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RASHOMON

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijiro Ueda
Director:  Akira Kurosawa
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  88 Minutes
Release Date:  March 26, 2002

Film ****

Jean-Luc Godard said film was truth 24 times a second.  Brian De Palma said that it lied 24 times a second.  Both assessments are accurate, and they were never expressed quite so well as in Akira Kurosawa’s first major international success, Rashomon.  The story is simple, but the explanations are far less so, as objective truths give way time and time again to subjective realities. 

A man is dead and a woman raped…this is fact.  What is not is the string of stories that come forth explaining exactly what happened.  Three different individuals confess to the crime…who is telling the truth?  Are any of them?

As the rains beat upon the Rashomon gate, a common traveler (Ueda) takes refuge there, along with a woodcutter (Shimura) and a priest (Chiaki).  To pass the time, they relay the story of the murder and the subsequent inquests.

The woodcutter claims to have stumbled upon the scene first.  He viewed a number of strange clues, including a ladies’ hat, a samurai cap, a dagger sheath, and finally, the dead body itself.  He doesn’t know much more than that…at least, that’s the initial impression he gives.  The priest recalls seeing a man and a woman traveling through the woods earlier…they were the victims, and their presence explains some of the woodcutter’s strange clues.

The first man brought to the inquiry is a famed bandit (Mifune, in his first major role for Kurosawa).  As he tells his wild tale of the events, we see them unfold on screen.  He confesses to seeing the passage of the man and the woman, tricking the man, raping the woman, and then killing the man in an honorable duel.  Open and shut case?

Not entirely.  The woman has a different story, in which she too confesses to the murder.  Even stranger is the man’s point of view, brought to life by a medium, who claims his death as suicide.

What really happened?  That’s exactly the point…we may never know.  We tend to trust what our eyes see on the screen, but Kurosawa as co-writer and director constantly confounds us.  He shows us contrasting points of view that cannot be reconciled.  Even the woodcutter changes his story at the end.  We are left at the end with impressions but no absolutions.

Because of this style, Rashomon has been called one of cinema’s most influential films.  Its central concept has been resurrected many times in modern movies and television shows (I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite episodes of All in the Family).  It proved that the camera could not only document reality, but falsity as well.

But equally important to the story structure is the visual style.  Kurosawa, even as early as 1950, was crafting a look and technique that would define his cinematic uniqueness for his entire career.  The way he uses depth of space is astonishing in this picture.  The forest scenes provide images both nearer and further than the central action.  The early tracking shots of the woodcutter are a technical marvel, as Kurosawa creates fluidity in an environment where fluidity doesn’t seem possible!  Kurosawa has even been called the first director to point his camera at the sun…the sun being significant because it barely permeates the dense forest where the event takes place.  There is no bright light to laminate them, which accentuates that our take on them boils down to simple impressions of questionable accuracy.

His visual flair helped comment on the story and action as well.  In many shots, his three central characters (in the present and in the flashbacks) form literal and figurative triangles.  When the triangles are disrupted, it usually echoes the on screen sentiment that something is wrong. 

But sometimes, his effects are linear.  He deliberately removes the so-called “fourth wall” during the inquest scenes.  The characters being questioned are directing their answers at us, even going so far as to reacting to the questions that we don’t ask.  In a sense, each one is pleading for us to believe his or her version of the story, resulting in an even more delightful confusion about the true nature of the events.

Rashomon cemented the 40 year old Kurosawa’s international reputation as a master filmmaker, and a half century later, is still revered by many as Japan’s most important film.  It began a legacy of memorable and influential world classics from the director, who would channel American influences into Japanese movie making, and in turn re-influence what Western artists were creating! 

But his first significant film remains more than just a launching point.  It’s an innovative and radical approach to what the art of cinema could do for the art of storytelling, and remains a must-see for all serious film students.

Video ***

Given the age of the film, this is certainly a quality offering from Criterion, who presents a crisply rendered DVD of Kurosawa’s black and white vision marred only by a few apparent effects of aging.  Brighter scenes are beautifully presented, with good contrast and detail and a full range of deep blacks and clean whites.  Some grayer sequences show a bit of print inconsistencies in the form of occasional spots and image flicker…these are minor and acceptable for a 50 plus year old film.  All in all, this is a presentation film fans can feel good about.

Audio **1/2

The mono soundtrack is better than average, with the heavy sounds of both the unfolding drama and the heavy storm adding dynamic range to an otherwise dialogue and music oriented picture.  There are some occasional bits of light noise noticeable in quieter moments, but nothing distracting.  The original Japanese is a bit fuller in sound than the English dubbed track, but both are included that you may enjoy your preference.

Features ***1/2

The disc includes a fairly good commentary track by film historian Donald Richie…I say fairly good, because there’s at least one instance where he’s blatantly wrong (he says in the man’s story we have no way of knowing how he died, when we clearly see him committing suicide).  Apart from that, it’s a decent and informative listen, though not of the caliber of commentary included on Criterion’s The Seven Samurai release.  There is also an introduction by Robert Altman, excerpts from “The World of Kazuo Miyagawa” (a documentary about the cinematographer), a trailer, and a booklet that includes reprints of the short stories that served as the basis for the film as well as an excerpt from Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography.  A very good package all around.

Summary:

Rashomon is a true classic of world cinema as well as one of the most influential films ever made.  It put Akira Kurosawa’s star firmly on the map, and insured that Western and Eastern audiences alike would always be able to enjoy his unique cinematic stylings.  This quality DVD from Criterion is a must-own for serious film fans or cinema students.