Review by Michael Jacobson
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
Features: See Review
Length: 88 Minutes
Release Date: March 26, 2002
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.
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?
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
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.