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The Criterion Collection presents
"I've never heard such a strange story."
DVD ReviewKurosawa scholarship has become voluminous, and Rashomon is one of its principal subjects; here's a movie that is easy to over-intellectualize and hence dismiss as nothing more than an exercise in filmmaking point of view. But revisiting Akira Kurosawa's first great international success is to rediscover its power, its deeply felt emotion, and with the benefit of better than fifty years of hindsight, its tremendous influence. And with this film, Kurosawa earns a place right next to Werner Heisenberg as the twentieth century twin avatars of uncertainty, of the elusive nature of truth. And all this in under ninety minutes.
I admit generally being partial to Kurosawa's contemporary stories, as opposed to his medieval ones; certainly Western audiences must miss much by not being steeped in the culture and myths operating in films like Seven Samurai, and so at the top of my list are Ikiru and High and Low. (I've also always found Kurosawa's Shakespearean retellings—Throne of Blood and Ran—to fall between two stools. Surely the best thing about Shakespeare isn't his plots, which are borrowed and stitched together; wed to an Eastern style, they end up, to my mind, as just sort of a mish mash. And I imagine that it's movies like these that earned this most internationally acclaimed of Japanese directors a reputation in his own country as too Westernized.)
Rashomon is one of those movies whose influence is so profound that laudatory words in a DVD review can hardly do it justice. Films like Reversal of Fortune and JFK owe a debt to its multiple-points-of-view storytelling technique. It has clear antecedents in literature, particularly in books like Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, though I'd argue that Rashomon has been as influential on fiction as all but a handful of novels. (I'd recommend Peter Matthiessen's Killing Mr. Watson as an especially revealing example.) The very name of the movie has become shorthand for the unreliability of recounted events, ranging from news stories to police detective work to idle gossip to those stupid experiments you may have been subjected to in Psych 101.
Given the way in which Kurosawa has been rightly lionized over the decades, it may be hard for us to appreciate fully the supernova that Rashomon must have been in its time; made in 1950, five scant years removed from the Second World War, from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at a moment when Japanese cinema was hardly even a blip on the international film map. (Imagine, a couple of years from now, the release of a film from Afghanistan made by a director whose abilities rival those of Martin Scorsese's, and that should put you in mind of how unexpected and important Rashomon was at its time.)
So what's the big deal all about? Rashomon tells the story of the murder of a 12th-century samurai in the Japanese forest, and here is all we know for sure: a bandit, the famous Tajomaru, spies the samurai and his wife, ties up the samurai and rapes the woman, and the samurai ends up dead. The story is told from five different perspectives: the bandit's, the woman's, the samurai's (through a medium), a woodcutter passing in the forest, and a priest doing the same. For each the facts are different—did the samurai kill himself, or is the bandit responsible? Was the woman shamed by having sex with Tajomaru, or was she ready to run off with him? Is she a prize to be won, or now a tainted harlot? And similarly, for each the tale has a different theme. For the bandit, it's a story of conquest; for the woman, one of shame; for the samurai, of honor. The storytelling is framed by the priest and woodcutter at Rashomon Gate, telling the strange proceedings to a man known only as The Commoner. They try to make sense of the tale, or rather, of the competing tales, but there is no sense to be made.
The whole enterprise is a challenge to our notions of truth, but especially so in the movies. Can we trust what we see? And Kurosawa loves playing with us, examining the story from its many angles—there are flashbacks within flashbacks, and there's never a sure sense of what may or may not be true. The audience is implicated still further as the witnesses testify—they speak to an unseen judge and look directly into the camera, essentially addressing their version of events to us, and asking for our agreement and approval. But it's not off-putting, it's not just a movie version of a Rubik's cube, at all, because Kurosawa loves filmmaking so much, and has such command over his craft. (The cut from the torrential rainstorm at Rashomon Gate to the first flashback, the camera looking at the sun on a brilliant day, is one to rival the cut from the tossed prehistoric bone to the spaceship in 2001.)
Machiko Kyo is especially good as the woman, and the many variations of the same tale give her an opportunity to demonstrate tremendous range, from whimpering victim to early Japanese precursor of the self-empowered feminist. Many of the actors appear in other Kurosawa pictures, and the best known of them is surely Toshiro Mifune, who plays the hateful Tojamaru. The body of work put together by this director and leading man is one to rival that of Fellini with Marcello Mastroianni, or of John Ford and John Wayne, and it's especially appealing to see this, one of their first collaborative efforts.
"In the end, you cannot understand the things men do." So we're told after the many tellings of the murder, without an onscreen guide to sift through the contradictions for us. There's a brief coda designed presumably to restore some of our faith in the essential goodness of humanity, but it's not too convincing, given the towering bit of filmmaking that has preceded it. (Not that I'm dumb or presumptuous enough to second-guess Kurosawa, mind you.) Rashomon is a movie to haunt your dreams, and one to which you'll want to return, and return.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: The black levels are rich and Kazuo Miyagawa's lush cinematography is shown off to good effect. The folk at Criterion have done a painstaking job cleaning up a film that had been loaded with debris and scratches; but even they can't turn lead into gold, so while this version of Rashomon isn't as horribly polluted as others, it's still not as pristine as the print of our dreams. Admittedly that's an unfair standard, but a man can dream, can't he?
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: As with the image, the sound has been given the Criterion treatment, and God bless them for that, but still there's a good amount of hiss and crackle on the soundtrack. If you care to torture yourself, switch over to the English dub track, to hear refugees from cut-rate kung fu movies providing the characters' voices from a script that doesn't match the new English subtitles.
Audio Transfer Grade: C+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film historian Donald Richie
The second featurette (12m:32s) is clipped from The World of Kazuo Miyagawa, which seems like a feature-length documentary on Rashomon's cinematographer. He has the sign from the Rashomon gate in his own backyard, which he proudly displays for the camera, and we're also treated to test footage, the tops and bottoms of scenes, a few frames each, that Miyagawa kept so as to evaluate his lighting. They're played in slow motion, and have the feel of a gag reel, with actors breaking character; there's also something poetic and elegaic about them, and taken together they may put you in mind of the montage of censored scenes in Cinema Paradiso. This featurette is also the only place on this DVD to see Kurosawa-san himself; even in his eighties, he was fantastically charismatic and dynamic.
The commentary from Donald Richie is informative, if a bit workmanlike; he loves talking about editing especially, long shot to close-up and back to long shot. He's obviously knowledgeable about Kurosawa and Rashomon particularly, but I don't know that he brings enough insight to merit sitting through ninety minutes with him talking. (He's also got some funky pronunciation thing going—for instance, "encapsulating" comes out as "encaspulating.")
The texts included in the accompanying booklet are a good read, too, both Kurosawa's reminiscences about the picture, and the very brief short stories on which the movie is based.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsIt's almost hard to say enough good things about Rashomon, though the luckiest viewers out there are those who haven't seen it before; they're in for a treat. Criterion presents this marvelous and important film in a fine new edition, as they prove once again why they should be rightly called The Company Responsible For The Disappearance of My Disposable Income.
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