The story he tells (which is set in the 12th century) appears at first to be a very simple one: a man and a woman run into a bandit in the forest, the man is tied up, the woman is raped and the man ends up dead. A woodsman encounters the body and runs to tell the police, who find and arrest the bandit. Then a trial begins to find out exactly what happened.
Each of the principle characters (including the dead man) tell their version of the events. But, as people are apt to do, each of them tell a very different version of the story. By the end of the film we only know the general outline of what happened but are unsure of the exact details.
The film has often been misunderstood as a mystery with four stories - one of which is true. But it's really about the nature of truth, memory and reality and the fact that under pressure people always lie (consciously or not) by putting themselves at the center of the story they tell. Because of this it's safe to say that none of the stories are true. Yet as a whole they do constitute some kind of truth about what happened.
Ironically, the day this DVD arrived in my mailbox I had just finished serving as a juror on a trial. My mind was filled with the contradictions of the evidence presented during the trial. And I realized that each version of the 'truth' may indeed have been considered true to the person who was telling it. When I popped in the DVD this was foremost in my mind and by the end of the film I realized that each of us has our own memories of what happens in our lives - and some of these memories may flat out be false. And that fact alone was the only truth we could rely on.
Like most of Kurosawa's later films this one is very visually gratifying. Not only for the way Kurosawa and venerable cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa frame and shoot each scene but for the way Kurosawa edits each sequence. He notes in his autobiography that he had imagined the film as a silent film and tried to stay with that aesthetic, which is to tell the story through the visuals. Even though the film has a complex narrative it is easy to follow because of the way each scene is laid out.
The performances are also exemplary. A very expressive and energetic Toshiro Mifuni plays the bandit: he pops around like a dryad at once playful and menacing. According to the commentary track by Donald Richie Mifuni was told to act like a lion or some kind of wild animal. Machiko Kyo as the woman cries a lot and serves as a great contrast to Mifune. A very laconic and noble Masayuki Mori plays the husband character.
Another example of Kurosawa's mastery is the fact that each of the stories is presented to us in a different cinematic and narrative style. Although it seems subtle at first each one is quite different. When the bandit tells his story the camera moves freely sailing along through the woods, the edits are fast and the music is heroic and fairy-tale-like. The story by the woman has many close-ups and is a little more conventionally presented. The music for her story is a bolero. The man's story is told through a medium (since he's dead) and it is stately and slow and the music is classical in nature. And finally the story by the woodcutter is told more straight on with very little embellishments and no music. Because of this it is easy to assume that the woodcutter's story is the correct one but it is revealed toward the end of the film that he too has twisted the events a bit.
In many ways the film is less about what happened in the woods and more about what happens to the three men in the passageway hut. Once the story is told it is like water under the bridge to them - there is nothing they can do but react to it. But in the final scene they are confronted with a challenge that will test their faith in humanity.
Like any great director/storyteller Kurosawa leaves us something to think about in the end. We may not be able to trust the story by the bandit, the woman, the man or the woodsman but we can trust Kurosawa. Although we too - like the woodsman - may be confused about what has actually happened in the woods there is no doubt that we will be able to understand the overall message of the film. And that is that reality cannot be so easily pinned down.
Fortunately Kurosawa is without cynicism. In the film's final scene he presents us with a rather uplifting affirmation about the nature truth and reality. One that helps counter balance everything that we have seen up until that point.
Audio: There is a constant hissing noise on the audio track, which is a bit of a bother. But, then again, I've never seen a print that didn't have the hissing. It's almost become a part of the movie. I'm not sure if this was always the case. According to the booklet a restoration was done to remove the clicks and hisses but they are still evident. Some viewers who are used to clean audio may not like it, but Criterion has most likely done the best job they could on this matter.
Video: The DVD is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The beautiful black and white print was created from a 35mm fine grain master positive. The image is beautiful and features great contrasts of light and dark. Much of it was shot in the forest and Kurosawa captures the awe inspiring feeling of a sunny day with light coming through a canopy of tress. The print, however is not without fault. Even though it was digitally restored it still has many detectable scratches and appears to be an aged print.
Extras: The first extra is a Video introduction by Robert Altman that lasts for about seven minutes. In it Altman talks about the meaning of the film and how it influenced him. The best extra is an exceptional Audio Commentary track by Donald Richie. Richie is a world-renowned Japanese film scholar and he explains all the elements of the film with consummate style. Included too is an excerpt from a Japanese television documentary titled The World of Kazuo Miyagawa. It is just over twelve minutes long and features interviews with cinematographer Miyagawa and director Kurosawa. It's a great edition for film buffs who appreciate the technical side of film because it goes into how they came up with and executed the look of the film. The inside booklet is 26 pages long and includes an excerpt by Stephen Prince about Kurosawa, an excerpt from Kurosawa's autobiography and the two short stories that influenced the film: Rashomon and In a Grove both written by written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. There are 13 chapters and the subtitles, which can be removed, are white with black outline. Also there is an English dubbed track available - if you can bear it. Included also is a theatrical trailer.
Overall: Rashomon is a tremendously well shot, acted, scripted and edited film. It is both a serious art film with plenty to think about as well as a good piece of entertainment with sword fights, fast paced scenes and humor. The Criterion DVD is one of the best that they will release this year. If you are interested in Japanese cinema, important foreign language films or just great films in general Rashomon is an essential one to see and owning the DVD sure would make you collection shine.