Sunday, October 24, 2010

Review: Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

Rashomon was the film that introduced the films of Akira Kurosawa to Western audiences, and along with The Seven Samurai (1954), is considered to be his masterpiece. Winner of the Golden Lion at the 1950 Venice Film Festival, it is often amongst the most praised and influential films in cinema history. The film opens with a woodcutter and a priest sitting beneath a gate, revealed to be called Rashomon, waiting out a heavy downpour. The priest sits in silence contemplating, while the woodcutter, clearly troubled, repeats to himself "I just don't understand." Soon they are approached by a drenched commoner who joins them beneath the gate and queries the woodcutter as to what is wrong. Both men tell him that they have just been witness to the most disturbing story of their lives, which they begin to recount to the visitor. The story revolves around the rape of a young woman and the murder of her samurai husband. The woodcutter, who had found the body three days prior when he was walking through the forest, had fled to notify the authorities, and the priest, who had seen the couple the morning of the incident, are called in to give their testimony. It is at the trial that they discover Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), a notorious bandit who had been captured after falling weak due to a stomach ache, who claims responsibility for the rape and murder. Through the recount of the woodcutter to the commoner, we are revealed to three separate stories about the incident; first by the bandit, then the girl, and finally the deceased samurai through a medium. Each is a decisively different account of the events, troubling the woodcutter. The difference in the accounts throws doubt on what really happened and questions us as an audience to consider that there may be in fact no truth at all.

Tajomaru's story recalls that he desired the woman after glimpsing her briefly when she and her husband rode by. Deciding he wished to love her, even at the expense of her husbands life, he lures her husband away promising that he had some valuable weapons to offer him. He ties him up in a grove, and after some initial violent retaliation with her dagger, the woman is eventually seduced by the bandit. She begs Tajomaru to duel her husband to the death to save her the shame of having two men know her dishonor. Tajomaru recounts an epic duel between the two men, which results in him being victorious. When he is asked about the whereabouts of her dagger, he deems himself foolish for having forgotten about it. The woman's story reveals that Tajomaru had left immediately after raping her, and that she had received no forgiveness from her husband for her betrayal, firstly begging him to kill her, and then finally fainting out of shame. She awoke to find her husband killed with her dagger, and then subsequently failed in her own attempts to kill herself, leaving the dagger behind. In the samurai's story, he claims that Tajomaru, after raping his wife, asked her to accompany him in his future travels. Having agreed, she asks the bandit to kill her husband to free her guilt of belonging to two men. He is initially shocked and then gives the samurai the option of killing the woman or letting her go with him. The woman flees, Tajomaru releases the bonds on the samurai, who ultimately kills himself with his own dagger.

Following his recount of the three stories, the woodcutter has a surprising reveal of his own. He tells his friends that he had actually witnessed the incident, but was scared of revealing his knowledge at the trial. He reveals that the samurai's story was a lie, and that the men had indeed fought one another, but not to the heroic scale of Tajomaru's recount. Tajomaru had raped the woman and asked her to marry him. She had freed her husband and asked the men to duel for her love. With both men reluctant and fearful, they duel, with Tajomari clumsily winning and then limping from the scene. With the woodcutter having declared that all of the previous accounts were false, we feel we have finally discovered the truth through an eye-witness testimony. Following this discussion, the silence is interrupted by the sound of an abandoned and crying baby. The commoner steals a kimono and an amulet left with the baby, which prompts the woodcutter to chastise him. But the commoner, who had also deduced that the woodcutters story was false, claims that he had stolen the dagger from the scene. With the priest's faith in humanity rocked by all the lies, he is suspicious of allowing the woodcutter to take the baby into his care. But once the man reveals that he has six of his own children and that all of his actions (stealing the dagger and choosing to withhold his story at the trial) were to provide for and protect his family, the priest hands over the baby. The film concludes with the woodcutter leaving Rashomon with the child under a now sun-drenched sky.

The film questions the objectivity of truth and knowledge, and it raises an interesting philosophical debate about our faith in humanity. Throughout the woodcutter's recount of the stories, the commoner cynically comments about the nature of humanity. He declares that "it's human to lie" and that "most of the time we can't be honest with ourselves." Content to hear out the story because he wishes to remain dry, he assures the men that he "doesn't care if it is a lie, as long as it is entertaining." While the film is certainly dense and philosophical, it is also supremely entertaining. It is beautifully shot, with features of the environment and often direct sunlight masking all that we are revealed to. The sequence where the woodcutter first walks through the forest is mesmerizing. Utilizing multiple cameras, with the footage meticulously edited together, it is swiftly paced and consistently engaging, with each account captured in it's own unique way. The scenes at the trial are all similarly framed; from straight on, with the cast looking beyond the lens and speaking to a jury positioned slightly to the right of the camera. It's brilliantly dialogued, especially in the sequences beneath the Rashomon gate. The priest, woodcutter and commoner share some great chemistry and their conversing is often amusing. The performances are all outstanding. Toshiro Mifune, a regular in Kurosawa's films, is at his obnoxious best here. Endowed with a villainous chuckle, he is really convincing as a conniving bandit, smitten with the beauty of the woman. Machiko Kyo is outstanding, with a performance that ranges from a pleading and pathetic betrayer, to a frightfully irritating serial-sobber, to a conniving ice-queen.

Often, misguided memory and presence of the “waking dream” challenge the reliability of a subjective reality. Films in which the memory plays a significant role, both as subject matter and as a strategy for telling the story, such as in Kurosawa's Rashomon, are problematic to the possibility of the narrative, particularly the relationship between events in time and the accurate account of these events. Within the plot of Rashomon, four different versions of the same event are considered. With the exception of the use of the medium to narrate the words of the dead samurai, there isn't any discrepancy in the mental states of the characters or their memory; the truth is hidden through the act of a lie. The expression of the flashback is simple and straightforward, first capturing pieces of their account from the trial and then confirming this with a visual representation. In a debate about the action-image we can distinguish that Rashomon does not resort to confusing the action-image, but a simple event is purposely retold differently in the characters' testimony. The action does not occur outside of the conscious level of the characters, and their realization of the truth is not subject to any such lapse in time. The mental state of a character is at issue when the viewer discovers that a flashback is false, and as an audience we witness something that never occurred. This observed and confirmed by the commoner, who like the audience, is hearing these different accounts for the first time and concludes that all the accounts were false. The characters are motivated not by memory, but by a desire to 'cover' the truth. A more contemporary example of this kind of film in Bryan Singer's, The Usual Suspects (1995). Since it's conception, Rashomon has remained revolutionary in the development of multiple narrative, and multiple point-of-view cinema. While The Seven Samurai is still my favorite Kurosawa film, Rashomon is a brilliant piece of cinema that really tackles human nature in quite some depth for a story that is so concise and simple. It really is rewarding cinema.


My Rating: 5 Stars

1 comment:

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