The film starts with a frame story. While they are sheltering from the rain under the eaves of the dilapidated Rashomon Gate forming the southern entrance to Kyoto, about one thousand years ago, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and priest tell the story of a rape and murder to a peasant they meet there (the woodcutter and the priest have been present at the trial as witnesses).
When traveling through a forest near Kyoto, a noblewomen (Machiko Kyo) was raped, her samurai husband (Masayuki Mori) killed, and a robber named Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) arrested for the crime. Rashomon relates through flashbacks four versions of the crime, as told by Tajomaru, the woman, the dead samurai (a medium is used to let his spirit speak) and the woodcutter, who discovered the crime and as now comes out, was also an unseen witness (although he kept that secret at the trial as he didn't want to get involved).
It is impossible to reconcile the four narratives and the film leaves the viewer with the ambiguity of the situation. There simply is no way of knowing who is telling the truth. At the basis of this problem is human pride, or in Japanese cultural terms, "Face," which also encompasses a person's identity. As Kurosawa remarked: "Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing."
The robber confesses the rape but maintains he killed the samurai in an honest and fair duel with swords, presenting the image of a "noble robber." The noblewoman stresses that after she had been raped, the look of loathing on her husband's face drove her almost to madness, and in a fit she planted her dagger in his breast, presenting an image of a rightful lady. The dead samurai - lying from beyond the grave - tells that his wife after she had been raped, wanted to join the robber and even asked for the death of her husband - out of mortification, the husband later committed suicide with a dagger (suicide is more honorable than being murdered). The woodcutter (who at the trial claimed he only found the body of the samurai but did not witness the crime) now tells he saw the crime after all: it was a duel between the robber and the samurai, but they were both fearful and it was a sorry fight, won by the robber through a stroke of luck. The samurai even begged for his life before being killed, the woodcutter maintains. The noblewoman had fled in terror. The woodcutter finally steals the samurai's sword. He shows the perspective of a common man, but also his story is doubtful, as he kept it from the court at the trial.
Rashomon is now generally considered one of the greatest films ever made. Here are the reasons this film is special:
- Visual technique: This wonderful film tells large parts of its story with only the camera, harking back to the silent cinema of Murnau and Eisenstein, and inspiring, for example, Bergman in his Virgin Spring. Especially the long shots where the camera follows the woodcutter or robber, running trough the forest, are impressive. Interesting is also the trial, where the accused and the witnesses face the viewer, who thereby becomes the judge (in fact the magistrate, as there were no specialized judges in ancient Japan) we never see. The robber and the witnesses give their testimony from the courtyard of the magistrate's mansion, where they kneel on the white gravel. The magistrate would sit on the raised veranda, so higher than the accused, but in the film the camera has been placed on the same level for more effect.
- "Rashomon-effect:" The same set of events is recalled in strikingly different terms by a group of characters - this phenomenon, which points at the cultural notion of the relativity of truth, was made well-known through the present film, although it was in turn based on a short story from 1922 by Akutagawa ("In the Grove"). This idea fit the existential despair over the instability of truth and value going strong in the Europe of the 1950s (think of Sartre and Camus). In a wider sense, Rashomon reflects on more general philosophical questions, such as loss of faith in human beings, the human propensity to lie, pride and egoism, and the world as hell.
- Acting: Over the top performances as in silent film and the traditional Kabuki theater work well in combination with the long silent passages. Especially the big laughs Mifune lets roll from his chest reminded me of the Kabuki. The miko (female medium) who summons the spirit of the dead samurai is also very effective, speaking very uncannily with a low male voice.
- Symbolism: Not only does the dilapidated and disused Rashomon Gate serve as a symbol for the chaotic times, in which authority has been crumbling, the heavy rains (obtained by hosing water mixed with black ink) also represent the turmoil of the age (and of our own time as well!), while perhaps also having a cleansing effect - at the end, the crime has been washed away and a humane gesture has become possible. And, even more than gate and weather, the shifting light and shadow with the sun shining through the dense leaves in the forest (obtained by using mirrors to reflect the light) expresses the continuous shifting of the truth. At the end of the film, a baby is found, discarded under the eaves of the gate. The peasant reveals his real character by stealing the clothes of the child and running off. But the woodcutter, who has already five kids, decides to bring up the baby as his own. This is the glimmer of hope in human nature with which the film ends.