Review: Rashomon (1950)

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“I don’t care if it’s a lie, as long as it’s entertaining.” — the commoner in response to the woodcutter and the priest’s accounts of the murder.

So here we have it, a movie featuring a completely unreliable plot that never provides a factual answer to the crucial murder mystery at its core, that pieces together falsehoods, speculations and fabricated accounts one after another, that boldly misdirects viewers right through to its conclusion, and yet has somehow managed to absorb and sustain the interest of film critics, philosophers, storytellers, fringe culture junkies and causal audiences alike for almost sixty years.

Whatever else Rashomon might be, it is also one of the great archetypal examples of non-fiction motion picture entertainment. Who cares if so much of what we see and hear on screen is contradictory, misleading, even deliberately untruthful? As long as our senses and faculties are engaged, we’re likely to enjoy, or at least get something from, the activity of consumption. Perhaps one of the reasons people like movies so much is due to the deceptive, false and artificial nature of cinema. Movies re-present to us the recording of a huge and usually terribly expensive fib, offer us perspectives that challenge our own, demonstrate to us the shortcomings of memory (what was the name of that character from the opening scene again?), all to distance us from everyday experience. Lies are okay. Just don’t make them boring lies.

Featuring pointless rape, heinous murder, a talking dead man, one composed clash of swords between a dutiful samurai and a suspiciously honorable bandit, then, later, one utterly timid and reckless duel between the same men, spectacular forest scenery, all manner of bravura camera movements, noticeably daring staging, composition, and editing, a wickedly over-the-top Toshiro Mifune, not to mention bucket loads of rain, Rashomon is never dull in its exploration of humanity’s virtuous and selfish sides. Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto, his collaborator on the screenplay adaptation of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s original short stories, expertly bring us deeper into the story, asking us to evaluate and reconsider our stance towards the plot and its reliability.

Kurosawa and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa keep us actively engaged through stylistic means as well. We are implicated in the drama: in the courtyard scenes, we never see nor hear the judge, who remains off-screen behind the camera – positioned, in fact, where we are, directly before the witnesses as they deliver their testimony. (The dead body of the samurai is always off-screen too, but occasionally glanced at by one of the characters – a bit of an eerie similarity to ponder.) An early pair of shots appears to cut from the woodcutter’s eyeline to his point of view, but, no, it turns out we’ve been duped – the second shot is just a wider version of the first, with the observer obscured in the foliage, but still in plain view for those with the moxie to really scan the image and notice (before the woodcutter kindly moves, so the rest of us can notice). The justly famous triangular stand-off is another memorable stylistic flourish. During an exchange of glances between three participants, eyelines motivate cuts that twice cross the 180 degree axis, but this slap in the face to continuity editing doesn’t jar due to the graphical matching of big ‘looked at’ figures in the left foreground and small ‘doing the looking’ figures in the right background. It’s a brilliant way to mount tension, as Sergio Leone probably realised immediately whenever it was that he first saw Rashomon. Leone may have liked the adventure of Yojimbo‘s story more, but Kurosawa and Miyagawa’s visual style in this film must have had a big impact on the future Spaghetti Western maestro. (The striking low angles, high angles, close-ups and majestic tracking movements of the woodcutter’s approach to the scene of the murder is another instance where Rashomon seems an obvious formal precursor for Leone.)

The music and sound tracks are not quite so powerfully integrated as the visual elements. Admittedly there’s not much to work with – with just three repeated locations (the Rashomon Gate, the forest, the courtyard), one of these drenched in rain, all with varying degrees of isolation and silence, it’s little wonder that only minimal aural atmosphere is generated to complement the imagery. The Bolero-inspired melody I’m not sure about either – perhaps it’s just been over-exposed in the intervening years.

The plot’s twist in the final scene, when the woodcutter takes responsibility for an abandoned baby – a new life to symbolically replace the one lost due to the murder – is another aspect of Rashomon that doesn’t sit comfortably, jumping out as maybe a bit too much over-emphasis on the possibility of redemption from one’s terminal self-interests. There’s a somewhat bitter issue of life’s ultimate pointlessness – or of a search for meaning within life – that Kurosawa seems to be reaching for in this movie, but he might have nailed this topic more comprehensively when he made Ikiru two years later.

Regardless, Rashomon – a bit like Citizen Kane, really, another monumental flashback-structured movie – remains required viewing for anyone at all interested in the history and film form and narration.

8.5 lies, damn lies out of 10.
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