Now that my Bone reviews are over, I figured I need something to fill the void. Besides, I’m not sure which dead superhero to write about next, so I’m going to start a regular column of personal recommendations from me to you.
We’ll start this week with my all-time favorite movie, Roshomon.
Roshomon is a 1950 Japanese film from the late, great director Akira Kurosawa. Filmed in black-and-white, this movie is on the surface about a murder that is never solved. The film’s basic gimmick, telling the same story from different points of view, offering contradictory takes on what actually happened, has been reused multiple times, but this movie is the only instance I can think of where the real story is never revealed to the audience at some point. In fact, the term for that “multiple POVs” technique is the Roshomon effect, which has been used in TV and film in projects as diverse as Animaniacs, Arrested Development, and Gone Girl.
As for this movie, the film opens in a driving rain storm. A priest, a commoner, and a woodcutter take shelter under a gateway and the woodcutter seems disturbed. He recounts a tale of this strange trial he attended.
The movie then deals with the murder of a samurai. During the course of the film, four versions of the events are depicted by four different witnesses, three at the trial, and one in the gateway. All four agree on a few events: a bandit spotted a samurai and his wife riding through the woods. The bandit is instantly smitten with the wife and contrives a story of finding some ancient swords in the woods to lure the samurai away. Once out in the woods, the bandit manages to subdue the samurai and tie him up. Then he lures the wife away and has his way with her in front of her husband. Later, the samurai is found dead of a stab wound.
So, who killed him?
The movie never says. Kurosawa apparently didn’t care because that wasn’t the point he was trying to make. Even the cast were denied when asked.
Instead, we get four versions of events: the bandit’s, the wife’s, the samurai’s ghost’s, and the woodcutter’s. The identity of the murderer changes depending on who is telling the tale, and all four are at least a little self-serving. Even the woodcutter, who would appear to have nothing to gain from the story, is called out for telling at least some lies during his account.
Part of the fun of the movie is how Kurosawa depicts each of the stories. The bandit as a character is full of bravado, boasting of how formidable he is, and his story reflects that. The wife is quiet on the stand, so her story is too. The samurai holds himself with great dignity, and the camera helps him out. The woodcutter’s story is actually done in a style that might fit in better with a Three Stooges short.
The end result is that, while the priest initially loses all hope for humanity given the obvious self-serving nature of each story, there is a moment at the end that rekindles his hope. The commoner thinks all people are greedy and rotten. Kurosawa wasn’t interested so much in who killed the samurai as he was in whether or not human beings are capable of benevolence and selfless actions. The real mystery he was trying to solve was whether the hopeful priest or the cynical commoner were, in fact, right about the state of the human race.