A review requested by a contributor who wishes to remain anonymous, with thanks for donating to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

23 August, 1951, is one of the key dates in the history of world cinema. That was the day (almost exactly a year after it opened in its native Japan) that director Kurosawa Akira's Rashomon played at the Venice International Film Festival, and thus bridged European and Japanese film culture. There had, of course, been contact between Western and East Asian cinema before 1951 (for example, Japanese silent films were screening on the west coast of the United States in the silent era), but Rashomon was something else altogether. Rashomon, and the Golden Lion it won, were the moment that the rest of the world was forced to contend with the fact that Japanese cinema could be art on par with anything produced in any other country (or better: I'd go so far as to claim that Japan had the best national cinema of them all between 1945 and 1960*).

A film industry are artistically rich as Japan's was going to have its international breakthrough. And that breakthrough would have almost certainly occurred at the same festival: the programmers specifically went on the hunt for a Japanese masterpiece, and chose this one over the objections of the Japanese government and critical community, who regarded this as unexceptional and overly Westernised (it nonetheless showed up at #5 on the 1950 edition of the prestigious Kinema Junpo list). But if a specific film had to serve that role, it might as well be Rashomon, a movie that hits me as so self-evidently great that I half-wonder where the hell I get off coming over here and talking about how great it is.

As you probably know, Rashomon is about the subjectivity of memory and the unreliability of perspective. So subjective and unreliable, in fact, that I don't think Rashomon is about that whatsoever. It's not a story of people misremembering, it's a story of people lying their asses off, and doing so in order to make themselves look as good as possible. It's also not, technically, the story of that at all: it's the story of three men debating moral philosophy and using the thing about unreliability and lying as their case study. So the plot begins, not in a sunlit grove where a rape and murder occur or don't ("In a Grove" is the title of the Akutagawa Ryunosuke short story that provides most of the film's narrative; "Rashomon" is his story that provides the framework), but on a beastly wet, rainy afternoon, in the ruins of the Rashomon gate in the city now known as Kyoto. You needn't have a doctorate in symbolism to recognise the setting as Kurosawa and co-writer Hashimoto Shinobu's (the first of many collaborations for the pair) bid to create an instantaneous sense of widespread moral rot, and a society in a state of free-for-all collapse.

This is exactly the suspicion that has crept into the mind of a priest (Chiaki Minoru), one of three men assembled under the Rashomon to remain at least somewhat dry, and when we first meet him, he's wailing about his inability to retain any faith in humanity or the world. It's a concern shared by the woodcutter (Shimura Takashi) who has traveled to this place with the priest; they have lately come from court, where they both testified as witnesses to a violent crime, and the experience has left both of them shattered. The third man (Ueda Kichijiro), a sardonic cynic, obviously views both men's philosophical woe as charmingly naΓ―ve - obviously the world is shit, so why be bothered by it? - but trapped as he is by the rain, lets them spin their tale of a bandit, Tajomaru (Mifune Toshiro) who murdered a samurai (Mori Masayuki) and raped the samurai's wife (Kyo Machiko). Three days later, during the trial, four different accounts of the event were offered, all branching after the woman lay weeping on the ground: Tajomaru, eager to burnish his own legend as a warrior and noble savage, tells of how he untied the samuarai and they fought a duel over the lady, the most epic of the bandit's career. The woman speaks of her husband's loathing and cruelty towards her after the rape, and how in a state of frenzy she fainted and stabbed him. The samurai, speaking through a female medium (Honma Noriko), presents his wife as a faithless harlot and Tajomaru as lazy and shiftless more than brutal. Back at the Rashomon gate, the woodcutter confesses that he lied at court, and in fact saw the whole thing: in his telling, Tajomaru is a pathetic coward, the samurai abusive and cruel to his wife, she petty and vindictive in turn. But his story is also tainted by his admission that he stole the woman's expensive knife with a pearl-inlaid handle.

So again, the "Rashomon effect" notwithstanding, it's awfully hard to call this, with a straight face, a story about different perceptions. It's about the bottomless selfishness and meanness of the human spirit, beginning with Tajomaru's yawning decision that it's a good day to take a beautiful woman by force, and ending with the third man back at the gate stealing the kimono that has been used to wrap an abandoned baby against the wet and cold. It is a chilly movie, dissecting a chilly world, but shot through with a little bit of hope: while Kurosawa's films generally turned more nihilistic as he got older (culminating in the "we are scrambling blind in the wilderness and God is dead" ending of Ran in 1985), in the '50s he still offered some measure of hope, leavening it with more or less ambiguity. Rashomon, in fact, offers even less ambiguity than he'd hoped for (the uncooperative weather meant that the final shot is in full sunlight, in a movie where light is consistently equated with goodness), and while I know that many people consider the hugely metaphorical baby who comes along at the end to be an unacceptable contrivance, it's not like the film hasn't been operating 97% in the mode of a fable. After all, only one of the eight characters seen onscreen (the last is a policeman played by Kato Daisuke) is so much as given a name, and it's no coincidence that he's the violent bastard who triggers the darkness of the rest of the film. So thanks be to that baby, who gives us exactly the same lift it gives to the priest: yeah, everything is awful, but sometimes we're given a chance to get things right next time.

It's not, of course, very subtle in its messaging. Kurosawa actively eschewed being that kind of filmmaker; he viewed the Japanese art film tradition of Mizoguchi, Ozu et al. with some suspicion and actively strove for a more populist breed of cinema that hybridised Japanese with American aesthetics (and that's how the greatest Western in the history of the movies, Seven Samurai, is a Japanese costume drama). To watch Rashomon is to understand quite directly what it's trying to say. Some of that comes out of the dialogue, which is nothing if not leading (everything the priest says comes with "audience, please note, I'm trying to hold a philosophical dialogue with you" bubbling almost audibly beneath the surface). But much of it also comes out of the absolutely exquisite craftsmanship. Rashomon, for all it stands in the English-speaking public's mind as the beginning of Kurosawa, was the director's twelfth feature, and not even his first masterpiece (the crime drama Stray Dog, from 1949, is head and shoulders with anything else in the director's career), and it is work of an artist with a clear command of how the cinematic medium can work on a viewer.

Working for the first time with the great cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo (they'd re-team in 1961, on Yojimbo), the filmmaker crafted a sublimely beautiful film that creates, in relatively low-contrast black and white, three highly distinctive visual schemes to delineate the three settings. The Rashomon gate framework is all in flat greys, the overcast sky leading to diffused lighting across everything in the frame; the trial scenes (which take place in an outdoor courtyard) use geometrically rigid compositions and solid blocks of white and grey to define the wall of the courtyard and the sky behind as an abstract space, more 1920s animated cartoon than realistic movie. But it's the flashbacks to the forest that we all think of, and where Miyagawa demonstrates the full range of his powers (despite a superlative career that found him working with Ozu, Ichikawa, and several times with Mizoguchi - including the devastating well-shot Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff - I think this is maybe the best-lit film of Miyagawa's I've seen). Striking patterns of light and shadow fall on the actors' faces, and several times the filmmakers point the camera right at the sun, watching it glimmer in and out behind a thicket of leaves in the wind; it's uncommonly gorgeous. But it also does an extraordinary job of setting mood, letting the ambiguities of the story play out literally on the character's faces, as they fluctuate from good to evil, true to false.

The film also boasts its share of the deep compositions that Kurosawa did better than arguably any other filmmaker, partitioning the action into fragment planes so that, for example, we're aware both of the bandit's violent lust and the samurai's taciturn helplessness simultaneously. The staging is also used to great effect in the film's swordfight scenes, where the seemingly infinite depth of the forest can be used to exaggerate the scope of the thing (in Tajomaru's telling), or exaggerate the flailing idiocy of two venal fools aimlessly waggling blades at each other (in the woodcutter's), by emphasising the distance between the men and the different movement required to bridge that distance.

Really, there's hardly anything in the film I could even think to quibble with, let alone find at fault. It's probably true that the performances are overshadowed more than they ought to be by Mifune, giving my favorite of his performance: there's something actively feral to his Tajomaru, the way he squats and scrapes along, and the slow-witted thoughtfulness with which he alters his facial expressions. And certainly his bellowing, unpleasant laugh, full of rage and mania. He plays the character as a dangerous animal rather than a man, perfectly in keeping with the film's overall sense of despair, and nobody in the film comes at all close to demanding our attention in the same way.

Regardless, it's a top-to-bottom miracle of a film, burly in its philosophy and graceful in its style, with an uncommonly good score by Hayasaka Fumio (blending Japanese instrumentation and half-quotes from Ravel's BolΓ©ro) that offers the feeling of a lazy, droning summer day lanced with coiled-up tension, and a wonderfully charged soundscape to go with it. Every time the film cuts to or from the cacophony of rainfall at the gate, the effect is electrifying; the reflective spell of the flashbacks contrasted harshly with the cold, flat fact of life. I somewhat wish I could offer a contrarian take about any of this, but the fact of it is that Rashomon is a towering masterpiece of craft bent around one of cinema's most interesting philosophical/narrative experiments, and its key role in ushering in the golden age of '50s and '60s international art cinema is entirely justified.

*It's also responsible for more of the movies I personally cherish the most than any other country, including the one I live in. But that's getting us afield of where we need to be.