A samurai's wife dazzles a bandit as she and her husband make their way through a deep wood. The brigand rapes her. Someone kills the samurai. (Maybe it was himself.) That's all we know for sure about the action in Rashomon, even after the director, Akira Kurosawa, stages it from four different perspectives.
No director has matched his ability to develop a story by leaps and bounds while revealing irresolvable discrepancies. Is the bandit a bold combatant and ladies' man or a feral pig? Is the husband a ravaged spouse or an arrogant embodiment of wounded pride? And is the woman a knife-wielding woman warrior or a victim two times over?
Kurosawa's cast allows us to experience these extreme interpretations - and every permutation in between. Toshiro Mifune, as the bandit, matches the young Brando for daring and animal veracity. Machiko Kyo goes from fairy-tale princess to dragon lady (and back) with unexpected brio. Masayuki Mori, as the husband, is an inspired minimalist who knows how to hold his own with these two virtuoso maximalists. His coolness cuts their heat.
The director binds them together with a vision that spans the storybook tableau of a white-clad woman sitting near a white horse in an enchanted grove - and the horrifying set piece of a bound husband watching a brute ravishing his wife. Kurosawa developed Rashomon under the title Male/Female. He never credited the movie's jigsaw-puzzle construction for its international popularity. He thought it struck a chord because it explored rape. The film resonates with concepts of male prowess and female virtue that can catalyze and worsen catastrophe.
The test of a great, innovative movie is whether its power survives decades of imitation. Kurosawa's 1950 masterpiece, opening in a superb restored print at the Senator on Friday, dwarfs its legions of successors. Art movies such as Memento echo its use of conflicting perspectives to portray how every human being manufactures his or her own reality. Genre movies such as Reservoir Dogs ape aspects of the film's fractured yet suspenseful narrative.
But only Rashomon makes the prospect of discovering the "truth" as dizzying as the beauty of the wife's face when a cool breeze lifts her veil on a hot summer day. The bandit blames his crimes on that cool breeze. Yet if the samurai didn't follow the bandit to a spot where he said he had stashed some stolen swords, would the bandit have won the upper hand? That question didn't occur to me until I saw this print previewed at the Senator. (Movie presentation this luxurious doesn't just blow your mind, but frees it.) Why would an honorable samurai follow a thief to filthy lucre? Dishonor builds on dishonor in Rashomon. Only death can stop it.
One character proclaims that this story's view of human existence is "horrible," worse than war. When no one can be trusted, everyone lives in existential isolation. The basis for hope in Rashomon is the richness of Kurosawa's own brilliant and instinctive narrative art, which unites an audience in awe and wonder.
John Huston said the great breakthroughs in movie technique arrive because a filmmaker needs them to release everything in his material. Watching Rashomon today, you witness the creation of the fluid, kinetic shooting and editing style that brought a dynamic ambivalence into motion pictures and hugely influenced artists from Sam Peckinpah to Kathryn Bigelow. Kurosawa needed to develop this style to express how each character processes trauma wholly and individually.
What frames their agonies is the conversation of a woodcutter, a priest and a commoner who seek shelter from the rain under the ruined Rashomon gate of old Kyoto. The priest saw the married couple when they were alive; the woodcutter says he discovered the body of the samurai. They both were present when the bandit and the wife explained themselves to a judge.
Still shaken by these testimonies, the priest and the woodcutter recount them to the commoner -- along with the testimony of a third witness, the slain samurai. In the film's eeriest sequence, he delivers his version of events to the court via a medium, whose movements are like a dance of death.
By the time the woodcutter confesses to the commoner that he saw the entire awful incident in the woods, he's become an unreliable witness -- an admitted liar and a possible thief himself. But Kurosawa's crowning masterstroke is that the woodcutter is also the film's hero: the one person capable of altruistic acts. Takashi Shimura, who would become the leader of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, is astonishing as the woodcutter. He finds the dignity in pathos.
In a famous episode of The Simpsons, Marge says, "Come on, Homer, you liked Rashomon" -- and Homer replies, "That's not how I remember it." In this new print, at the Senator, Rashomon is better than anyone remembers it.