A man travelling with his wife in feudal Japan is murdered by a bandit... or is he? As the main protagonists - the bandit, the wife, a passer-by and (I kid you not) the man himself - tell their versions of events, a series of contradictions emerge. Who, if anyone, is telling the truth?
Rashomon's Byzantine plot structure was unique at the time, and still feels fresh over half a century down the line. Presenting no easy answers (there is reason to doubt the motives, and thus the stories, of all of those involved), it leaves the audience to make up their own minds about who to trust. Fans of latterday head-spinning efforts such as The Usual Suspects and Memento will find plenty to get their teeth into here.
It all looks gorgeous, to boot (Kazuo Miyagawa's cinematography is done justice by an excellent DVD transfer here), and the performances - especially Toshiro Mifune, as the bandit Tajomaru, cackling hysterically and pausing mid-fight to swat mosquitoes on his neck - are superb. If I've got one gripe, it's the slightly pat "redemptive" ending, but that's a minor fault at best.
Otherwise, Rashomon is downright essential. It's too easy to get all rose-tinted when trying to assess a long-established "classic", but this is one that's more than stood the test of time.