Reviewed by Ivana Redwine
Length: 88 minutes
Akira Kurosawa's 1950 "Rashomon" is the best-known Japanese film in the world, and well-educated people are now generally expected to know that the term "the Rashomon effect" refers to the notion that participants in an event are likely to give contradictory accounts of what transpired. I think this classic of world cinema is one of the greatest movies of all time, and it looked better than ever when I watched it at home recently on the Criterion Collection DVD. The DVD comes with a good audio commentary track and some other worthwhile extras as well.
Set in the 11th century, "Rashomon" opens with a woodcutter, a priest, and a commoner sheltering from torrential rain in an immense dilapidated wooden structure. This structure, known as Rashomon gate, marks one of the approaches to Kyoto. As the three men wait for the weather to improve, they talk about a legal proceeding stemming from an incident involving a possible murder.
We gradually learn that a bandit (Toshiro Mifune) encountered a samurai traveling with his beautiful young wife. The bandit lusted after the wife and apparently raped her, but could it have been consensual sex? The woman vanished and was later found hiding in a temple. The samurai wound up dead, and police apprehended the bandit with some of the dead man's belongings in his possession. But was the samurai's death murder, suicide, accidental, or self-defense?
In flashbacks to the legal proceeding, the bandit gives his version of events, the wife testifies, and the dead samurai speaks through a medium(!), but the participants' stories differ significantly from one another. Finally, at Rashomon gate, the woodcutter claims they all lied and gives yet another version of the story. Then just as the priest despairs at how deeply deceitfulness is rooted in human nature, something life-affirming happens.
I believe that no matter how many times you watch "Rashomon," there's not enough information in the movie to figure out the truth about what took place on the day of the samurai's death, but it's still fun to sort out what you think you know for sure, what seems highly probable, what seems highly improbable, and what doesn't fit into any of these three categories. But for me, "Rashomon" isn't about searching for some kind of absolute truth-it's about how differently people perceive the same external event. The best example in the movie of what I mean by this is perhaps the sword fight between the bandit and the samurai. The bandit perceived it as a heroic duel between a pair of honorable, expert swordsmen while the woodsman saw two scared, clumsy men stumbling around with swords in their hands as each tried desperately to prevail over the other any way he could.
I like the performances a lot in "Rashomon." As the bandit Tajomaru, the charismatic Toshiro Mifune is brilliant. For me, no one can strut and play the buffoon like he can. The other actors are very good as well, and it seems to me the acting is in different styles in different parts of the film. Sometimes the acting is similar to what we're accustomed to in recent movies, at other times it's like that used in old silent films, and at still other times it looks more like stage acting.
Kurosawa seems to have modeled his storytelling approach in "Rashomon" after the old silent movies, and the result is a visually dazzling film. I particularly like the long tracking shot of the woodcutter walking in the woods that begins about eight minutes into "Rashomon." However, Kurosawa sometimes used theatrical devices, such as the legal proceeding, to good effect. It seems to me a mark of Kurosawa's genius that he so successfully matched and blended the different visual and acting styles in the movie into a unified whole.
The best special feature on the DVD is the audio commentary track by Japanese film historian Donald Richie. There's also an interesting twelve-and-one-half-minute feature excerpted from a documentary about "Rashomon" cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa. Another short feature on the DVD is a seven-minute introduction by Robert Altman ("M*A*S*H," "Nashville," "Gosford Park"). The DVD also supplies an English-dubbed soundtrack for the movie, but the voices sound hammy like radio actors, and I recommend strongly against using this option. Included in the package with the DVD is a nice 28-page booklet that includes some printed materials that I found very interesting, and I have listed these as the last three items below.
Selected Special Features on the DVD:
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