It gushes off the edges, crashes through the holes where the roof has fallen in, stabs into the puddles and washes across the whole scene in great silvery sheets. The torrential rain at the start of Rashomon (1950) feels nearly apocalyptic, and the grandiose wreck of a city gate where it all takes place does nothing to break up the forbidding gloom. A young priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a middle-aged woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) take shelter there, seated together, not conversing, though through those thick lips encircled by an unkempt beard the woodcutter keeps muttering “I don’t understand…” A third man (Kichijiro Ueda), some guy just trying to get out of the downpour, barges in, starts a fire, gets them talking. He wants to hear a good story, and winds up with four of them, all variations on the same event, none of them matching up. That’s Rashomon, a film so persuasive in its perplexity it’s become an adjective. It won an Oscar, and the Golden Lion at Venice. It introduced Akira Kurosawa to the world—the West especially—and the world watched in fascination despite the film’s refusal to elucidate its central mysteries. It ensured us that our memories are incompatible, but through the movies at least each of them could be true for the time it takes to tell them.
Rashomon has been circulating in a newly restored print. It hits Metro Cinema this coming weekend, a place where Kurosawa’s oeuvre has always found a welcome home over the years and hopefully will for years to come. I’ve seen it more times than almost any other film, and its singular mood never fails to captivate me. An inspired amalgamation of two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (‘Rashomon’ and ‘In a Grove’), the narrative is a sort of labyrinth, a web of flashbacks within flashbacks, unreliable narrators having their individual narratives re-told by other, only slightly more reliable narrators. Yet it’s terribly entertaining, even while confusing the hell out of you.
So the woodcutter journeys deep into a sun-dappled grove. Just how deep we get a strong sense of from the multitude of angles and compositions granted us by Kurosawa and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, who seemed to prowl through the trees and shrubs and even pointed the camera straight at the sun, a move which dazzled all his contemporaries anxious to find rules to break. Somewhere in this grove the woodcutter finds a lady’s hat, and then a dead body. There’s a trial, where a judge never seen or heard lets elicits testimonies from those connected to the incident, including the alleged killer, a known bandit (Toshiro Mifune, first seen staring into the clouds like a sick animal), the wife of the dead man (Machiko Kyo), and, in an especially chilling sequence, the dead man himself (Masayuki Mori), speaking through a medium and giving no comforting reports from the afterlife. The bandit meets the couple in the woods, tricks the husband, ties him up, and ravishes the wife. This much is basically clear. But what were the circumstances of the husband’s death? A fight? A killing? A suicide?
The performances are each compelling, varying wildly in tone—Mifune almost hysterical in his braggadocio; Kyo wounded, maybe conniving, sliding seamlessly between femme fatale and helpless victim; Mori stoic, pathetic, and in death harrowingly lonely—but united in their synchronized ambiguity. A fourth variation is given that might resolve the contradictions, but even this becomes suspect. The cry of an abandoned baby eventually brings a close to the string of irresolvable storytelling. Some find the baby’s eleventh-hour intervention sentimental, but it strikes me above all as Kurosawa’s way of imparting that life simply goes on, even when the only thing certain is infinite uncertainty. It finally doesn’t matter to us what really happened in the grove that day, and how justice is finally meted out isn’t even mentioned. Maybe the truth lies somewhere in the collective crannies of each of the stories. Everyone has their reasons for telling what they do, so it’s hard to say who to should trust. But if I had to, I’d put my money on the dead man.