The second of six films shown at The Barbican as part of their mini Kurosawa retrospective - and the first of three that I plan to see there.
According to the ordinance of the film criti-rati, I should probably be telling you how this is an unimpeachable masterwork, perfect in every respect, but at risk of being labelled a philistine, I have to say, in my view, it isn't. Yes, technically, in cinematographic terms, Rashomon is a cut above. Its distinctive visual style, as well as groundbreaking storytelling techniques have no doubt been very influential on subsequent generations of filmmakers, but thematically I found it to be somewhat unsatisfying.
The basic premise goes thus: three men take refuge from a storm in a temple and relate the story of a bandit's murder of a nobleman and rape of his mistress. The story is told four ways: from the perspective of each protagonist and also from the perspective of one of the three men in the temple, who claimed to witness the event. Everyones' story is different, filtered through the gauze of self-interest, which leads the 'honest rogue' among the three to the conclusion that human beings are incapable of absolute truth and all basically absurd and untrustworthy. A fact which, in Beckettian style, he takes great delight in. This idea might have been new to cinema - in the way it's told, visually - but writers had been employing similar devices for centuries. The fundamental problem with Rashomon though, is that the protagonists are reduced to archetypes - the bandit, the nobleman, the priest, are functions of philosophy rather than fully-realized characters. Now, before I'm accused of blatant hypocrisy at this point by certain parties (you know who you are!), I confess that in a recent debate on Tarkovsky's Stalker, these same observations were made about that film and I poo-pooed them. So yes, I'm a hypocrite.
The ending to Rashomon is also slightly disappointing - it was, dare I say it, a bit of a cop out: having exposed the moral relativism lurking at the heart of humanity, Kurosawa allows sentimentality to creep in, suggesting that the redeeming factor for mankind lies in its continual rebirth and the possibility to evolve beyond a self-serving existence. Compassion, in other words, will be our saving grace. To me, that seems a little trite.
Dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1950