Star Wars may have inspired the nickname for a dubious missile-defense system, but Rashomon has become synonymous with a way of thinking about the nature of truth and its telling, and continues to influence cinematic storytelling to this day. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the film's Japanese release, and the Charles Theatre is bringing it back to the big screen for another look.
Even in capsule form, the story perplexes. During a driving rainstorm sometime in Japan's feudal past, three men seek shelter under the eaves of a ruined temple. As they talk, a story emerges. Not long before, a husband and wife entered the nearby woods. A bandit ambushed them, tied up the husband, and raped the wife; the husband was killed, the woman fled, and the bandit was arrested and brought to trial. Two of the men talking in the temple witnessed some of the events and attended the trial, but as the third asks questions, it becomes clear that each person--including the bandit, the wife, and the dead husband, who speaks through a spirit medium--swears to a different version of what happened. And that's assuming you trust the two men who are telling the story to the third.
Rashomon represented director Akira Kurosawa's first triumph in Western art houses (masterpieces such as The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Ran would follow). Its prismatic plot aside, the film proves that the director was already a consummate visual storyteller--witness the scene in which a slight breeze incites the story's fateful violence.
The opening and closing scenes in the ruined temple seem a bit padded (Kurosawa combined and adapted two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa and vamped a bit to achieve feature length). The director's perennial alter ego, Toshirô Mifune, goes nearly over the top with his portrayal of the loudmouthed bandit. The hopeful ending feels tacked on, especially since Kurosawa's camera lingers on the brooding ruins for his last shot. But the mystery at Rashomon's core retains its power, because all the emotions that propel the differing versions of events--lust, rage, pride, scorn, guilt, fear, avarice--do so as well. And the title has remained a part of our language for 50 years because of the film's indelible lesson: There is no objective truth except that which we relate to each other, and often our versions of the truth tell more about us than about what actually happened.