Some may find Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa’s mesmerizing film about the illusion of truth, more than a little off putting. The acting, particularly from common Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune, is brash and bold, emotionally intense and purposefully theatrical to the brink of melodrama and absurdity. A few moments aside, it ends up working due to Rashomon‘s explicit nature – characters ruminate on philosophical ideas about truth and human nature with one another, and the acting style reflects that – explicit performances for an explicit picture.
The film takes place in 11th century Japan, revolving around an infamous bandit (Mifune) who has been brought before a court to account for the murder of a Samurai and the rape of his wife. Throughout the slowly paced 90 minutes, the central event is told several times from various unreliable characters, the lines blurred further by a clever framing device. Every character – and this too is explicitly stated in dialogue – distorts the truth out of self-interest. Everyone desires to be either the hero or the villain (in the case of Mifune’s bandit); the center of attention. The true stroke of brilliance is this – Kurosawa never reveals the truth of what really happened in the woods, heightening the ambiguity of the picture. As explicit as the dialogue is, the film functions as a powerful work of visual storytelling (faces are dappled by sunlight filtered through tree leaves, resulting in some powerful images). Rashomon doesn’t need its overtly thematic dialogue – Kurosawa’s abilities as a visual artist and the expressive performances say it all.