Werner Herzog likened Rashomon to something like his idea of the ecstatic truth of the essence of being, or in our words, the mystical conception of cold reality as filtered through the artistic faculty. He’s right of course, yet, who would be fool enough to try and explicate how and why? Sometimes life only seems plausible when reaching for the impossible.
Two fools lament the death of a man, and a third scoffs at this paltry suggestion: but one man? It so happens that the man was a samurai of sorts whose wife was ravished by an infamous bandit. But who killed the man? The three stooges contemplate the truth of the matter through flashbacks at a grove as told by each of the parties involved, including a chilling confession by a spectre via a “medium.” Ostensibly, each version is a likely lie, a justification of the super ego of the confessor. Finally however, the lamenting witness confides what turns out to be ambiguous truth.
In filmmaking terms, Kurosawa is a legend revered by legends. A master of the craft, his works transcend the medium, achieving an artistic genius approaching the equivalent of conversations with the Deities. Today, an audience disillusioned by its “forced” mundane vocations demands the hyper-realistic interpreted through escapist fantasy: ultra realistic characters (possibly in non-human form) put in solipsistic fantasy worlds which are conquered easily or, if it’s “dark” stuff, everyone dies or succumbs in a celebration of fatalism. To this audience, Kurosawa is baffling, inclined as he is to use his characters as conduits for elements in Nature, rather than humans struggling with feelings.
Feel they do, but character development itself is eschewed. Rashomon might well be his best example of this, where the story lends itself naturally to metaphysical interpretation. Forget that some of the action sequences seem clumsy. To nitpick this is akin to arguing that the Mona Lisa looks plain. What makes this a masterpiece is its ability to allude to truth in the spiritually artistic sense, instead of reaching for bland truth claims evoked by sentiment. In simple terms, it’s ambiguous without being bogus.
Like Shakespeare’s King Lear, Rashomon is a tale that has humanity stripped bare, gazing into the abyss of simple companionship tainted, void of honesty and honour. So dark is this void that the relatively optimistic conclusion — reminiscent of William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, where faith that man will not only continue to strive, but eternally thrive — is nevertheless muted, and smothered in existential doubt.