Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Rashomon is an exciting mystery about a deadly forest encounter between
a Samurai, his wife and a notorious bandit. It became Akira Kurosawa's international
breakthrough film and has endured as a film school
classic because its treatment of narrative makes for great discussions about the nature of
cinema storytelling. Its use of 'testimonial flashbacks' is just as daring, and as true to human
nature, as the flashback structure of Citizen Kane.
Waiting out a torrential rain under the ruined gate of the Rashomon temple, a
woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) recounts shocking recent events. Three days before, a man was killed
and his wife attacked, and the bandit apparently responsible was captured. But during the trial,
each of the participants and witnesses tells a distinctly different story. If determining simple
reality is so difficult, how can justice function?
One of the most often screened of art-cinema films, Rashomon is too entertaining to be
restricted to the narrow confines of film school. The story has action, intrigue, mystery and sex,
not to mention excellent characterizations from its stars, most obviously Toshiro Mifune, playing
a variation on the
rascal bandit role for which he's most loved. In the spate of Kurosawa remakes that followed
The Magnificent Seven, Rashomon
was re-made by Martin Ritt as The Outrage, transposed to the American West with a
woefully miscast Paul Newman as a Mexican bandit. The remake took place on phony interior sets, a
change that makes Rashomon's great location photography look all the more magical.
Most of Rashomon is set on the floor of a verdant forest, under a canopy of high foliage
that bathes the actors in moving patterns of dappled light. There's no such thing as a static shot with all the
shadows of moving leaves. The images express a magical place alive with hot sunlight and soft
shadows. The questionable testimonies of the witnesses in The Outrage are flat and
uninvolving. When played out in Rashomon's 'living' forest, they take on a higher meaning.
No matter whether it is character or memory that makes them alter the truth, the unchanging setting
insists that the witnesses cannot alter nature. The truth is in the trees somewhere - there are
higher powers that will remember. A very moral tale, Kurosawa balances his vision of humanity as
a hell of selfish mendacity with a gesture towards loving charity at the end. It's a very satisfying
The film-school lesson of Rashomon can be found in any textbook, and is capsulized in the
concise Stephen Prince essay that
come with Criterion's deluxe DVD. The cinematic experience is different from a literary one because
films always present an immediate reality, always in the present tense. Movies can fracture time with
flashbacks, but they can't makes things
ambiguous the way a book can - a tree is either there, or it's not. By and large, psychological
complexity has to come from the written (literary) scripts unless a director is going to use symbols
and allusions - in effect, become more selfconsciously arty.
Rashomon's memory-flashbacks are simple enough until the conflicting testimonies create
an intellectual ambiguity ... if these 'lying' flashbacks are unreliable, what kind of testimony,
or memory, is reliable? Hitchcock had tried a single false flashback in Stage Fright, and just caused
problems for himself. Rashomon's innovation became a gimmick in later shows like
Les Girls, used most often for comic effect. But nobody's gone farther in the use of fractured
memory time until the much more demanding Memento, from just last year.
Tiny in scale, the tale (told four times differently) packs an emotional wallop, when characters
who are reserved or stoic in one episode turn out to have completely different personalities in
another episode. As the wife, Machiko Kyo shows a very wide range of emotion, but Mifune's different 'angles' on
the same bandit character are surprising as well. Finally, Takashi Shimura, the leader of the
defenders in Seven Samurai and the patriarch of many a Godzilla film, provides a solid
spine in the moralistic framing story.
Criterion's DVD of Rashomon is a deluxe package with a host of interesting extras. Japanese film
expert Donald Richie provides a commentary track, and Robert Altman a spirited video introduction (avoid
this until you've seen the picture). There's an expert from a Japanese documentary on cinematographer
Kazuo Miyagawa, that has a lot of special footage of Kurosawa and stills from the set. Of particular interest are
Miyagawa's collection of lab test film strips, which when cut together form a brief but telling montage
of moments just before and after a couple of dozen camera takes. There's an English track, which
hopefully will only be used for comparison. Text bonuses come in a fat booklet and include a chapter
on this film from Akira Kurosawa's autobiography, and the entire text of the two short stories used
to make Rashomon.
The flat transfer shows some wear, but looks utterly fantastic just the same. There is no restoration
comparison demonstration this time around, but the show does look as though Criterion's fine-comb
digital cleanup experts have done their magic on it. The curious trailer included with the package illustrates
its scenes with furious classical music cribbed from Borodin and Ravel - interesting because the
Woman's version of events is scored with an approximation of Ravel's Bolero.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Docu excerpt, commentary track with Donald Richie, Robert Altman video introduction,
trailer, text extras.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: March 20, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson