Pros: Cinematography, Toshiro Mifune's performance
Famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawas 1950 black and white film Rashomon could easily be made into a stage play, despite the fact that the repeated flashbacks on which the movie relies so heavily would probably have to be omitted for the sake of expediency. The plays producers could compensate for the nearly continuous rain present in the film version with background noise, and since the three main characters are inside a ruined temple throughout most of the duration, no actual water would be needed. But for a motion picture audience, three men sitting around talking would not be interesting enough, so the live action sequences that bring to life their respective narratives are necessary.
Kazuo Miyagawas cinematography is the most striking aspect of this movie. In one shot the camera pans almost 180 degrees, to the sun peeking through the leaves of the forests tallest trees, possibly to indicate the passage of time, or merely to make the viewer wonder what is going on below. Conversely, this might indicate the Almighty or some superior being glancing down casually on the mere mortals milling around like so many insects. Whatever the reason, the effect of the shot is almost painful, both visually and psychologically. Miyagawas expert cinematography consists of many extended shots that, while unaccompanied by any dialogue or significant action, still manage to captivate viewers.
The motif of the continuous rain fits well with the whole mood of the movie -that of darkness, desolation and confusion. This is laconically encapsulated by the first words of dialogue, spoken by a character known only as the woodcutter (Takashi Shimura): I dont understand. I just dont understand. (This of course is an English translation; the film and DVD versions have English subtitles). As the conversation between the woodcutter and the two other men present progresses, information surfaces that perhaps the woodcutter understands a little more than he is letting on, and yet, is still very much in the dark.
The two other men seeking shelter in the ruined temple are an anonymous vagrant (Kichijiro Ueda) and a disillusioned Buddhist priest (Minoru Chiaki). Both have very different outlooks on life and human nature: the priest, while disturbed by what he has seen and heard, nevertheless wants to believe in the intrinsic goodness of people, while the cynical, opportunistic vagrant is devoid of all idealism. The latters attitude is basically I didnt make the rules, but Im going to play by them.
Toshiro Mifune plays an infamous bandit named Tajomaru, who appears in flashbacks as a prisoner accused of rape and murder. Prone to meaningless outbursts of maniacal laughter, Tajomaru is first shown bound with thick ropes, relating to an unseen court the circumstances that brought him there. Tajomarus version of events is inconsistent with that of the woman he allegedly raped (Machiko Kyo), and her version of events is inconsistent with Tajomarus and that of her slain husband (Masayuki Mori), whose eerie testimony is voiced through a medium (Fumiko Honma).
As might be expected, Mifunes performance dominates the entire film, although the other actors and actress perform commendably. Fans of Mifunes other films will notice that his role in Rashomon is distinctly different from those in which they are accustomed to seeing him.
A sword fight is depicted from three different perspectives, none of them the riveting, spectacular duel found in most cinematic blade battles, but dreary, weary, reluctant clashings of steel on steel, interspersed with panting, fleeing, stumbling and hesitating probably more realistic than most on-screen sword fights. Only one aspect of the sequence of events leading to the murder is consistent in all four versions depicted the contempt that the husband has for his wife after she is raped by the bandit Tajomaru. The husband regards his wife as unclean, as damaged goods, and blames her for being ravaged. Even given the tremendous cultural discrepancies of feudal Japan, his attitude and behavior toward his hapless wife are atrociously callous, and make him a totally unsympathetic character. He is almost worse than Tajomaru, who incredibly enough, professes his sincere love for and genuine attraction to his victim.
Viewers should not expect Rashomon to clarify anything or resolve any discrepancies regarding human nature. That is not the purpose of this film, which, although shot in black and white, demonstrates that life is anything but. Audiences will find themselves feeling exactly like the woodcutter at the beginning of the film, shaking his head and repeating, I dont understand. I just dont understand.