Finally I was able to lay my hands on the DVD of Rashomon in local DVD shop and I purchased it without any hesitation. I had heard and read so much about this famous film by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa that I was dying to see it for more than a decade. Rashomon is considered as one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces. The black and white film made in 1950 is based on two short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa – “In a Grove” (for the story line) and “Rashōmon” (for the setting). There are many web-sites, including Wikipedia, that give the complete story of the film. So I am not going to repeat the details here.
Very briefly, the central tale tells of the rape of a woman and the murder of her man – a samurai, possibly by a bandit. The story is told by four different narrators, witnesses of and/or participants in the event, as perceived by them. The film unfold the same sequence of events through the perspectives of these four people involved – the bandit, the raped woman, the spirit of the murdered samurai and a wood-cutter who is witness to the entire episode.
In each of the four versions of the story, the characters are the same, as are many of the details. But much is different, as well. In the first account, that of the bandit, the criminal accepts culpability for the murder but refutes the charge of rape, saying that it was an act of mutual consent. The woman’s story affirms that the bandit attacked her, but indicates that she herself may have been the murderess. The dead man’s tale, told through a medium, claims rape and suicide – hara-kiri – by samurai. The medium mentions that he felt ‘someone’ draw from his chest the dagger with which he alleges he committed hara-kiri. The only “impartial” witness, the woodcutter, weaves a story that intertwines elements of the other three, but indicating that the bandit killed the samurai. But a commoner puts two and two together and figures out that the woodcutter, too, is a thief and has stolen the dagger used in the murder of the samurai and thus questions the authenticity of woodcutter’s version.
When the movie ends, the viewer is left with four versions told by four intimately involved persons and no conclusion. Whose account of the crime is reliable? One cannot tell. All are distorted in ways that flatter the narrator. The ego and vanity of characters make truth a difficult thing to find.
Indeed a very powerful story directed by a renowned director way back in 1950. All the reviews talked of great performances and great direction and great settings. My expectations were sky-high before I started watching the movie. It is a simple short 90 minute film. To be honest, I started getting disillusioned as the movie progressed. I found the movie shot and acted in more theatrical way than cinematic. The performances of the actors were not as great as said by many critics. The sets were minimalistic – there are only three settings in the film: Rashōmon gate, the woods and the courtyard. The sound and background music, again, very minimalistic – theatre like, and did not really add much value to the film. As soon as the film got over, I switched off the TV and went to bed, ready to forget the film and laughing at myself for spending my time and money on a movie which now I considered unnecessarily hyped about.
But as I was trying to sleep, I kept on recollecting the four narrations and reason out the reality. Every time I came close to some conclusion one “fact” or the other recounted by one of the narrators pushed me back to square one. A month has passed since I watched the film, yet I have not reached a logical conclusion. The film still refuses to leave my mind and I keep on recounting all the 90 minutes of the film again and again.
My disappointment about this film is now slowly vanishing. I realize that the success of this film is not in the way it is filmed or acted, but in the way it keeps growing on you. No other film has lingered in my mind with all its details so fresh for so long. I attribute that success, first, to the powerful storyline by Akutagawa, and then to Akira Kurosawa for picturizing the film without deviating from the central theme and not just retaining but visually enhancing the substance of the storyline.
Does the film end without a conclusion, as described by many critics? Not really. All parts of the film, the four versions, reach their own conclusions. The four versions do not tally with each other. No doubts there, too. But that is not the point. The real conclusion, not stated in obvious manner but unfolds visually – the Kurosawa touch – is the fact Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing, as observed by Kurosawa in his autobiography.