Spy magazine in the 1990s had a witty essay on how, in American journalism, it only took a couple of slightly conflicting accounts of the same event for someone to trot out the word “Rashômon”. Here is an opportunity to revisit Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film, and to appreciate how the cliche does not do justice to a uniquely disturbing drama.
Rashômon is about a court proceeding, recalled in flashback, relating to a mysterious crime. A bandit, Tajômaru (Toshirô Mifune) is on trial for murdering a samurai (Mayasuki Mori) and raping his wife (Machiko Kyô) in the remote forest. Each of these three figures addresses the court, the dead man via a medium – an amazingly, electrifyingly strange conceit, carried off with absolute conviction. A fourth witness (Takashi Shimura) offers his own version, again different. But it is not just a matter of the witnesses being slippery: crucially, the bandit, the samurai and the samurai’s wife each claim to have committed the murderous act themselves, the samurai by suicide. Truth, history, memory and the past … are these just fictions?
One character is told that lying is natural for all of us, and it is in the discrepancies that the essence of our humanity resides. Kurosawa invests the unknowability of the event with horror, suggesting that the three of them somehow chanced upon, or created, a black hole in human thought and communication, whose confusion and violence can never be clearly explained or remembered, as in the Marabar caves in A Passage to India with their endless echoing “Bo-oum”. Unmissable.
• Rashômon is released on 6 January in cinemas