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Blu-ray Review: Rashomon – The Criterion Collection

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Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon was released in 1950, and was an early critical success for the director, quickly garnering international acclaim. The film won first prize at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, an honorary Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film as well as an Academy Award for Best Art Direction – Set Decoration. The film features several actors who would go on to work with Kurosawa in multiple projects, including Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, and Minoru Chiaki.

The Movie

The story of Rashomon is deceptively simple. A murder and rape of a samurai and his bride, respectively, have taken place in the woods. But stories conflict on details of the murder, as several witnesses to some of the events share their testimony. A woodsman who was passing by, a notorious thief who raped the bride, the bride herself, and the spirit of the dead man speaking through a medium all offer differing accounts of what took place. As the story goes along we learn that all of them are, at least to some degree, lying, and the truth of the crime becomes more and more difficult to piece together.

The story is told in three arenas. The first involves flashbacks to the events that took place in the woods, as each person shares his/her account. Secondly, we see the witnesses on trial before an unseen judge, where before and after their flashbacks they answer further inquiries about the crimes. Finally, we have the woodsman, a priest, and an unspecified commoner trying to make sense of everything in the aftermath of the event, while seeking cover from a torrential downpour in a crumbling city gate.

Rashomon is the most unique of murder mysteries, because in amongst all its setup about murder, rape, and theft… it’s not really about any of those. It’s a mystery about lies; those we tell ourselves, those we tell others, and often how both are somehow ingrained into who we are, becoming completely unconscious acts. In fact, the story is just as likely to devolve into philosophical rumination on the nature of truth as it is to provide the next clue. The implication is that not only do we all view an event through our own lenses of experience and personal bias, but we do it so well that we’re incapable of being able to ascertain objective truth at all. We re-imagine history according to our wishes, project our desires onto the past in place of actual events, and conjure motives in others that would have clouded our reasoning at the time. And these characters act as our proxy. Each witness mixes truth, self-denial, and speculation so fluidly that their faulty perception of the events probably becomes fractured truth in their own mind.

And the main question becomes not “whodunnit” but “how can literally everyone be lying about it”? The effect is that everyone remains a suspect, all are culpable, and the very heart of man becomes that much darker as some of the characters reflect on whether we are even capable of true honesty. And it’s in this angle that the story reveals a couple of structural flaws. First the actors spend a lot of time being incredulous at the idea of people lying – even themselves – instead of grasping the simple self-realization of their own bias and then working back from there. It’s a thematic melodrama that becomes more of a zen rabbit trail than a completely plausible scenario. Secondly, and relatedly, the actors often dramatize this with overacting. Although part of it is intentional and relates back to these skewed flashback dramatizations, part of it isn’t and is simply an over-the-top style that frequently pops up.

But even with its imperfections, Rashomon is deeply affecting and somehow burrows its way into your subconscious and keeps popping up for days afterwards, relating itself to a myriad of circumstances. I revisited this film during the time of the recent presidential election, and its themes of conflicting realities were far too easily transferred over to the political arena. As well as the news arena. And to religious tensions, racial divides, generational differences, and class warfare, not to mention actual warfare. In the context of a court trial, these philosophical rumblings could have been a melodramatic stumbling block. But yet they still speak to something much deeper, and much more serious.

At the beginning of the film, one of the first utterances we hear is “I just don’t understand.” Kurosawa uses it first as a story device, a springboard to begin explaining events to the audience, so that we can quickly move from a place of not understanding what’s going on to being involved with the story. But it’s a recurring theme, and each time invokes meaning that’s a little darker. We never fully understand the true details of the story’s world, of exactly what happened, and the implication is that our own dark hearts and self-deception may keep us separated from some of the truth in our world as well.

Video / Audio

Rashomon has never looked better than in this new restoration, offering obvious visual upgrades to even the previous Criterion release. The overall image feels much less soft, with impressive detail in everything from the forest concourse to sweat dripping from the characters faces. The image is also much less prone to flicker, and artifacts and debris are considerably reduced. There is some faint scratch/stress marks evident on the print – mostly in lighter scenes against a white background – but it’s slight and might have cut into the natural filmic look if scrubbed away. Still, in all this is a very impressive visual presentation and easily the best the film has looked.

The LPCM 1.0 audio track is also very clean, if a tad less impressive. There’s not much to complain about in terms of dropouts or clarity, other than the fact that it sounds consistently thin. Dialogue is more or less as robust as it needs to be, but the rather expansive musical score feels trapped in much too small a box. It’s still a minor step up from previous editions, but just don’t expect anything as dramatic as the visual upgrade.

Bonus Material

For any who haven’t already done so, you should start with the thoughtful commentary track by Japanese-film historian Donald Richie. While I personally only found about half of it to be particularly illuminating, that half reveals some rather intriguing points about the setup of this story and its particular mix of characters, as well as general style points of Kurosawa and Japanese film of the time. I left with a much keener appreciation of some of the details of the film and its styling that I simply hadn’t tuned into before, which is always the hallmark of an effective commentary.

“Robert Altman on Rashomon” (HD, 6:37) is an interview excerpt with the director offering his appreciation on the film and how certain aspects of it specifically influenced him early on in his career. “The World of Kazuo Miyagawa” (HD, 12:34) offers a look at the acclaimed cinematographer behind the lens of Rashomon. “A Testimony As An Image” (HD, 68:22) is a loosely edited collection of more present-day interviews involving the crew of the film. Frankly, it’s a little rambling, with about a third to a half being of particular interest. However, the distance of time does afford several the opportunity to speak rather candidly about some of the challenges that arose during its production. “Interview with Takashi Shimura” (16:03) is an audio interview with the actor who played the woodsman, as well as roles in several other Kurosawa films, talking about his time working with the director. Trailers for both the original release of the film (HD, 3:28) and its restored release (HD, 1:50) round things out on the disc.

A rather hefty booklet is included, which contains a few items of note. “The Rashomon Effect” is a critical essay by Stephen Prince, which examines the themes and effect of the film. “Kurosawa On Rashomon” is an excerpt from his autobiography which deals with the film and its creation. Finally, there are two short stories included which were the source material from which Rashomon was adapted: “Rashomon” and “In A Grove.”

Conclusion

This restoration of Rashomon is inarguably the best that this classic archetype of cinema has looked. It’s a film that becomes more meaningful with time and offers some intriguing food for thought. However, it can be a slow burn for many, as its philosophical slant often overpowers its mystery elements. Modern Western audiences coming to it for the first time will also have some stylistic hurdles to overcome, namely in its penchant for overacting. But the commentary track and source materials in the booklet help provide some further context for the story as well as the style, and I hope that those who initially flinch will give it further time and thought, as its rewards can be ample. In my own experience, I’m glad that I revisited the film after a few years of life, as I find it much more rewarding and meaningful now. And for those who are already in tune with this Kurosawa classic, Criterion’s exemplary new presentation – in everything from the image quality down to the generous packaging – make this an immediate destination release.

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About David R Perry