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Director: Akira Kurosawa (Japan). Year of Release: 1950

12th Century, Kyoto’s Rashomon Gate in the middle of a storm of biblical proportions. A woodcutter and a priest huddle beneath the roof of a ruined building. A third man, a commoner, rushes through the driving rain to join them. The woodcutter speaks: “I just do not understand”. He has found a samurai’s body in the wood. Near the body were a woman’s hat, samurai headgear, pieces of rope and an amulet. Today was the murder trial, and none of it makes sense.

The priest says that earlier that day, he had attended the trial in a prison courtyard. He had also previously seen the samurai travelling down a nearby road with his wife. The priest proceeds to relate three stories of murder and rape which were related at the trial. They all contradict each other, although we are given little indication, which one is actually true.

First witness is Tajômaru, a notorious gangster with a manic laugh. His body was also found in the woods, with arrows in his back. He is arrested and charged with the murder of the samurai. In his testimony, he reports seeing the samurai and his wife travelling on the main road. Transfixed by her beauty, he lures them into the woods, overpowers the samurai and ties him to a pine tree. He then has consensual sex with the wife.

Filled with shame about her act, the wife says that the samurai and the gangster must fight to the death for her honour. She will leave with the winner. The gangster lets the samurai free, so that they can fight fairly. Tajômaru wins the subsequent duel. This is how, he says, he ended up killing the samurai. In the confusion after the killing, he leaves behind the murder weapon, the wife’s (now widow’s) jewel-encrusted dagger.

Next witness is Masako, the wife. Her story confirms some of Tajômaru’s but contains vital differences. The most important of these is that the sex was not consensual, but rape. When she releases her husband she asks for forgiveness, imploring him to kill her to restore her honour. Her husband treats her with such contempt that she ends up stabbing him with her dagger. It is unclear whether the killing is deliberate or accidental.

Third witness, and presumably the least expected, is the dead man, speaking though a melodramatic medium. He also speaks of rape, followed by Tajômaru asking Masako to run away with him. She demurs, calling on the men to first fight for her honour. There are various chase scenes before Tajômaru returns to free the samurai. In this version, it is the samurai who is so full of shame that he kills himself with the dagger.

The samurai is not the final witness, at least not in the film. The woodcutter lets slip to the priest and the commoner that he knows more than he is letting on, and that he has held back from saying what he has seen as he didn’t want to get too involved. The woodcutter’s story contains elements of each of those which we have already heard, although he insists that the samurai was killed with a sword, not a dagger. Somehow his story feels less plausible than any of the others.

As a film, Rashomon looks great. For a start there is a stark contrast between the scenes with the woodcutter, priest and commoner, set in the decaying buildings at the Rashomon gate, almost like a stage, and the flashbacks in the woods, where the weather is much brighter, and the cinematography is much more sharp. There is also an expressiveness about the way the scenes are shot which feels fresh now, and must have been spectacular to a 1950 audience.

It is interesting to read what Roger Ebert said about Rashomon 20 years ago: “Its very title has entered the English language, because, like ‘Catch-22,’ it expresses something for which there is no better substitute”. I’m not sure if this was ever true, but when did you last hear someone use “Rashomon” as a descriptor? As it happens, I told a few people I was going to see the film. None of them had even heard of it. Outside film insiders, Rashomon has none of the ubiquity of Catch-22.

Nonetheless, it is one of those films where most people who go to see it know what’s going to happen, just as they know who Keyser Soze is, and what’s in the box at the end of Se7en. The excitement does not lie in the suspense but in re-watching how you get to the inevitable end. It is quite a few decades since I last saw Rashomon, so while I knew that I should expect a lot of unreliable narrators, I couldn’t quite remember who said what or why.

Then again, Rashomon doesn’t care Whodunnit. Indeed, it seems to be arguing that there are some cases where we will never know for sure. By the way, I don’t hold with the reviews (several of them, as it happens) which believe that the film is saying that truth is negotiable. Truth is absolute and very real. This does not mean that we will ever know what is true, especially when people do not just lie, they are also capable of massive self-deception.

Rashomon is full of existential dread. The priest fears finally losing his faith in the human soul, while the commoner blithely comments that men often lie, even to themselves, because they are weak. Its depiction of humanity is pretty bleak. Nonetheless, it is a superb counterweight to the countless films which ask us to believe that nobody lies. The view that if offers is radical today. In the bland Eisenhower years, it must have been a massive shock to the system.

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