Once heralded as a masterpiece, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, like Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, is so intimately bound up with High Modern values and aspirations that it is easy to patronize it today as at best a pretentious failure. To be sure, much in the film does not age well, but also like Seal, it would be a mistake to dismiss it. For even allowing for some of its awkwardness and superficiality, its thematic ambitions are executed with a formal sophistication well beyond the mushy, goody two-shoes humanism so beloved of today’s parochial filmmakers.
The basic situation and approach are well known. A samurai and his wife are surprised by a bandit (Toshiro Mifune, in one of his scenery-chewing roles) while traveling through a forest. The results of their encounter are recounted by the thief, the woman, and the spirit of the dead samurai. A fourth version is told by a woodcutter who has gathered with two others at “Rashomon,” the gate to Edo, where they wait out a rainstorm. Each testimony is colored by the prejudices of the teller. No version is endorsed as “true,” and, with the exception of the woodcutter’s, all of the stories are second hand. Sorting through these complex contradictions, the viewer confronts the relativity of truth.
Leaving aside the over-acting, the sentimentality and heavy-handedness of Kurosawa’s approach, the most striking aspect of the film is the director’s dazzling control of light, camera movement and editing that could make just about any subject compelling. While we can ask how appropriate such bravado is for the subject and whether the virtuoso execution is an end in itself, the filmmaking flair and imagination remain undeniable. It is precisely that skill, no matter how questionably showy, that points to what makes Rashomon worthy of respect. Not for the bravura filmmaking as such, but because Kurosawa insisted on finding formal, purely cinematic means of expressing his literary interests.
On the other hand, when one of the characters observes no one can know the truth, it feels like a sop to those who need to be told how to react, a momentary slip into the pedantry of those who equate seriousness with the Word. Such high school book report thematic underlining is where Rashomon most resembles contemporary films, with their reduction of any topic to the tyranny of talk. Film form today seems to be thought of as nothing more profound than figuring how many times to zap a viewer. The idea of dealing with metaphysical questions through camera and editing seems hopelessly old-fashioned, even quaint, and quite possibly pointless.
That is why a film like Rashomon continues to stand out. The film’s sophistication, not its naivete, dates it by demonstrating that cinematic form and seriousness are antithetical only for those filmmakers and audiences who are afraid of using the medium to its full potential. Rashomon, for all its flaws, is ambitious and smart; contemporary production is complacent and stupid.