I must confess that my first acquaintance with the subject matter of Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 classic Rashomon came not from the film itself, but from the 1964 American adaptation, The Outrage. This was unfortunate because that early experience had something of a retarding effect on my appreciation of what Kurosawa had done when I finally did get to see the original. The Outrage, set in the 19th century American west, was culturally familiar. The cultural idiom of Rashomon, especially its acting, was unfamiliar at best, if not completely alien. It was a cultural ignorance that took a number of viewings over the years to overcome, but since great art given the chance will make its greatness felt, it was an ignorance that didn’t last.
Watching it now in a 2008 restoration on DVD from the Criterion Collection, it is hard to believe that there was a time when I didn’t appreciate Kurosawa’s brilliance. From its intellectually challenging script, its innovative use of the camera, its stylized performances, and its aesthetic play of light and shadow, Rashomon is a virtuoso performance.
Based on two stories, “Rashomon” and “In a Grove,” by Ryuwanosuke Akutaga, the film tells the story of a rape and murder from four different points of view. A Samurai warrior and his wife traveling in an isolated wooded area are accosted by a bandit. He overcomes the warrior and rapes the woman. There is a fight and the husband is killed. What happens after that is subject to the interpretation of each of the people involved (the dead husband speaks through a medium) as well as a wood cutter who chanced across the scene and watched in hiding. Each has a different version of the events. If one of these is the “true” narrative, there is no indication. In the end,the viewer is left with the understanding that truth in this case, perhaps in all cases, is unknowable.
It is a bleak vision of the human condition emphasized from the very beginning with its shots of the wrecked Rashomon gate drenched in a terrific rain storm as the wood cutter and a priest sit in dismay in the aftermath of the bandit’s trial. The woodcutter goes on to tell the story to a newcomer who shows up to get out of the storm. This, of course, removes the story one more step from the actual event, and raises even more questions about the nature of truth.
The scene then shifts to the woodcutter in a sun drenched woods as he walks axe on shoulder only to discover first a woman’s hat, then the hat of a Samurai, and eventually the body. The camera follows the woodcutter in a lengthy dolly shot as he treks through the foliage, spots of bright sunshine, deep shadows; it is a setting that seems poetically symbolic. Add to this a score that at times builds with the intensity of Ravel’s “Bolero” and the scene takes on a sense of portentous dread. There is an interesting explanation of how the scene was shot in some excerpts from the documentary The World of Kazuo Miyagawa, Kurosawa’s cinematographer which is included as bonus material on the DVD.
The excerpt ends with Kurosawa saying that it is the camera that has “the starring role” in the film. Indeed, there is something paradoxical about its visual ambience. Its black and white simplicity belies the inherent opacity of its narrative. Indeed, the stylized acting does much the same thing. Nothing is as simple as it seems it should be. It is an interesting juxtaposition of form and content that mirrors the film’s themes.
As usual with the films in the Criterion Collection, there is an abundant selection of bonus material. Besides the excerpts from the Miyagawa documentary, there is a short interview with director Robert Altman, an hour long documentary with members of the crew and cast called A Testimony as Image, a radio interview with Takashi Shimura who played the woodcutter, the original and a re-release trailers, and audio commentary by film historian Donald Richie. There is also a booklet which includes an essay by Stephen Prince, an excerpt from Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography, and translations of the two Akutagawa stories.