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Savant Short Review:


Criterion 138
1950 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 88 min.
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijiro Ueda, Fumiko Honma
Cinematography Kazuo Miyagawa
Art Direction So Matsuyama
Film Editor Akira Kurosawa
Original Music Fumio Hayasaka
Written by Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa from stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Produced by Minoru Jingo, Masaichi Nagata
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

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 coda.

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,
Rashomon rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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

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