Rashomon: The Criterion Collection
Starring Toshio Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori,
and Takashi Shimura
Written by Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Review by D.K. Holm
Before there was Memento, before there was The Usual Suspects, or Pulp Fiction — but after there was The Power and the Glory and Citizen Kane — there was Rashomon.
Rashomon — and, as it were, rashomonism — is now so embedded in the filmic culture that it's hard to imagine how much a revelation the film was when it was released in the west in 1951, after it won a prize at the Venice Film Festival and before it went on to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. While post-war Italian cinema (the previous art house flavor of the week) embraced a form of cinematic documentary realism, Akira Kurosawa's film was both formalist and modernist at the same time; a picture of breathtaking visual beauty recounting a tale of uncertainty that challenged our ability to grasp the truth in a destabilized world. Today it is common to undermine the viewer's faith in the narrative. Then, it was the highest form of audience "betrayal" (coincidentally, and for different purposes, Hitchcock even performed a variation of the trick in 1950 with Stage Fright's false flashback).
What does Rashomon mean? Translated, it means "Gate of the Dragon" (or dragons). Specifically, that's the entryway to Kyoto in the 12th century. Under a pouring rain, as the film begins, the structure sits crumbling. Passersby use its wood to make a temporary fire; corpses of the murdered are thrown onto the roof; babies are abandoned there.
Yet even in this world of dissolution, a world of "wars, earthquakes, great winds, fires, famine, plagues," something so horrific has happened that two men are unable to grapple with it. When a peasant (Kichijiro Ueda) finds these two men taking shelter under the broken-down gate, they are sitting in near silence, muttering to themselves, unable to believe what they have witnessed. One of them is a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) who says to himself, "I don't understand." His companion is a priest (Minoru Chiaki), who should be the one to bring insight and understanding to the events of the day, but who instead is just as baffled, his faith in humanity destroyed.
What could be so horrific that even in a time of plague they are stunned? Both were witnesses in a hearing earlier that day. The peasant draws the tale out of them. The priest saw the victim, a heavily armed samurai (Masayuki Mori), pass by with his veiled wife (Machiko Kyo) on horseback. The woodcutter discovered a body in the woods. What happened in between no one seems to agree on. The facts were that the samurai was dead, his horse was gone, and his wife had vanished. A notorious bandit, Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), is blamed for the crimes of rape, murder, and robbery.
The bulk of Rashomon lays out what turns out to be five accounts of that day: the priest's seeing the couple pass by; the woodcutter finding the body; the bandit bragging at the hearing of ravishing the woman and more or less winning her over before killing the man in a duel; the woman speaking of her shame; the samurai, via a medium, revealing that in fact he had committed suicide; and finally, the woodcutter piping in again to reveal that in fact he lied to the police and saw the whole conflict among the three people, in which the woman manipulated the men who ended up engaged in a clumsy duel that led to the samurai's ignominious death. The woodcutter himself may share some of the guilt of the day's events.
There are mirrors reflecting mirrors here, layers beneath layers. The samurai tells his story. But it is told through a psychic (could she be making it up?). Then that story is filtered through the account told to the peasant under the gate (is it distorted?). And the whole thing is part of a story in a film by Kurosawa (what does he want us to believe? What does he want us to take away from this film?)
* * *
What is it about a case of rape and murder that undermines people's confidence even in a time of natural and man-made disaster? Simply put, it's that the social fabric has been rent. People can deal with natural disasters. But when you can't believe people, then chaos really breaks out. Everyone connected to the crime in Rashomon lies. The bandit fibs about his prowess, and probably about the circumstances of how he got caught (he says it's stomach cramps after drinking poisoned water, but he probably was thrown off a horse he couldn't control). The wife may have minimized her seductiveness. Her husband, if it was really him and not the product of a medium's fraud, admitted to the shameful act of suicide just to make his wife look even worse. Finally, the woodcutter's account (perhaps the most believable) also leaves out some things — his lies of omission are meant to sanitize his behavior as well.
Kurosawa, in collaboration with his cast, his co-screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto (adapting two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, a beloved modernist writer who died early), and his cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, orchestrates this material beautifully. We forget that there really are only three settings in Rashomon, and a cast of about six. From the lengthy scenes of the woodcutter walking in the woods where light and shadow play ominously (a sequence that almost is like a silent film in its technique) to the contrasting duels (one noble, the other messy), the film is the work of artists fully in command of their talent. Even things that critics have objected to, such as the uncharacteristically western sounding "Bolero"-style music alternating with Arabian desert melodies, or the "tacked on" upbeat ending, work very well within the context of the tale: The music suggests circularity and relentless progression, as well as the exotic aura the woman exudes to the crude, fly-swatting bandit. And the ending announces the existential questions and themes Kurosawa was to pursue for the rest of his career.
Existential humanism inspires the best pictures. The great art-house films of the '50s — which people still talk about, still revive in rep theaters or on DVD, still write about in critical texts — still serve as hallmarks of what great film art can be. Films from directors as diverse as Kurosawa, Alain Resnais, Antonioni, Bergman, and Wajda, are born of a grappling with the same issues of meaning and purpose that Sartre and his disciples mulled over in their bulky tomes. The cinematic form lends itself to stirring, emotional accounts of questing, questioning men seeking the meaning of their existence in the perceived absence of God. Existentialism is a "muscular" philosophy, the man of action's philosophy, and interest in it, both cinematic and personal, rises when the world goes mad.
* * *
Kurosawa's resonance for modern times is suggested by a revival of interest in the director after many years of critical inactivity. A new joint biography of the director and his main leading man Mifune was published in late 2001 (The Emperor and the Wolf, by Stuart Galbraith IV, from Faber and Faber, ISBN 0.571.19982.8). In February of 2002, the British Film Institute staged a major retrospective of the director's work in London. And PBS aired a two-hour documentary about him in mid-March 2002. One hopes that Criterion's important DVD release of Rashomon is a mere foretaste of a reaffirmation of Kurosawa's stature as one of the world's truly great directors....
The audio also track has been restored. Though it is Dolby Digital 1.0, it sounds great (and there are film buffs who still get a nostalgic kick out of the slight surface noise heard in old movies). Criterion utilized the original magnetic tracks to master a 24-bit soundtrack, with additional work to remove pops and hiss, according to the package. Criterion has re-translated the digital English subtitles as well.
The disc contains substantial added value, although it may not appear to be so at first glance. First off is a video introduction to Rashomon by Robert Altman, who walks the neophyte through the reputation the picture has among filmmakers and some of the special visual delights that the movie contains. (Given that other directors with titles on Criterion, such as Terry Gilliam, have provided intros for the films of others, Altman's presence on the disc raises the interesting possibility that there may be a couple of Altman DVDs from Criterion later on.)
Criterion previously released a Laserdisc version of Rashomon, but it was supplement-free. For this occasion, the company drew upon that éminence grise of Western interpretation of Japanese cinema, Donald Richie, for an audio commentary track. Richie was once the curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art, lived in Japan for many years, and has written many books on Japanese culture and film history. His book The inland Sea (and the film made of it, available on DVD) is a poignant celebration of Japan's mysteries. Richie also has edited no less than three books on Rashomon (although they are all variations on one book), and wrote a film-by-film study of Kurosawa that remains the definitive book on the director even 37 years later. Not to put too fine a point on it, Richie can be said to be an expert on Kurosawa. Richie recorded this track in 2001, and it is a fine, helpful complement to the film that wears its learning lightly. (However, first time viewers should be warned that near the end of the movie the 78-year-old Richie does mix up for a moment the bandit and the samurai while explaining the latter's moment of death).
In addition, there is an excerpt from a documentary about the film's cinematographer. The World of Kazuo Miyagawa was made for Japanese television, and even in this relatively brief segment it is admirable for the amount of sheer information and detail it provides, along with its posture of unambiguous celebration. Characteristically, Criterion only provides a portion of the doc, as it did on its Billy Liar disc with a British television documentary about British '60s cinema. The theatrical trailer is a long-ish advertising device that is of interest because it contains a lot of shots that don't appear in the film. Among them is a shot of a snake, and a jarring close up of the bandit's apprehender, obviously in the court where the trial takes place, and perhaps just presenting the bandit for interrogation.
Included in the packaging is a 28-page booklet that is an abundance of supplements in itself. It begins with an introductory essay by Film Quarterly book review editor Stephen Prince, who has written a volume on Kurosawa, followed by a salient except from Kurosawa's autobiography. Also included are the two source short stories, and finally credits for production of this DVD.
— D.K. Holm
Stephen Prince, The Warrior's Camera, on the "pure visualization" in Rashomon:
Many other scenes are informed by these principles of pure visualization. Perhaps the most striking is the sequence showing the woodcutter walking through the forrest just before he finds evidence of the crime. The sequence is composed of fifteen shots, all of which are tracking shots, so that it becomes an an extended essay on the capabilities of the moving camera. Kurosawa intercuts low-angle tracking shots of the trees, through which the sun sporadically peeps, high-angle tracking shots of the woodcutter moving through the forrest, and extreme close-ups of the character with the camera following from both the front and the rear. These are among the most sensuous moving camera shots in cinema history, and the entire sequence has a hypnotic power. Much of this effect is due to its "silence," to the absence of dialogue and ambient sound. Fumio Hayasa's percussive, rhythmic score is the only aural accomapniment to the images....
During the sequence in which the woodcutter walks through the forest, Kurosawa fashions the camera's patterns of movement so that they become the architectonics of narrative and generate metaphor. The woodcutter intuitively responds to the rhythms of the forest by leaping a river, ducking a branch, crossing a log bridge. He does not recognize these objects consciously but glides over them in a mystical state. The lyrically tracking camera simulates the rhythms of his walk and the topography of the forest and is, therefore, a formal indicator of this condition. But this reverie is broken when he finds evidence of a crime. As he finds several hats, an amulet case, a rope, and finally a body, he scuttles about awkwardly with fear. As he makes these discoveries, the tracking shots cease. The objects have made him alarmed and rational. His thinking mind is switched on, and his sensuous, intuitive response to the forest is lost....As in the silent cinema, movement becomes the embodiment of narrative and the necessary sign of emotional and psychological states. (132-133)
Rashomon / Japan / 1950
Drifters convene underneath the crumbling façade of the abandoned Rashomon gate (at the entrance to Japan’s former capital, Kyoto), seeking shelter in a relentless flood of rain. The weather (which is, despite the film’s wear, tangible) prohibits clear sight. Appropriately, the credits montage is constructed of static shots that display growing puddles and rotting architecture. The storm pollutes the scene, robs its contrast, and turns everything into an even, consistent gray. The image is a fitting introduction to Rashomon, as there will be no absolute clarity for events depicted in the film.
Akira Kurosawa’s twelfth feature, Rashomon opened to international laurels, including Best Picture at the Venice Film Festival and an Honorary Oscar in 1952 (its critical success led presumably to the “Best Foreign Film” category). It was an immeasurable coup for Japanese cinema, which was natively isolated prior.
Its premise is deceptively simple (Rashomon’s simplicity is of particular note due to the epic structure and vision of Kurosawa’s later films): a samurai is found murdered. He (present through a medium), his wife, a bandit, and a woodcutter each lend their testimony; three claim to be responsible for the killing. The notion of truth, or rather its subjective fallibility is examined, here, yet in spite of its wealth of possible actions Rashomon supplies no closure — this is the film’s innovative strength, and lasting contribution to the body of film.
In film there is the presumption that the medium relays a relative truth. With any filmed action the viewer may evaluate its details, limited only by technical embellishments such as composition and sound, and procure a contextually isolated truth. With even the subtlest action such as a line of dialogue, film is traditionally constructed to relay the fact that it was spoken within a context. It is an idea that truth may be discerned within an acknowledged fiction. Rashomon contests this presumption by constructing a scenario that, befitted by this traditional interpretation, has no truth — or rather, hinders the viewer’s ability to procure it.
Rashomon airs the same scene four times, subsequently reconstructing it according to four perspectives (each is a differentiated, if not contradictive version). It is a murder not in which the perpetrator is sought but rather the very action, as three involved have, again, claimed responsibility for the death. Assigning guilt is not the issue, but rather achieving the most plausible certainty between those who plead it.
There is an obsessively patient and virtuosic sequence in which the woodcutter enters a forest. There are repeated shots aimed directly behind the forest ceiling. As the woodcutter progresses, the light, in these repeated shots, becomes more shrouded (in this symbolic manner, the objective accuracy of the to-be-repeated episode diminishes). The montage escalates. The editing rhythm increases, and the view moves closer, culminating in the woodcutter’s discovery of the body.
In result, the woodcutter relays his testimony. Here, Rashomon’s innovative strength is apparent: the woodcutter is seated in front of a predominantly white, nondescript background, and speaks to a jury audience — which is unseen outside of the frame. The viewer is addressed directly, and is to amass the evidence and to discern truth. This tactic engages the viewer and enables the film’s metaphysical capacity.
The woodcutter establishes the indisputable facts of the crime, tellingly arranging them with the precision of a table of evidence: a discarded woman’s hat with veil lain on a bush, a trampled samurai cap, a length of cut rope, an amulet case, and the samurai’s body, slain by a sword.
The aforementioned bandit is found with the samurai’s arrows, bow, and horse. He is captured and interrogated (in the same manner as the woodcutter). The bandit is easily convictable: sweaty and brash, with a hand that leaves his sword frequently to tame an invisible swarm of mosquitoes about him at any moment. At the very moment he begins to speak the narrative reliability of Rashomon is abandoned.
The bandit’s version of the story is lent a visual depiction, as with each testimony, and watching it one may look for recurring details, such as the location of the wife’s dagger, or the staging of a swordfight between the samurai and bandit. Each testimony (the wife, murdered husband, and woodcutter follow) is tainted by the persuasion of its teller: the bandit wants to assure his prowess as a fighter (in his delivery, his fight with the samurai is climactic and heavily in his favor); the wife wants to maintain her feminine respectability; the husband defends his honor as a samurai; the woodcutter supports his argument that men are inherently dishonest. In each version the action is exclusively manipulated by personal politics and sex, and in each the teller is the most sympathetic, responsible, and honorable witness. Thusly, not one is in a more trusted position than another.
The film has acquired as durable a critical foundation as any film (it is a staple in film courses). It is laudable foremost for its very use of its medium and as singularly influential as any film in history.
Rumsey Taylor | © 2004 notcoming.com
And here is a Roger Ebert Review:
Roger Ebert / May 26, 2002
Shortly before filming was to begin on "Rashomon," Akira Kurosawa's three assistant directors came to see him. They were unhappy. They didn't understand the story. "If you read it diligently," he told them, "you should be able to understand it, because it was written with the intention of being comprehensible." They would not leave: "We believe we have read it carefully, and we still don't understand it at all."
Recalling this day in Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa explains the movie to them. The explanation is reprinted in the booklet that comes with the new Criterion DVD of "Rashomon." Two of the assistants are satisfied with his explanation, but the third leaves looking puzzled. What he doesn't understand is that while there is an explanation of the film's four eyewitness accounts of a murder, there is not a solution.
Kurosawa is correct that the screenplay is comprehensible as exactly what it is: Four testimonies that do not match. It is human nature to listen to witnesses and decide who is telling the truth, but the first words of the screenplay, spoken by the woodcutter, are "I just don't understand." His problem is that he has heard the same events described by all three participants in three different ways--and all three claim to be the killer.
"Rashomon" (1950) struck the world of film like a thunderbolt. Directed by Kurosawa in the early years of his career, before he was hailed as a grandmaster, it was made reluctantly by a minor Japanese studio, and the studio head so disliked it that he removed his name from the credits. Then it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, effectively opening the world of Japanese cinema to the West. It won the Academy Award as best foreign film. It set box office records for a subtitled film. Its very title has entered the English language, because, like "Catch-22," it expresses something for which there is no better substitute.
In a sense, "Rashomon" is a victim of its success, as Stuart Galbraith IV writes in The Emperor and the Wolf, his comprehensive new study of the lives and films of Kurosawa and his favorite actor, Toshiro Mifune. When it was released, he observes, nobody had ever seen anything like it. It was the first use of flashbacks that disagreed about the action they were flashing back to. It supplied first-person eyewitness accounts that differed radically--one of them coming from beyond the grave. It ended with three self-confessed killers and no solution.
Since 1950 the story device of "Rashomon" has been borrowed repeatedly; Galbraith cites "Courage Under Fire," and certainly "The Usual Suspects" was also influenced, in the way it shows us flashbacks that do not agree with any objective reality. Because we see the events in flashbacks, we assume they reflect truth. But all they reflect is a point of view, sometimes lied about. Smart films know this, less ambitious films do not. Many films that use a flashback only to fill in information are lazy.
The genius of "Rashomon" is that all of the flashbacks are both true and false. True, in that they present an accurate portrait of what each witness thinks happened. False, because as Kurosawa observes in his autobiography, "Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing."
The wonder of "Rashomon" is that while the shadowplay of truth and memory is going on, we are absorbed by what we trust is an unfolding story. The film's engine is our faith that we'll get to the bottom of things--even though the woodcutter tells us at the outset he doesn't understand, and if an eyewitness who has heard the testimony of the other three participants doesn't understand, why should we expect to?
The film opens in torrential rain, and five shots move from long shot to close-up to reveal two men sitting in the shelter of Kyoto's Rashomon Gate. The rain will be a useful device, unmistakably setting apart the present from the past. The two men are a priest and a woodcutter, and when a commoner runs in out of the rain and engages them in conversation, he learns that a samurai has been murdered and his wife raped and a local bandit is suspected. In the course of telling the commoner what they know, the woodcutter and the priest will introduce flashbacks in which the bandit, the wife and the woodcutter say what they saw, or think they saw--and then a medium turns up to channel the ghost of the dead samurai. Although the stories are in radical disagreement, it is unlike any of the original participants are lying for their own advantage, since each claims to be the murderer.
Kurosawa's screenplay is only the ground which the film travels, however. The real gift of "Rashomon" is in its emotions and visuals. The cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa evokes the heat, light and shade of a semi-tropical forest. (Slugs dropped from trees onto the cast and crew, Kurosawa recalled, and they slathered themselves with salt to repel them.)
The woodcutter's opening journey into the woods is famous as a silent sequence which suggests he is traveling into another realm of reality. Miyagawa shoots directly into the sun (then a taboo) and there are shots where the sharply-contrasted shadows of overhead leaves cast a web upon the characters, making them half-disappear into the ground beneath.
In one long sustained struggle between the bandit (Mifune) and the samurai (Masayuki Mori), their exhaustion, fear and shortness of breath becomes palpable. In a sequence where the woman (Machiko Kyo) taunts both men, there is a silence in which thoughts form that will decide life or death. Perhaps the emotions evolved in that forest clearing are so strong and fearful that they cannot be translated into rational explanation.
The first time I saw the film, I knew hardly a thing about Japanese cinema, and what struck me was the elevated emotional level of the actors. Do all Japanese shout and posture so? Having now seen a great many Japanese films, I know that in most of them the Japanese talk in more or less the same way we do (Ozu's films are a model of conversational realism). But Kurosawa was not looking for realism. From his autobiography, we learn he was struck by the honesty of emotion in silent films, where dialog could not carry the weight and actors used their faces, eyes and gestures to express emotion. That heightened acting style, also to be seen in Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" and several other period pictures, plays well here because many of the sequences are, essentially, silent.
Film cameras are admirably literal, and faithfully record everything they are pointed at. Because they are usually pointed at real things, we usually think we can believe what we see. The message of "Rashomon" is that we should suspect even what we think we have seen. This insight is central to Kurosawa's philosophy. The old clerk's family and friends think they've witnessed his decline and fall in "Ikiru" (1952), but we have seen a process of self-discovery and redemption. The seven samurai are heroes when they save the village, but thugs when they demand payment after the threat has passed. The old king in "Ran" (1985) places his trust in the literal meaning of words, and talks himself out of his kingdom and life itself.
Kurosawa's last film, "Madadayo" made in 1993 when he was 83, was about an old master teacher who is visited once a year by his students. At the end of the annual party, he lifts a beer and shouts out the ritual cry "Not yet!" Death is near, but not yet--so life goes on. The film's hero is in some sense Kurosawa. He is a reliable witness that he is not yet dead, but when he dies no one will know less about it than he will.
Ebert's reviews of "Ikiru," "The Seven Samurai" and "Ran" are at suntimes.com/ebert/greatmovies/