Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Five

 

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#5 — Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
A story about the making of Rashomon insists that the actors were regularly asking director Akira Kurosawa to divulge the “official” version of the story they were telling in the film. That likely went beyond a general curiosity. Since the film centers on the sharing of multiple, tellingly divergent versions of an encounter in the woods that left a samurai (Masayuki Mori) dead, the actors had some rationale for wanting to know what was truth and what was fiction in shaping their performances. Kurosawa never shared any real version of events, instead noting that a single truth represented the exact opposite of the film’s point. Indeed, the overwhelming takeaway of Rashomon isn’t that people conceal the truth to serve their own needs, but that the truth is entirely shaped by each individual, on the basis of whatever those needs may be. It’s likely that every storyteller fully believes their own recounting, the contradictions only evidence of the fallibility of others. There is no puzzle to be unlocked, no definitive answers at the back of the book. Everyone is wrong and so very very certain they are right.

Like the Shakespearean works Kurosawa repeatedly returned to for inspiration, Rashomon is brilliant because of the way it transforms the base psychology of human beings into insightful drama. Without turning his film into a purely intellectual exercise — the passionate performances of Toshiro Mifune (as a bandit who is a key player in the tale) and Machiko Kyō (as the samurai’s wife) nearly see to that through sheer force — Kurosawa creates something that meticulously explores the very nature of perception and honesty. In a way, it becomes a stand-in for filmmaking, as each of four characters (including the deceased samurai, communicating through a medium, played by Noriko Honma) takes their turn, they naturally finesse and embellish. There is an inherent, instinctive desire to persuade that takes over so completely that it builds its own opaque wall against the past. It becomes an expression of self rather than mere reportage. Similarly, the work of Kurosawa and other directors is about reformulating a story, usually investing it with personal passions, until it feels intensely right, more truthful than truth.

As usual with Kurosawa, the film is built with fascinating and subtle technique. Working with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, Kurosawa is extremely deliberate about the pacing of the film, down to the length of individual shots and the dynamics of edited segments. Kurosawa isn’t trying to tilt the film in one direction or another. Quite the opposite, most of the choices are intended to level the stories, creating parallels between the different versions that make them echoes instead of contradictions. It adds another level of mastery onto the film. If there’s no certainty in the shifting fiction of the film, there’s plenty in the creative process. This was still fairly early in Kurosawa’s long, storied career, released less than a decade after his debut. There’s no hesitancy to it, though. Kurosawa already had fully command of his art and his craft. He knew that he had many charges as a filmmaker. Providing a solid, unmovable answer was not necessarily one of them.