“Rashômon,” the 1950 adaptation of two stories by Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892-1927) was the first Japanese film that I ever saw — two decades after it put Japan on the world cinema map at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, where it won not only the Golden Lion (the highest prize) but the Italian Film Critics Award for director Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998).* It went on to win the precursor of the Best Foreign Language Film from the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
As Ford Madox Ford’s “saddest story,” The Good Soldier, is the prototype of an unreliable narrator on the page, “Rashômon” multiplies “unreliable narrator” times four. The story of a fatal encounter on a road through a forest in (11th-century)Heian Japan of an aristocratic warrior (the word “samurai” is retrojected), his wife, and a bandit is told four times from four incompatible perspectives–those of these three plus that of the woodcutter who discovered the body at the end of the first scene, a complex tracking shot through the forest.
The differences in the accounts obviously stem from the self-interest of each teller–“self-interest” not in economic terms but in protecting and propagandizing for each teller’s self-image. Radically different eye-witness accounts have come to be called instances of “the Rashômon effect.” In his autobiography, Kurosawa himself wrote that “human beings are unable to be honest with themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood goes beyond the grave–even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium.”
The film defeats the usual pleasures of “whodunits” in getting to a clear answer. Indeed, what happened to the wife is among the matters that cannot easily be resolved by the conflicting accounts of the flamboyant bandit Tajômaru (Mifune Toshiro), the knight Kanazawa Takehiro (Mori Masayuki) his initially veiled wife Kanazawa Masako (Kyô Machiko), and the seemingly simple woodcutter (Shimura Takashi).
Mifune’s vibrancy has struck some western viewers as overacting rather than stylized (in the noh an kabuki traditions). Across multiple viewings of the film (and with the resonance of seeing Shimura Takashi in dozens of other Kurosawa films, with the largest parts in “Drunken Angel” and “Ikiru”) the woodcutter has come to seem more important to me. Although he is the first and last character seen, he is offscreen through most of the film.
The nonlinear (spiraling?) narrative marked “Rashômon” as a work of high (and very influential) modernism. As Stephen Prince remarks in he booklet for the Criterion edition, “Kurosawa created in ‘Rashômon’ the most flamboyant and insistently visual film than anyone had seen in decades…. Kurosawa was consciously attempting o recover and recreate the aesthetic glory of silent filmmaking. Thus the cinematography by the brilliant Miyagawa Kazuo and editing are incredibly vital, and many passages are composed as silent sequences of pure film, in which the imagery, ambient sound, and Hayasaka Fumio’s score carry the action.”
The Criterion DVD includes a spirited introduction by Robert Altman (which is more about himself than about the film; BTW, his other favorite Kurosawa film was “Throne of Blood”), a booklet that includes the original Akutagawa and the part of Kurosawa’s autobiography from which I quoted above (and the Stephen Prince essay from which I also quoted). The commentary track was recorded by Donald Richie, the man most centrally involved in explaining the glories of classical Japanese cinema (that is, from the first two decades after the Second World War) to the Anglophone public. He was film curator Museum of Modern Art and is the author of The Films of Akira Kurosawa and many other books. There is a trailer that includes a number of shots not in the film(!).
For me, the most important DVD bonus feature on the Criterion disc is the excerpt from “The World of Miyagawa Kazuo.” From the bonus features on the new Criterion edition of “Sansho, the Bailiff,” I learned that Miyagawa was entirely responsible for the lighting, composition, and scene-planning of that extraordinarily rich visual experience. Miyagawa discusses (with a diagram) the initial tracking shot of the woodcutter, how shadows were created, lighting by mirrors and blackening the rain (which, pours–drizzle is un-Kurosawan!). Miyagawa (19098-1999) was engaging in explaining how he achieved various effects, and I now realize that visual splendors not only of some of my favorite Kurosawa films (Yojimbo, Sanjuro and Kagemusha) and the Mizoguchi films of the 1950s (Sansho, Ugetsu, etc.), but of Ichikawa’s arrestingly photographed Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Enjo) and Tokyo Olympiad, plus Ozu’s “Floating Weeds” should be attributed to Miyagawa
The transfer (in the original (1.33:1 ratio) was made “from a 35mm fine-grain master positive on a high-definition Spirit Datacine,” and digitally cleaned up. The mono sound (Dolby Digital 1.0, 24-bit ).used the original magnetic tracks (with more digital cleaning).
BTW, “Rashômon” is the (by the time of the film) ruined southern gate of the outer grounds (rajô) of the Heian capital, Kyoto (then Heian-Kyo). And Kurosawa’s memoir is explicit that he wanted bolero music–though the extent to which the music written by Hayasaka Fumio sounds like Ravel’s “Bolero” distracts/detracts from the visual brilliance of the film (I remember being discomfited by it on my first viewing decades ago).
©2016, Stephen O. Murray