Well it’s Rashomon isn’t it? What else is there to possibly say on a film that has transcended language barriers, inspired generations of filmmakers (Spielberg, Lucas, Truffaut) and it still remains popular after over half a century? “Rashomon-esque” has enter the lexicon for a story with several versions and was the moment that world knew the name Akira Kurosawa who still stands as one of the titans of world cinema, over twenty years after his death.
If you are unfamiliar with the story; Rashomon is the name of the a large gate where a woodcutter (Kurosawa favourite Takashi Shimura), a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a local (Kichijiro Ueda) seek shelter from a terrible storm. The woodcutter and priest reveal to the other man that they just sat as witnesses in the case of the murder of a samurai (Masayuki Mori). During the trial they heard testimony, which we see in flashback, from the bandit who may have killed him (Toshiro Mifune) and the samurai’s wife (Machiko Kyo) who was raped then may or may not have forced the bandit to murder her husband. Through a medium the dead samurai also gives his side of the story. The only problem being that each of the three accounts differs from the other leaving the witnesses truly puzzled as to what actually happened. Eventually the woodcutter reveals that he was also present at the scene and saw the whole thing but didn’t testify as he ended up stealing a dagger off the samurai’s corpse.
A triumph in concise and meticulously structured storytelling it seems strange to say that the film feels longer than it’s 88 minutes and mean it as a compliment. Kurosawa and co-writer Shinobu Hashimoto fill so much information into the lean run time that it takes you a moment’s thought to appreciate that the story of Rashomon is one built on sparsity. The film really only features seven actors and takes place in three settings; the gate, the forest and the court none of which look overly dressed.
Some of the films symbolism may feel heavy handed today. The final shot off the woodcutter walking away as the sun begins to shine after the constant rain seems as subtle as a sledge hammer. The overall theme that every human is capable of wickedness no matter how virtuous they believe they are feels a little hamfisted in places but overal it remains an entertaining and powerful drama after all this time.
Although they had already made the good-but-not-great Drunken Angel and Stray Dog together this was the collaboration between Kurosawa and star Mifune that cemented their reputation as one of the great director/actor duos. Their partnership would last another fifteen years through twelve more films. Mifune was never better than under Kurosawa’s direction. Before Rashomon he had largely played meek doctors or cops. With this he broke out as one of the most energetic and dangerous talents in cinema. The bandit is a character crammed with mania, fear, sympathy and bravado, along with his Yojimbo it remained one of the benchmark roles of his fifty year career.
Now on Blu-Ray for the first time Rashomon deserves to be in the collection of any serious film collector, with a new commentary, documentary on the locations and an intro from Mr. Zardoz himself John Boorman. If you’re new to the world of Kurosawa I truly envy you, Rashomon is a wonderful gateway drug into his other masterpieces Ran, Red Beard, Seven Samurai, Ikiru, High and Low, go forth and know him better.
5 / 5
Dir: Akira Kurosawa
Scr: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura
Prd: Minoru Jingo, Masaichi Nagata
DOP: Kazuo Miyagawa
Music: Fumio Hayasaka
Run time: 88 mins
Rashomon is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD via the BFI.