Rashomon is a Japanese movie made in 1950 by the great director Akira Kurosawa, set in medieval Japan. It is about a rape and murder, in different versions as related by the principals. More generally, it is about the nature of truth and reality. If that sounds a bit high-brow, don't let that worry you. One of the good things about Rashomon is that whatever questions Kurosawa wants you to ask about "truth and reality," he has the characters say out loud. So one needn't wonder what questions one should be asking. Rashomon is also about story-telling, which I discuss toward the end.
These comments are a bit random, and may be most useful for someone who has already seen it, and might want to read up a bit before seeing it again. Wikipedia's excellent article summarizes all that needs summarizing, and I won't repeat that here. Also, if you want a DVD, the Rashomon - Criterion Collection DVD is excellent, including Donald Richie's Commentary. He actually narrates/comments right over the entire 90 minutes of the film. Very worthwhile.
Rashomon opens at a large gate, the Rashomon Gate outside Kyoto, where three men discuss the crime. The crime itself took place in a forest, and testimony was given in an open-air court. That's it. Three settings. (There aren't many characters either, only 6 or 9, depending on how you count.) Rashomon is all a story-within-a-story, and stories-within-stories.
The outermost frame is at the Rashomon gate; that is present time. It's raining heavily; the gate itself is in a state of disrepair. The background is always jumbled, confused, angular. The rain adds its dark and dreary overtones.
The next level is the court, which is brilliantly lit by the midday sun. The one witness speaking sits in the foreground facing you; 1 or 2 others sit behind the speaker. Behind them a blank wall with a black shadow band atop it, strong horizontal lines. That's it. It suggests the cold, hard, light of truth, which a court proceeding theoretically will get at. We have plenty of reason to doubt all the testimony given here, but that's what's supposed to be going on here.
In turn, the woodcutter, the priest, the policeman, Tajomaru, and the medium/husband will testify, but whoever is testifying, it always looks just like this:
The third level is the forest, where the crime took place, three days before "now." The forest is all dappled light, sun streaming through leaves. At times you can barely distinguish the actors, the hat, the sword, the dagger, etc. There are no angles, no straight lines. There's black and white, but lots and lots of gray, circles, shadows, and highlights. This is a place where whatever happened is very unclear.
Kurosawa uses a lot of triplets in this film. There are three men at the gate, discussing the crime: a woodcutter, a commoner, and a priest. There were three people in the forest: the husband (a samurai who is murdered), his wife (who is raped), and Tajomaru (a bandit who confesses to both deeds). And there are three minor characters (a policeman, a medium, a baby) who make brief appearances. Kurosawa was famously meticulous and left nothing to chance, so the three times three of the characters is presumably intentional. (While three legs make a sturdy stool, in human affairs, situations with three actors are inherently unstable.)
Like many directors, Kurosawa worked with the same actors over the years. Toshiro Mifune, certainly the best-known Japanese actor to Western audiences, played Tajomaru. Takashi Shimura the woodcutter. And Minoru Chiaki played the priest. All three actors also played in Seven Samurai.
Rashomon can be considered an example of jidaigeki, Japanese period pieces featuring samurai, and the two swordfight scenes are recaps of silent-era swordplay movies ("action films" of the day) known as chambara.
Triangular compositions abound in Rashomon. It's almost like every frame can be viewed as a well-composed photograph, a self-contained work of art by itself.
Look at the line of Tajomaru's body, her body & the ground, and then the line of their gazes. You can also see an inner triangle, with the husband's face at the apex.
Another one, also with a secondary inner triangle.
At about 28 minutes into the film there is a segment lasting about half a minute, in which Kurosawa pairs off the three actors, sequentially, mathematically, and beautifully. (Best seen on DVD.) To be mathematically precise, he gives us six views, i.e. all permutations of the three actors, taken two at a time, where the arrangement (foreground vs. background) matters. The bandit, Tajomaru (T), has tied up the husband (H) and has just brought the wife (W) to witness his impotence. Tajomaru's intentions are clear, and the characters look at each other in turn, as what will happen next dawns on all of them.
The scene is introduced with a triangular composition. All three characters are shown; we are voyeuristically watching them from behind some branches. The music is dramatic and anticipatory. (The captions/comments here are above each screenshot, which are labelled H-W, H-T, W-T, etc.)
H - W. The first of the six pairings. We see the husband and wife. He is in the foreground, back to us. In a few seconds, he will turn to look at Tajomaru.
H - T. So now T is up front, and H is farther from us. Shortly, T will turn to the wife (W). Each snippet ends with the foreground person turning his/her attention to another person.
W - T. Now she looms large, and Tajomaru is farther away. There is no movement of the characters. Although it's a very dynamic scene, only our perspective is moving.
We have seen the first three pairs, in this order: H-W, H-T, W-T. Now the pairings are going to reverse, going inside out, as it were: W-T, H-T, H-W. So, in the third frame, the wife can't turn her attention outward to her husband, she must look back at Tajomaru. And so she does.
W - T. Here we are, a reversal of the previous frame. In these three latter views, while they include the same three pairings (H-W, H-T, W-T) as in the first three views, their foreground/background arrangement is switched. In shorthand, (H - W, H - T, W - T) becomes (W - T, H - T, H - W)
H - T. With all this seeming movement, note that the husband remains on the left, and Tajomaru on the right. Note that we are always peering over the back or the side of the foreground actor. It's the more distant actor whose face we see and who we focus on, until the foregrounder turns his/her face toward us.
H - W. "This can't end well," they and we are thinking.
The scene ends with a close-up of the wife; indeed, this part is about her.
There's more. The Husband remains on the left in this sequence. Tajomaru is always on the right. But the Wife moves around from one side to the other, or rather, our perspective of her shifts.
It's an amazing scene, well worth a few pauses and rewinds on the DVD. All in thirty seconds.
Another thing that Rashomon is "about" is story-telling, narrative, how we are told things. Generally, a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. More specifically, a story introduces characters and settings, through some action and events a plot develops; there is conflict leading to a crisis and some resolution. So what about Rashomon? The main action of the film, the rape & murder in the forest is supposedly the story. How does the movie start? With a scene at the gate, after the events of the story. Okay. We're led to believe that we'll be told about it. But the woodcutter's first testimony is nothing about the events, only evidence that he found afterwards. Then the priest briefly mentions what he saw before the action. Thirdly, the policemen tells what he saw, also after the event.
One begins to wonder "When are we going to cut to the chase? What is this story anyway?" And, that's exactly the point. Contrast all this murkiness with the first line of the Iliad, "Sing, Muse, of the wrath of Achilles, that brought to grief thousands of the Greeks."
When Tajomaru relates the story itself, we are finally given a version of reality. Later on, the wife, the husband (through the spirit medium), and the woodcutter (who changes his story) will add to it. But Tajomaru, a man who confessed to the crime, is the only one who relates the story up to the moment of the rape itself, the dramatic moment when the dagger drops and sticks upright in the ground. (See, there's nothing really subtle, or difficult to figure out here.) That moment when the dagger falls is the climax, in both uses of the word. We only have Tajomaru's version of all the action leading up to that moment. No one else challenges it; we're not given an alternative. Therefore, we probably accept his version of the events, up to that point, but, then again ... why should we?
While we only have one version of the rape, we have four versions of the murder: by Tajomaru, the husband, the wife, and the woodcutter. Each of the three principals implicate themselves. Tajomaru confesses. The wife recounts being in a dazed confrontation with her husband, forgetting, and waking up with her dagger in his body. The husband (through the medium, of course) claims he committed suicide. The woodcutter says he saw Tajomaru kill him.
On a second or third viewing, it becomes clear that all the narratives, all the narrators, are suspect. I'll repeat that Kurosawa, through the commoner and the priest at the gate, tell us as much. In a sense, Rashomon is all about loose ends.