Sunday, January 27, 2008

Target #181: Rashômon (1950, Akira Kurosawa)

TSPDT placing: #19
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Ryunosuke Akutagawa (stories), Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto (writers)
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijiro Ueda, Fumiko Honma, Daisuke Katô

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

Akira Kurosawa is unquestionably the most recognised film-making talent ever to emerge from Japan, his string of reputed masterpieces including The Seven Samurai (1954), Yojimbo (1961) and Ran (1985), each of which I have yet to enjoy, my experience with Asian cinema worryingly limited. After recently enjoying my first Kurosawa picture, the powerful but slightly-overlong Nora inu / Stray Dog (1949), I was keen to watch another, though I couldn't yet find the time to commit myself to one of the director's three-hour-long epics. Rashômon (1950) proved the perfect alternative. Kurosawa's film, the first to bring him into the international limelight, uses a simple story – of a husband's death in the woods – to reveal a simple but worryingly-accurate truth of human existence: that the truth itself is unknowable. The unique narrative structure of the film, of replaying the same event four times from differing perspectives, had the potential to become nothing more than a curious gimmick, yet Kurosawa makes it all work wonderfully, aided by the exquisite cinematography of Kazuo Miyagawa and electric performances from all involved, most particularly Kurosawa-regular Toshirô Mifune.

The film opens in a bleak, bitter rainstorm – one of those mighty skyward torrents that makes us drought-stricken Australians green with envy – where three men are sheltering in the ruins of a gatehouse. Three days previously, the oldest of the three, Woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), discovered the body of a man in the woods, and has recently returned from a police inquiry. The coarse, unkempt Commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) demands to hear the remainder of the Woodcutter's story, and so he recounts three "versions" of the shocking rape/murder, told from the perspective of the Bandit (Toshirô Mifune), the husband (Masayuki Mori) and the wife (Machiko Kyô), each story differing substantially from the other two. The existence of subjectivity, it seems, has permanently obscured any chances of ever knowing the absolute "truth" of the incident, with each perspective – perhaps deliberately, perhaps subconsciously – distorting the truth to conform to their own interests. It is revealed that even the seemingly-passive observer, Woodcutter, has his own reasons for adjusting the facts, this final revelation almost permanently denting the honest Priest's (Minoru Chiaki) belief in the goodness of Mankind.
After portraying a modest, tentative rookie detective in Kurosawa's Stray Dog, Toshirô Mifune is an absolute revelation as the notorious Tajômaru. Regardless of the specific version of events, Mifune unequivocally dominates the screen, his maniacal energy and frenzied cackle certain to imprint on your mind. The basis for the film was derived from two stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, with "Rashomon" providing the setting, and "In a Grove" supplying the characters and plot. The flashback components of the story unfold under the dappled light of the trees, and, on several occasions, Miyagawa films the Sun directly through the leaves of the forest canopy, perhaps representative of the "light of truth" that is being obscured by the inherent dishonesty and selfishness in Man {personified in the selfish Commoner}. Of course, Kurosawa couldn't bring himself to end the film in such a pessimistic fashion, and the Woodcutter redeems his previous deception by offering to care for an abandoned newborn baby discovered in the gatehouse. As the rainstorm ceases, and the glorious sunlight once again begins to beam down upon the lands, the Priest finally regains his faith in the goodness to be found in a man's heart.

Currently my #3 film of 1950:
1) Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder)
2) Harvey (Henry Koster)
3) Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa)


ressot3 said...

As much as I hate to do this, I found Rashomon insanely forgettable. I was impressed when I saw it, and for about the day afterwards, but after that, I couldn't remember a thing about it. Rent Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Ran. There are some great masterpieces.

(Of course, I still think it's a good movie. Just forgettable. :( )

ackatsis said...

I can see what you're saying, and I agree with you in a way. "Rashomon" was certainly a very good, even a great film, but, at this stage, I wouldn't call it a masterpiece.
The premise behind the film was just too... simple to leave any lasting imprint {except for Mifune, who is absolute dynamite!}

ressot3 said...

Mifune is even better in Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. He was a bit too over the top in this one for my liking.