Torrential rain batters against the skeleton of a half-destroyed building, where two men shelter inside. They are quiet and shell-shocked; ‘I can’t understand it. I can’t understand it at all’ is all they can bring themselves to say, numbly repeating it, hoping an explanation will reveal itself. Seventy years since its release, this opening to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon feels extremely relatable, at least mentally if not physically.

Released this week in 1950, Rashômon remains one of Kurosawa’s most important and enduringly popular post-war works, and the film is often credited with opening the West up to Japanese cinema as a whole. It took home the Golden Lion at Venice and was given an Honorary Award by the Academy in 1952. Despite its many deserving accolades, Rashômon remains popular because, put simply, it is one of the most engaging, beguiling, and exciting pieces of entertainment ever filmed.

The script is adapted from two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, an author who was much more interested in the telling of the story rather than its plot. The two men from the opening were witnesses in a murder trial where they heard three separate accounts of the event. The problem is that all three accounts contradict each other, but each story is as believable as the last. The facts of the case: the bandit Tajömaru came across a noble samurai and his wife traveling through a forest, he led them to a glade, and a while later the samurai was murdered and the wife had been raped. However, despite what the facts may say, as each of the witness accounts prove, it is impossible to know exactly what happened.

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Toshiro Mifune as Tajömaru & Machiko Kyö as Masako Courtesy of: RKO pictures

Part of what makes Kurosawa a master of cinema is the way he tells a story within every shot. In making a film where he essentially shoots the same scene four different times, there was never going to be a bigger opportunity for Kurosawa to show off the extent of his talents. He achieved this through close collaboration with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, who used dynamic camera movements to make the same scene appear comic, then tragic, then many variations in between. The camera dances around the actors to show their glee, yet in the next version it stays powerfully still to feel the weight of their shame.

The framing of the camera and the composition of a scene speaks volumes about the relationships of the characters and the mood of the moment. This stands out in the way Kurosawa uses the weather. Through his lens, rain (as in the opening scene) unforgettably communicates externally the inner turmoil of the characters. Most iconic of all is their use of sunlight. As it pushes through the forest canopy and makes a dappled effect on the character’s faces, it creates a further shade of ambiguity. Much like in real life, the film’s subtle differences in mood and setting through each variation radically changes the perspective.

Just as enduring as the camerawork are the performances. The film is a who’s who of Kurosawa regulars including Takashi Shimura, Machiko Kyö, and Toshiro Mifune (a man who should really only ever be described as a capital M, capital S, Movie Star). All three leads give performances that are as nuanced as Kurosawa’s directing. Despite constantly changing from hero to villain, ruffian to idiot, victim to traitor each character remains recognisably themselves. Every single cinematic element works beautifully in tandem, all in service to the film’s purpose, scrutinising both viewers’ morals and the effects of their opinions.

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Toshiro Mifune as Tajömaru Courtesy of: RKO pictures

Perhaps the film’s greatest trick is in keeping the judge of the trial off-screen. Instead, the characters tell their stories directly to camera making the audience an active participant in the narrative. Seventy years on, the legacy of Rashômon is expanded by the many films that followed it. The film’s precise detail feels prescient of David Fincher’s work. One sequence in particular is incredibly reminiscent of Linda Blair’s possessed Regan in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Indeed, the film’s story and structure proved so popular that it inspired a narrative technique known as the Rashômon Effect which can be seen in the scripts of The Usual Suspects, The Handmaiden and Gone Girl among many others. That said, it is up for debate whether any contemporary film engages the audience in their own judgement of the story with the same efficacy as Kurosawa’s classic.

The enduring watchability of Rashômon makes it as relevant and essential now as it did 70 years ago. More importantly, it is a joy to revisit, reminding us that in world of paint-by-numbers blockbusters, a tightly-constructed film will always provide shelter from the rain.

Rashômon is available on the BFIplayer