A Japanese film constructed like a Chinese box, Rashomon is still as pictorially ravishing as it is intellectually suspect. Set in the 12th century, director Akira Kurosawa's 1950 international breakthrough starts out like a bad joke: A priest, a woodcutter, and a bum meet in a rainstorm ...
But there are no laughs in Rashomon. It is a deadly serious exploration of a recent rape/murder that grows ever more unfathomable with each re-enactment, since its witnesses and participants hardly seem to have witnessed the same thing. The tension and uncertainty generated by the differing versions of the story spills into the film's divided soul: Kurosawa's exhilarating modernist delight in remixing the details and actions of the four versions of the crime is undercut by a trite, undergraduate anti-humanism that threatens to spoil the formalist party. The film claims to offer truth but leaves you feeling as lost as its characters, who stare at the sun, the rain, and the sky in search of answers to questions they can't quite articulate.
The formal ingenuity triumphs over the "everybody's a liar" conceit, though. Rashomon remains one of the major treatments of what Donald Richie called "relative reality," and it's set in the film equivalent of a World Heritage site — a forest grove alive with leaves, trees, sunlight and shadows as beguiling and mutable as the characters' testimony.
In a movie where every character eventually plays his own doppelganger, Toshiro Mifune thrills as the bandit Tajomaru, a one-man zoo who mimics the scratches and gaits of lions, gorillas, and pit-bull terriers.