Rashomon ★★★½

Rashomon not only feels like something groundbreaking and exciting back in the day, it feels utterly relevant and utterly magical today. It is my second Kurosawa, after the well made but slightly flawed High and Low. There's no doubt to me that Rashomon is much better in every respect. It is not only bolder and more tightly constructed, but has more interesting characters and a more interesting setup.

And to be frank, I did not expect a story as biting and cruel as this one. I was thinking there would be an account of some samurai battle (which, I guess watered down, is what it is), but instead, Kurosawa treats us to a disturbing and horrifying tale - told four ways - and then uses it to make, well, a statement about how much we humans suck.

Of course, the very ending, as the clouds part and we see the woodcutter walk off with the child... that is beautiful. But after 85 minutes of misery and cruelty, it's not the most redeeming thing ever.

From the very first shot there is pure gloom and doom. Rain pours, and not a soft, kind rain, but rather a sort of "curse from the heavens". We see characters look up to the sky multiple times in the film; although we never really know what they're expecting. Some kind of redemption? A gleaming finger reaching down from the sky and washing them from their sins?

Part of me wonders if Kurosawa took some inspiration from the noirs of the 30s and 40s. Not only are they full of crime - and disgusting people doing disgusting things - but they are often told out of linear order, with narration and flashbacks. We also get the key to the story of Rashomon - the unreliable narrator.

In this way, I love how Kurosawa is forging forward, but also using the sticks and stones of genres/styles before him. What he creates is magnificent, and beautiful cinematography mixed with a biting and near-satirical script creates something that is clearly a classic for a reason.

But it's still interesting that I've heard Rashomon called beloved or an endearing classic. It doesn't strike me as the sort of thing that Kurosawa even intended to entertain someone with. It feels like Kurosawa, one morning, woke up, took a look around, and lost all faith in humanity. This is the story that he must have thought out.

I've heard theories about how this is an allegory for World War 2, and while they are very convincing, I prefer this as a simple story about evil and (sometimes) good. It almost reminds me of a tamer version of A Clockwork Orange, not in thematic material, but in it's portrayal of irredeemable people, unreliable narrators, and despicable violence. For such a simple story, it has so so so many layers.

In the end, Rashomon may not seem like the most groundbreaking cinema in this day and age. It's concept has been done many many times before (please don't tell me Hoodwinked did it better), but I daresay that Rashomon remains the most laser focused, bitingly cruel, example of the unreliable narrator, how the truth can get obscured, yet how each lie reveals more and more that along with the good inside us, there is black, cruel, evil.

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