The film concerns itself with the murder of a husband (Masayuki Mori) and the stories that are told, in court by the bandit (Mifune), the wife (Machiko Kyo), and the husband's spirit through a medium (a very creepy Fumiko Honma). Narrated from each point of view, the film unfolds in misdirects and misinformation, leaving you to pick your way through to the truth, where, at the end, the woodsman, Shimura, reveals that he saw the entire incident upon the road.
The film suffers from being a touch heavy handed, in that it wants, through the woodsman and priest, to make a statement about the quality of human beings, and its final scenes don't ring true with what the rest of the film has laid out: why would such a poor man, who is reduced to stealing a pearl inlaid dagger after witnessing the murder, suddenly take the child into his care? Perhaps it's selfless, perhaps it shows how affected he has been after witnessing the mismatched stories, but the final steps of the film, where Kurosawa wants to make a happy statement about the quality of human beings, simply doesn't ring true in my admittedly cynical opinion. Outside that moment, however, the rest of it is done well, and the film unfolds nicely, giving enough screen time to the bandit, wife, and dead husband to create the mystery and sustain it for each part to provide a surprising twist or addition, without relying on shock or stupidity.
The true attraction of watching Rashomon is the joy in how this is done. Truthfully, I probably I enjoy other Kurosawa films more: Seven Samurai is one of my favourite epics, and Yojimbo, and even it's sequel, Sanjuro, show a more amusing, charismatic Mifune. But none of them have the layering technique that Rashomon does. It's an interesting trick to watch--one that I can watch over and over again, in fact--to see a narrative laid out in false moves, but to yet keep the viewer there, and to create, through the characters, a sense of expectation that when the final story is revealed, it will resonate the strongest out of the three while still providing an element of surprise and satisfaction. There a films in which the technique doesn't work. Take the Usual Suspects, for example. The end of that film is telegraphed very early on--so early, in fact, that you'd have to be both blind and deaf not to figure out that disabled Kevin Spacey was in fact the great crime lord in disguise. The mistake in the narrative is by making Spacey's character important to the criminals at the centre of it. Since, given the characters limitations, and the very unnecessary way he contributes to the crime that unfolds, he can only occupy a twist space: an empty narrative space that the audience will, if given the time, question the importance of right until the final reveal is given, and that space is shown to occupy the villain or hero. Kurosawa's film, in comparison, neatly avoids this by giving each character an important space to occupy within the narrative from the beginning, which allows for the characters and the story to evolve out of their roles, rather than to have the role dropped onto them at the end.
Anyhow, enough of that. It's a cool film, and if you've never seen it, do yourself a favour and find it. Here's the original trailer, courtesy of youtube: