Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Rashomon (1950)

Director: Akira Kurosawa                               Writers: Shinobu Hashimoto & Akira Kurosawa
Film Score: Fumio Hayasaka                         Cinematography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori and Takashi Shimura

One of director Akira Kurosawa most famous works, Rashomon tells the story of a brutal rape and murder and the police interrogation that follows. What has fascinated audiences for years is the way in which the separate stories conflict and seem to make each of the witnesses look as good as they can considering the circumstances. It’s not a unique premise, having been used at least once earlier in the 1929 film Thru Different Eyes and perhaps in others. And the idea would be used many times afterward, including films like Mortal Thoughts and Vantage Point. But this film remains the iconic use of the concept. Though Kurosawa had directed films in Japan before this one, and had written many others, this was the first film of his to be widely distributed in the United States and introduced the West to his work. There is at once, in Kurosawa’s films, a reverence for filmmaking of the past and a devotion to traditional Japanese ideas like the relationship of man to nature and the use of light and dark. It is a simple story, simply told, and yet produced with magnificent confidence and an abundance of artistry.

The film begins with a priest, Minoru Chiaki, sitting next to a woodcutter Takashi Shimura, in some ruins out of the rain. Both seem utterly mystified by something. When commoner Kichijiro Ueda comes over to dry off, Chiaki is desperate to tell him the story to see if he can help them make sense of it. Shimura begins with his walk through the woods three days earlier. After running across both a man’s and a woman’s hat and a piece of rope, he finds a dead body in the brush. He rushes back to tell the police his story, but it turns out there are other witnesses to the crime. First is Minoru Chiaki who says he was there that day. He had seen a woman on horseback, Machiko Kyô, wearing a veil. Leading her was an armed man with a sword and a bow and arrows, Masayuki Mori, who later turned out to be the murdered man. Next up is the policeman, Daisuke Katô, who apprehended bandit Toshirô Mifune by the river, in possession of the dead man’s weapons and the horse. But Mifune interrupts him. Talking wildly, he claims that it was his horse he was riding, but that he did, in fact, kill the man. Mifune’s story begins with him resting in the woods and the married couple coming across him. When a cool breeze lifts her veil, he decides he must rape her, even if it means killing her husband. When Kyô is found, however, she tells a completely different story. But what’s even more astounding is hearing from the dead man himself.

There is so much to admire about the film. As always, Toshirô Mifune is a commanding presence onscreen, and yet he still manages to bring a sense of humor to the seriousness of the plot. He often has a tic in his films with Kurosawa. In Yojimbo it was an itch he couldn’t seem to scratch. In this film it’s slapping the mosquitoes that seem to be drawn to him in the woods. Kurosawa’s camera work is such a pleasure to watch, a completely different conception from the Hollywood style that had become so pedantic over the previous twenty years. He likes to show the backs of the actors as they move, he shoots looking up through the trees to the sky, or down from the rain cascading off the roof to the actors well below. And the fluid movement of his camera at eye level is just as arresting. The moving shots of Takashi Shimura’s walk through the woods at the beginning of the film is reminiscent of a similar technique used by F.W. Murnau in Sunrise to film George O’Brien making a similar walk. The film score by Fumio Hayasaka is equally fascinating. While Mifune is telling his story of the rape the music is almost lighthearted and playful. When Kyô is telling her tale, however, a section of Ravel’s Bolero can be heard. Both of them seem oddly out of place. And then in the woodcutter’s version there is no music at all.

The A List essay by Andy Klein begins by suggesting that the word “Rashomon” has become synonymous in our culture with the idea of multiple stories, though I think that’s vastly overstating the case. With cinefiles and the highly literate, perhaps, but among the pop culture masses? An episode of Jay Walking might prove otherwise. He does make an interesting analysis about the film’s emphasis on threes. There are three settings, the present at the beginning and end of the film, the recent past at the trial, and the events that comprise the main story. There are three main characters in the story, and three other witnesses, as well as the three men at the beginning. Klein rightly points out that there is no solution to the mystery of what actually happened, and in that context it is really the priest who is the central figure of the film. His concern is not with what actually happened buy why the participants lied about it. While Klein glibly suggests that they lie because “there is a murder rap at stake” that doesn’t make any sense at all. Each of the three main witnesses claim that they did it themselves, so they’re not trying to get out of anything by their lies. But despite the lack of a solution, there is a nice resolution at the end that is satisfying enough. Rashomon is a wonderful film by a brilliant filmmaker that continues to delight audiences after nearly sixty-five years, and that, by anyone’s standard, should be the definition of a classic.

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