Rashomon is, sadly, one of those films many hear about about spoken but never actually end up seeing. Even if they were to see it, it will likely not have the effect it once did. The film has been quoted so many times and broken down in so many different ways that its version of multiple people telling the same story will mean nothing. Even a New Yorker cartoon was carefully to reference this film.
But the film still does contain a power that few have and still does the best at revealing just how fickle the nature of human storytelling in any medium really is. Today, a film’s (and novel’s, and television’s, etc) narrative is meant to be taken literally. What viewers see is what they get. It takes a film like Rashomon to remind audiences that such a narrative can never be fully trusted.
The plot of the film is actually remarkably simple. A woodcutter comes across the body of a dead samurai, Masayuki. Several people are summoned to court, in an attempt to explain how the samurai was murdered. Each testimony, from the bandit Tajomaru (Kurosawa’s favorite Toshiro Mifune), from the samurai’s wife, to the samurai himself (through a medium) give a different account, revealing how people always act to protect themselves.
Now, this probably sounds familiar. This technique has been used time and time again (most recently in the Jet Li film Hero), but Rashomon is still the best one to use the technique. Why? Because it is not a gimmick. Usually, in other such films, the truth (or something close to it) is always discovered. That is not the case in Rashomon. Truth is, by itself, a very abstract concept. That alone is something very few films are willing to admit. Truth is usually whatever the person who is able to emote the most is able to claim the truth is. Kurosawa, in this film, is stating that truth has reached a point where it is what triggers an emotional response rather than what makes the most sense.
The actors seem to believe in this truth just as much as the director. Each character, in giving their testimony, is highly emotional in one way or another. Tajomaru appears to find the whole thing is some sort of comedy. The samurai’s wife tries to play the victim; the samurai comes across as melancholy. We may sympathize with the wife, until we realize that her story is contradicted by the other two witnesses; we then realize how evil she may be. Each character is a three dimensional one, even though they are ultimately just playing stereotypes.
Now, what does all of this ultimately say about human nature? Kurosawa was not (or at least, was not at the time) a cynic. He ultimately does not believe that people are able (and only desire) to help themselves. The ending of the film, while not resolving the central mystery, does well at conveying how far people may be willing to go for other people. In one fell swoop, Kurosawa takes away our faith in humanity and then restores it.
No film as brave as this one is made anymore. Not only is it able to examine itself, it is able to examine the very concept of narrative in film. We are always at the mercy of the characters; like us, they are humans trying to gain or sympathy. And we always believe them. Actually, I am not surprised that this sort of film is not made anymore. How could audiences stand being lied to? Well, they seem to put it with it in their daily lives.