Director : Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay : Akira Kurosawa (based on stories by Shinobu Hashimoto)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1950
Stars : Toshiro Mifune (Tajomaru), Machiko Kyo (Masago), Masayuki Mori (Takehiro), Takashi Shimura (Woodcutter), Minoru Chiaki (Priest), Kichijiro Ueda (Commoner), Fumiko Homma (Medium), Daisuke Kato (Policeman)
In Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa’s masterful cinematic exploration of how human nature clouds our perceptions of reality, there is only one thing about which we can be sure: There is a dead man. Other than that, nothing is and can be known for absolute certain, as the story of how this man came to be dead is told by a handful of people, each of whom tells a different version of the story.
Who is lying and who isn’t? The masterstroke of Kurosawa’s film is that it doesn’t matter. Rashomon is not about “truth” and “lies.” Rather, it is about the interrelation of experience and human nature, which Kurosawa viewed as being inherently inclined toward selfishness, greed, and egoism. One could in fact argue that none of the characters are lying in the conventional sense, despite their contradictory stories; one could say they are all telling the truth, but it is their truth, the truth that best fits their understanding of themselves and their experience. This underscores Kurosawa’s ultimate point: Reality is relative. Everything we experience as “real” is mediated in one way or another, whether it is through hearing a firsthand account of someone else’s experience or seeing the world through our own eyes. Nothing exists for us until it has been filtered through the human consciousness. So, in the end, there is always something between us and the world, and each experience is therefore different.
Of course, Rashomon is best known as, if not the first, at least one of the best cinematic explorations of contradictory narratives. Virtually all cultures rely on various narratives to know the world, and those narratives are often taken at face value. This is particularly true of film, especially the influential style of the Classical Hollywood Cinema, which had as its aim to invisibly suture the viewer into the story so that the primary pleasure is that of the storytelling. Kurosawa upended all of this by deconstructing our assumptions about the reliability of narratives to convey reality. The central event in Rashomon—a rape and murder in the forest—is told four different times, and each time it plays out on screen in typical cinematic fashion. Yet, each time it is different, and the differences can be traced back to the storyteller. One could say that Kurosawa beat Marshall McLuhan to the punch in arguing that, in a sense, the medium is the message.
The film opens with a framing device that involves three men—a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), a priest (Minoru Chiaki), and a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda)—taking shelter from a driving rainstorm under the crumbling ruins of the Rashomon Gate, which leads to the capital city. As in many of his other films, Rashomon is set in 11th-century feudal Japan (known as the Heian period), a time of war, disease, and civil unrest. Kurosawa often used this time period because it allowed him the expressive (perhaps a bit over the top, as only he could do it) use of mise-en-scène, one of his trademark cinematic devices. The pounding rain and deteriorating gate are evocative of torment and confusion—one is reminded of Kurosawa’s similarly evocative use of mist in Throne of Blood (1957). The woodcutter and the priest have just been involved in a trial, and they tell the commoner about it. So, from the outset, everything within the film is framed by the subjectivities of these two men, which further confounds any notion of getting at “reality.” Every version of the story that is told, then, is actually twice-mediated, once through the teller of the story and again through the woodcutter and the priest.
The story that is told involves three people: Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), a notorious bandit; Masago (Machiko Kyo), a noblewoman; and Masago’s samurai husband, Takehiro (Masayuki Mori). As stated earlier, the only thing that is known for sure is that a man—Takehiro—is dead. What happened between these three people leading to his death is told separately by each of them, with each version flattering to the teller. First, it is told by Tajomaru, then by Masago, then by the dead Takehiro, speaking through a medium (Fumiko Homma). The woodcutter tells a fourth version of the story, and even more material is related by a policeman (Daisuke Kato) who first discovered Tajomaru and arrested him. The policeman’s story is actually the first one told, and it is Tajomaru’s disputing the policeman’s interpretation of the event that is the first of the contesting narratives.
Aside from its formal narrative complexity, Rashomon is also widely heralded as a visually innovative film. Kurosawa and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa focused primarily on creating tangible images on-screen—the film has a textured, almost tactile quality. Much of it plays out almost like a silent film, particularly the oft-cited sequence in which the woodcutter first discovers Takehiro’s body in the forest. The filmmakers play with light and shadow, and Kurosawa is often cited as the first major director to point his camera directly up at the sun, something that was considered absurd under the aesthetic tenets of the Classical Hollywood style. In doing this, Kurosawa showed that certain camera effects—such as the diffused glare of looking directly at a light source—did not necessarily draw attention to the mechanics of the camera itself, but rather added an additional inflection of the “real” to the cinematic experience.
Rashomon is, in the end, best known for its many firsts. It was the first film in which Kurosawa directed the great Toshiro Mifune, who would go on to star in 11 more of his films, in the process forming one of the greatest director-actor teams in the history of film. It was the first film in which Kurosawa gained true international recognition, even though he had been writing and directing films since 1943 (Rashomon won both the Grand Prix at the Venice International Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film, and it was one of the key films in the increasingly popular “art film movement” that filled in the gaps left at the end of the Studio Era in the U.S. in the 1950s). And, finally, it was one of the first films to challenge in a unique and artistic way our assumptions about the links between storytelling and reality, especially as they are related cinematically.
Kurosawa was hardly the first artist to question what is real (philosophers had been doing exactly that for ages), but he was the first filmmaker to tackle it in this particular way. That is, rather than using it as part of a larger story (as in many mystery films), he made it the core of the cinematic experience. Filmmakers have been copying it for years, and the best of them, such as Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2001), have used it as inspiration, rather than a blueprint, for their own unique meditations on the slippery nature of reality. But, despite the many imitators, no one has quite duplicated the power and gnawing unease of this challenging film.
|Rashomon Criterion Collection Blu-Ray|
|Rashomon is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||November 6, 2012|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Since Criterion first released Rashomon on DVD back in 2002, the film has undergone an extensive digital restoration cosponsored by the Academy Film Archive, the Kadokawa Culture Promotion Foundation, and the Film Foundation. The source of the restoration was a positive print held by the National Film Center in Tokyo that had been struck from the original negative in 1962. The digital restoration removed thousands of instances of dirt, scratches, and wear, as well as corrected distortion in some parts of the image from the warping and shrinking of the negative, resulting in a generally beautiful image that is by far the best Rashomon has ever looked on home video and quite possibly the best it has looked since its initial theatrical release 62 years ago. The image is clean, well-detailed, and boasts strong contrast throughout. There is some visual inconsistency across the film, as some shots are sharper and more defined than others, but this is clearly the inherent look of the film (good, consistent film stock was rare in Japan in the immediate post-war years). The lossless Linear PCM monaural soundtrack was transferred from a restored audio track taken from both the best elements available in the 1962 print and a fine-grain master positive in the Kadokawa Foundation’s collection.|
|Criterion’s new Blu-Ray of Rashomon includes all of the supplements that appeared on their 2002 DVD and adds a few new ones. First from the DVD we have a screen-specific audio commentary by Japanese-film historian Donald Richie, a scholar who has written about Japanese culture in general, and Japanese film in particular, for more than 60 years. His commentary is a great listening experience, as he situates Rashomon within Kurosawa’s long and distinguished career, but also within Japanese cultural history. For anyone not intimately familiar with this topic, Richie's commentary will prove invaluable and will offer all kinds of insights and details that would likely be missed by Western eyes. There is also a somewhat meandering, but still intriguing video introduction by the late director Robert Altman, originally recorded as part of the Janus Films Director’s Introduction series. We also have a 13-minute excerpt from The World of Kazuo Miyagawa, a much longer documentary produced for Japanese television. It features interviews with both cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa and director Akira Kurosawa, both of whom have, sadly, since died (Miyagawa in 1999, Kurosawa in 1998). This excerpt works nicely in tandem with Donald Richie's discussion of the film's unique cinematography, as it features rarely seen test strips shot by Miyagawa, behind-the-scenes photographs, and even a computer illustration of how he achieved one complex tracking shot that would appear to have been made by a Steadicam 35 years before its invention. Finally, from the DVD we have a Japanese re-released trailer. New to the Blu-Ray are the original Japanese theatrical trailer, an archival interview with actor Takashi Shimura, and A Testimony as an Image, a 68-minute documentary the features interviews with the film’s cast and crew. Criterion has also once again produced a beautiful insert booklet, the contents of which should be labeled “Required Reading” after watching the film. The excerpt from Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography is a wonderful read, as it lays bare the director’s thematic intentions in making the film and also makes for a great production history (it’s good to know that, even in Japan, movie executives grumble about films not being commercial enough and having bad titles). It is also nice having Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s original short stories, “Rashomon” and “In a Grove” to compare to the film.|
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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