru), who seems to carry his soul in his eyes.
Rashomon is supposedly one of Kurosawa's great masterpieces and was a breakout film for him. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, received an Academy Honorary Award at the 24th Academy Awards and gets called the reason they introduced the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. People have even tried to interpret it as an allegory for the Japanese defeat at the end of World War Two, although this seems like a stretch to me. More importantly though it's another example of Akira Kurosawa creating something new that's since become part of the language of cinema, to the extent that it now feels surprising that there could have been anyone who did it first. It doesn't even feel hackneyed or dated. On the contrary, it's doing what it does better than pretty much anyone who followed and I found it fascinating.