It's a rainy day in 12th century Japan. Buildings are in a heavy state of disrepair, bodies litter the streets, and the hungry masses scrounge for whatever they can. Taking shelter beneath a massive, crumbling gatehouse on the edge of town, three men - a woodcutter, a priest, a commoner - recount the testimony of a bizarre murder. While passing through the woods, a samurai and his wife have a run-in with a bandit. The woman is raped, her husband killed. Not a bizarre incident, in and of itself, but the three people involved (including the late husband, through a medium) offer up completely contradictory explanations for who ultimately killed the man.
It's amazing that nearly the entire content of In a Bamboo Grove is present in the film, the testimonies of the witnesses adapted almost word for word in a way that masterfully stretches ten pages of material to roughly an hour of screentime without feeling padded or drawn out. And what's nice is that Kurosawa gets away with the somewhat ironic grandstanding of the three main testimonies, where each person points to themselves as the likely culprit, by not only having the witnesses relate events, but by having other characters relate what the witness related, thus adding that extra Telephone Game layer of blurred or exaggerated detail. It's only with a fourth and final testimony, entirely created by Kurosawa, that we get to hear directly from a witness, and the films captures this level of directness by having his story be the most human, the most brutally emotional, the most believable recounting of the saga. But it also reflects the individual's personal bias that all three were monsters equally responsible for the event and, thus, we once again hit the wall of who to believe.
More curious is how Kurosawa uses the story Rashomon. It would seem, at first, that it offers little more than the setting of the framing story, but many of the themes of what people are willing to do in hard times come forward near the back-end of the picture and offer up some nice social commentary which helps add personal plight to those involved.
The cast is uniformly excellent with the main trio bouncing from wildly different interpretations of their characters based on who's telling the story. The samurai (Masayuki Mori) either burns with rage or sobs with regret as he watches his wife abused before him. The wife (Machiko Kyo) offers her vow to one man, then the other, always suffering as she's spurned for an act beyond her control. The bandit (Toshiro Mifune) roars like a lion, laughs like a monkey, or darts his eyes like an uncertain child. Each performer is at the top of their game, making each rendition a fully fleshed-out human being. And let's not forget Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, and Kichijiro Ueda, all Kurosawa vets, as the tellers of these tales.
The direction is simply beautiful. From the composition of his shots to the perfectly controlled pace of his editing, I've never seen a film from the early 50s with such mastery of its visual content. Kurosawa pulls off things with a camera on rails that I didn't think were possible before the advent of Steadicam. It's a marvel to behold.
This film is a masterpiece and, once again, I know my simple reviewing skills are far less that what's required to do it justice. Go out. See it. Absorb it. Discuss it. Appreciate it. You'll be glad you did.