Friday, April 22, 2011

Rashomon (1950)

Japan, 88 minutes
Director/editor: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto
Photography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Music: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Toshirō Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijirō Ueda, Noriko Honma, Daisuke Katō

Akira Kurosawa's breakthrough art-house hit introduced him to Western audiences as something of an ambitious and self-serious (not to say pretentious) filmmaker. Rashomon has its analogues in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (both of which came a few years later) as compact black-and-white non-English-speaking pictures that lend themselves afterward to lively, overly intellectualized discussion and explication over coffee and cigarettes, and which incidentally tended to over-define their creators. They are a bit obvious about their intentions and also tended to obfuscate some of the better efforts that followed.

Nevertheless, I remain fond of Rashomon, even as I most often get the sense in latter-day reviews how unexcited many are about it now, as they argue that at this point the picture is more famous for being famous. David Thomson, in the 2002 edition of his New Biographical Dictionary of Film, says that its "debate on truth is trite." But I like it for the artful way it is shot, for its music, for its players—and yes, even for its debate on truth.

The simplest synopsis is that it's the story of a crime told from three different points of view, each of which tends to emphasize elements that favor the agenda of the teller. An aristocrat (played by Masayuki Mori)—a samurai, in fact, as this is a historical picture—and his wife (played by Machiko Kyo) are attacked in the woods by the notorious bandit Tajomaru (played by Toshiro Mifune in his usual hysterics), who sexually assaults the wife. Later, a woodsman (played by Takashi Shimura, who is great as always) discovers the body and evidence of the crime. A trial follows.

There's a good deal more complexity to it than that, however—and a good deal more simplicity too. In fact, more than anything else there's something very impressively stripped down about how this whole thing proceeds, unfolding like a puzzle. The various versions remain stubbornly nested within one another in ways not easy to parse.

The frame of the story is set shortly after the trial at the ruined Rashomon gate of Kyoto. The woodsman and a priest are caught in a downpour (the usual excellent rain from Kurosawa) and taking shelter there. They are joined by a bandit who presses them to tell the story of the trial, about which both are obviously distraught. The woodsman obliges him—and thus, the first point to understand is that all of the three versions are essentially funneled through the woodsman, who it will turn out has an agenda, and a version, of his own.

Kurosawa cleverly distracts us from any of that by proceeding so forthrightly into the story, cutting from the downpour at the gate to a more peaceful scene dappled by sunlight and a famously impressive tracking shot as the woodsman is shown walking through the woods, accompanied by low-key music with a stirring marching tempo on the soundtrack. These tangles of foliage and the sun glaring through are there every time the picture resets again to the central narrative, as if continually underlining the complexity of the truth, how the fulgent light of it is inevitably obscured by fecund life itself. Kazuo Miyagawa's camera, at times aimed right at the sun itself, seems to be constantly on the move, focused yet busy, in what it shows us and how—an effect equally owing to Kurosawa's editing.

That is contrasted by the stark near-emptiness of the court scenes with the various principals placed about the frames like so many potted plants—and the interrogator whose voice we never hear and who is evidently represented only by the camera itself. Into this clean, square, regular box, demarcated by shadow and light, foreground and background, the confusing tangle of the story is placed layer by layer: the encounter between Tajomaru and the married couple; the encounter between Tajomaru and the samurai; the encounter between Tajomaru and the wife; and the aftermath between the samurai and his wife.

That story is told over and over again, yet its details shift constantly. Aspects of the different stories are compatible, but no story entirely supports any other. Each of the main actors, along with the woodsman, is shown as attractive and unattractive, admirable and despicable, animated by honorable and low motivations. Craven, upright, treacherous, transcendent, shameful, life-affirming, venal, principled. The complexity of sorting it all out becomes, along about the one-hour mark, enough to just about make one's head explode. Then, back at the gate in the downpour, the bandit goads the woodsman into giving yet one more version, ostensibly his unvarnished own, and yet somehow the least believable of them all.

In the end we know little more than the essential facts of the incident that we learned in the first place: the samurai is dead, the wife's dagger is missing, and Tajomaru claims credit for the death.

Some things here that you would naturally think could not work actually do, and pretty well. My favorite is the medium who delivers the samurai's side of the story from beyond the grave. I love how it's just accepted that this is as valid a way as any of extracting testimony regarding the facts of the case. Even more than that I love the weird otherworldliness of it, the wild carryings-on of the medium (within that sterile setting of the court), the flailing and the rattles and feathers and various trappings and accouterments of her craft, and the strange tenor of the voice that speaks through her after she has made her contact with the samurai. It's wonderfully bold.

Perhaps because there's no good way to end such a determinedly confounding enigma, it does not end well, finishing on a ham-handed metaphor that only serves to bring the artificiality of the preceding exercise into sharper relief. That is unfortunate. But until the point of the obvious yet distractingly pointless discovery at the Rashomon gate, and all its tiny ramifications too quickly elaborated, Kurosawa's picture remains fascinating and engrossing—outrageously so even, all lean muscle and not a bit of fat; not a minute too long or too short and with virtually nothing out of place.

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