A bandit subdues a nobleman in a secluded woodland and forces himself on his captive’s wife. The nobleman dies, the wife flees, the bandit is captured – and everything else in Rashomon remains open to conjecture. Decades before The Usual Suspects warned moviegoers not to accept subjective testimony as verifiable fact, Akira Kurosawa’s breakthrough masterpiece suggested that no eyewitness can be entirely trusted, that truth itself may be forever elusive.
Four different accounts of the fateful, fatal incident – including one offered by the late nobleman through a court-ordered medium – are considered by three strangers in 11th-century Japan. While stranded under the Rashomon gate during a raging thunderstorm, they wonder: Was the nobleman truly a man of honor? Was his wife an innocent victim or willing participant? Could the bandit (Toshiro Mifune at his most swaggeringly uninhibited) have twisted the truth for a selfless reason? The possibilities are perplexing. Each testimony is dramatized in flashback, and none seems more credible than the others. Indeed, Kurosawa strongly hints that all four stories are, to varying degrees, deceptions born of self-delusion. “Human beings,” he wrote in Something Like an Autobiography, his acclaimed memoir, “are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves.”
Rashomon has spawned many imitators, including The Outrage, a 1964 Americanized remake with Paul Newman miscast as a Mexican bandit. But Kurosawa’s 1950 original continues to be the paradigm for this particular sort of beguilingly simple yet provocatively complex drama. Even now, the title is used to describe anything – from Wonderland to Boomtown, from Senate hearings to Seinfeld episodes – in which a story is told from multiple, and often contradictory, points of view.