How many times have you narrated a funny incident to your friends where you were the center of focus? Possibly many many times. But did you have another friend who came out with a totally different view on the same incident? A few times may be.
How many times have you and your friends walked out of the same experience (movie, stageplay or party) with diametrically opposite feelings about it? Quite a few times, right?
Welcome Rashomon effect - the effect of subjectivity on perception, which leads to completely different versions of the same incident from different individuals.The movie that gave us this phrase is a Kurosawa cinematic creation that took Venice film festival 1951 by storm.
Rashomon, ancient Rajamon gate, is where the movie starts and ends. This ancient gate has seen one too many killings over the years and is currently in ruins. We are introduced to a woodcutter, a priest and then a commoner who joins them to escape pouring rain. Then come 4 different versions of a ghastly rape and murder that occurred 4 days ago - as told to the commoner (and shown to us in multiple flashbacks) by the priest and woodcutter. While it is not readily apparent as to which one is true, the director gives us enough clues to figure that out. That really is not his point though; cynicism and selfishness pervade the world surely, but then there is enough goodness also to keep us going. As long as we have such goodness, there is hope!
Rashomon drew inspiration from 2 Japanese stories by the same author. Kurosawa's movie ends on a hopeful note, apparantly the original story is darker and leaves it all to the viewer at a point where its established that truth is not absolute.
Wood cutter, priest, a police informer, a bandit, a Samurai (through a medium, పూనకం వచ్చిన ఒకావిడ) and his Lady reconstruct the crime in a court inquest. Priest's and Police informer's details do not touch the rape and murder, they only provide some background information, so they do not invite further scrutiny. But baffling part is the 4 different accounts others provide about the gruesome happenings. If not for Samurai's murder, the bandit will be convicted for countless other crimes he committed (the noted brigand that he is), but it is not readily clear from the participants' and witness accounts on who committed the murder.
Toshiro Mifune as the wild brigand is beastly in appearance and mannerisms. He brings raw physical energy to the role that enlivens the screen whenever he is around. Takashi Shimura as the woodcutter, weighed down by some unknown guilt, is excellent too. The background music, a repetitive loop that plays over and over, does much to keep up the heightened tension. The movie doesn't have any light-hearted moments, but one scene I found particularly funny was the way the bandit and samurai fight in woodcutter's story. Their lack of skill and almost blind floundering with the swords, panting loudly while slashing swords in all directions is unintentionally funny when seen in the context of their own admissions of bravery earlier on.
The camera work, especially in the forest scenes is very good. I watched an interview where Kurosawa mentioned it saying "in those days no one pointed the camera directly at the sun; think we were the first ones to do it".
There have been lot of movies since Rashomon that have dealt with subjective perceptions, narration that cuts back and forth in time - so it might not appear to be a new narrative technique now. When new, it did bedazzle the viewers and ensured a continued interest in Kurosawa's later works. Lack of such bedazzlement now might be the only regret you feel watching the movie.