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Rashomon: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Toshio Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori,
and Takashi Shimura

Written by Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

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Review by D.K. Holm                    

Before there was Memento, before there was The Usual Suspects, or Pulp Fiction — but after there was The Power and the Glory and Citizen Kane — there was Rashomon.

Rashomon — and, as it were, rashomonism — is now so embedded in the filmic culture that it's hard to imagine how much a revelation the film was when it was released in the west in 1951, after it won a prize at the Venice Film Festival and before it went on to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. While post-war Italian cinema (the previous art house flavor of the week) embraced a form of cinematic documentary realism, Akira Kurosawa's film was both formalist and modernist at the same time; a picture of breathtaking visual beauty recounting a tale of uncertainty that challenged our ability to grasp the truth in a destabilized world. Today it is common to undermine the viewer's faith in the narrative. Then, it was the highest form of audience "betrayal" (coincidentally, and for different purposes, Hitchcock even performed a variation of the trick in 1950 with Stage Fright's false flashback).

What does Rashomon mean? Translated, it means "Gate of the Dragon" (or dragons). Specifically, that's the entryway to Kyoto in the 12th century. Under a pouring rain, as the film begins, the structure sits crumbling. Passersby use its wood to make a temporary fire; corpses of the murdered are thrown onto the roof; babies are abandoned there.

Yet even in this world of dissolution, a world of "wars, earthquakes, great winds, fires, famine, plagues," something so horrific has happened that two men are unable to grapple with it. When a peasant (Kichijiro Ueda) finds these two men taking shelter under the broken-down gate, they are sitting in near silence, muttering to themselves, unable to believe what they have witnessed. One of them is a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) who says to himself, "I don't understand." His companion is a priest (Minoru Chiaki), who should be the one to bring insight and understanding to the events of the day, but who instead is just as baffled, his faith in humanity destroyed.

What could be so horrific that even in a time of plague they are stunned? Both were witnesses in a hearing earlier that day. The peasant draws the tale out of them. The priest saw the victim, a heavily armed samurai (Masayuki Mori), pass by with his veiled wife (Machiko Kyo) on horseback. The woodcutter discovered a body in the woods. What happened in between no one seems to agree on. The facts were that the samurai was dead, his horse was gone, and his wife had vanished. A notorious bandit, Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), is blamed for the crimes of rape, murder, and robbery.

The bulk of Rashomon lays out what turns out to be five accounts of that day: the priest's seeing the couple pass by; the woodcutter finding the body; the bandit bragging at the hearing of ravishing the woman and more or less winning her over before killing the man in a duel; the woman speaking of her shame; the samurai, via a medium, revealing that in fact he had committed suicide; and finally, the woodcutter piping in again to reveal that in fact he lied to the police and saw the whole conflict among the three people, in which the woman manipulated the men who ended up engaged in a clumsy duel that led to the samurai's ignominious death. The woodcutter himself may share some of the guilt of the day's events.

There are mirrors reflecting mirrors here, layers beneath layers. The samurai tells his story. But it is told through a psychic (could she be making it up?). Then that story is filtered through the account told to the peasant under the gate (is it distorted?). And the whole thing is part of a story in a film by Kurosawa (what does he want us to believe? What does he want us to take away from this film?)

*          *          *

What is it about a case of rape and murder that undermines people's confidence even in a time of natural and man-made disaster? Simply put, it's that the social fabric has been rent. People can deal with natural disasters. But when you can't believe people, then chaos really breaks out. Everyone connected to the crime in Rashomon lies. The bandit fibs about his prowess, and probably about the circumstances of how he got caught (he says it's stomach cramps after drinking poisoned water, but he probably was thrown off a horse he couldn't control). The wife may have minimized her seductiveness. Her husband, if it was really him and not the product of a medium's fraud, admitted to the shameful act of suicide just to make his wife look even worse. Finally, the woodcutter's account (perhaps the most believable) also leaves out some things — his lies of omission are meant to sanitize his behavior as well.

Kurosawa, in collaboration with his cast, his co-screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto (adapting two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, a beloved modernist writer who died early), and his cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, orchestrates this material beautifully. We forget that there really are only three settings in Rashomon, and a cast of about six. From the lengthy scenes of the woodcutter walking in the woods where light and shadow play ominously (a sequence that almost is like a silent film in its technique) to the contrasting duels (one noble, the other messy), the film is the work of artists fully in command of their talent. Even things that critics have objected to, such as the uncharacteristically western sounding "Bolero"-style music alternating with Arabian desert melodies, or the "tacked on" upbeat ending, work very well within the context of the tale: The music suggests circularity and relentless progression, as well as the exotic aura the woman exudes to the crude, fly-swatting bandit. And the ending announces the existential questions and themes Kurosawa was to pursue for the rest of his career.

Existential humanism inspires the best pictures. The great art-house films of the '50s — which people still talk about, still revive in rep theaters or on DVD, still write about in critical texts — still serve as hallmarks of what great film art can be. Films from directors as diverse as Kurosawa, Alain Resnais, Antonioni, Bergman, and Wajda, are born of a grappling with the same issues of meaning and purpose that Sartre and his disciples mulled over in their bulky tomes. The cinematic form lends itself to stirring, emotional accounts of questing, questioning men seeking the meaning of their existence in the perceived absence of God. Existentialism is a "muscular" philosophy, the man of action's philosophy, and interest in it, both cinematic and personal, rises when the world goes mad.

*          *          *

Kurosawa's resonance for modern times is suggested by a revival of interest in the director after many years of critical inactivity. A new joint biography of the director and his main leading man Mifune was published in late 2001 (The Emperor and the Wolf, by Stuart Galbraith IV, from Faber and Faber, ISBN 0.571.19982.8). In February of 2002, the British Film Institute staged a major retrospective of the director's work in London. And PBS aired a two-hour documentary about him in mid-March 2002. One hopes that Criterion's important DVD release of Rashomon is a mere foretaste of a reaffirmation of Kurosawa's stature as one of the world's truly great directors.

The most important thing to be said about Criterion's disc is that it provides a superb black-and-white full-frame transfer (1.33:1) &151; only rarely does one notice a scratch. According to the packaging, this is a "new high-definition transfer ... created from a 35mm fine-grain master positive on a high-definition Spirit Datacine." Many instances of dirt, scratches, and other blemishes have been digitally removed. The image is nothing less than brilliant, and it allows the viewer to slip completely into Kurosawa's world of 12th century Japan.

The audio also track has been restored. Though it is Dolby Digital 1.0, it sounds great (and there are film buffs who still get a nostalgic kick out of the slight surface noise heard in old movies). Criterion utilized the original magnetic tracks to master a 24-bit soundtrack, with additional work to remove pops and hiss, according to the package. Criterion has re-translated the digital English subtitles as well.

The disc contains substantial added value, although it may not appear to be so at first glance. First off is a video introduction to Rashomon by Robert Altman, who walks the neophyte through the reputation the picture has among filmmakers and some of the special visual delights that the movie contains. (Given that other directors with titles on Criterion, such as Terry Gilliam, have provided intros for the films of others, Altman's presence on the disc raises the interesting possibility that there may be a couple of Altman DVDs from Criterion later on.)

Criterion previously released a Laserdisc version of Rashomon, but it was supplement-free. For this occasion, the company drew upon that éminence grise of Western interpretation of Japanese cinema, Donald Richie, for an audio commentary track. Richie was once the curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art, lived in Japan for many years, and has written many books on Japanese culture and film history. His book The inland Sea (and the film made of it, available on DVD) is a poignant celebration of Japan's mysteries. Richie also has edited no less than three books on Rashomon (although they are all variations on one book), and wrote a film-by-film study of Kurosawa that remains the definitive book on the director even 37 years later. Not to put too fine a point on it, Richie can be said to be an expert on Kurosawa. Richie recorded this track in 2001, and it is a fine, helpful complement to the film that wears its learning lightly. (However, first time viewers should be warned that near the end of the movie the 78-year-old Richie does mix up for a moment the bandit and the samurai while explaining the latter's moment of death).

In addition, there is an excerpt from a documentary about the film's cinematographer. The World of Kazuo Miyagawa was made for Japanese television, and even in this relatively brief segment it is admirable for the amount of sheer information and detail it provides, along with its posture of unambiguous celebration. Characteristically, Criterion only provides a portion of the doc, as it did on its Billy Liar disc with a British television documentary about British '60s cinema. The theatrical trailer is a long-ish advertising device that is of interest because it contains a lot of shots that don't appear in the film. Among them is a shot of a snake, and a jarring close up of the bandit's apprehender, obviously in the court where the trial takes place, and perhaps just presenting the bandit for interrogation.

Included in the packaging is a 28-page booklet that is an abundance of supplements in itself. It begins with an introductory essay by Film Quarterly book review editor Stephen Prince, who has written a volume on Kurosawa, followed by a salient except from Kurosawa's autobiography. Also included are the two source short stories, and finally credits for production of this DVD.

— D.K. Holm

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© 2002, The DVD Journal