Japan, the eleventh century. A woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) shelter from the rain under the semi-ruined Rashômon Gate. The woodcutter tells the story of a samurai (Masayuki Mori) who had been killed, with a bandit (Toshirô Mifune) arrested for the crime. However, the bandit's account differs from that of the samurai's wife (Machiko Kyô) and indeed that of the dead samurai himself, who testifies via a medium (Fumiko Honma). The woodcutter claims to tell the true version of events that he witnessed...or does he?
Japan had been making films since the late nineteenth century, but before Akira Kurosawa's Rashômon was shown at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, it's fair to say that its cinema was largely unknown in the West. All that changed. The film won the Golden Lion at that festival. It went on to win the 1951 Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, which was then an honorary category: it became a competitive one in 1956. It also made the reputations of its lead actors, Toshirô Mifune and to a lesser extent Machiko Kyô. In its wake, other great Japanese directors became known in the West, such as Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujirô Ozu, Mikio Naruse and others. Whether Rashômon is Kurosawa's best film is an open question, as there are certainly plenty of other contenders in his filmography. In 2002 it made the top ten in Sight & Sound's critics' poll of the greatest films of all time: it was twenty-sixth in the 2012 poll. It's hard to recreate the film's impact sixty-five years later, as its influence has been profound, but with that proviso it's still a highly impressive film.
Based on two stories by Ryûnosuke Akutagawa, Rashômon gives us four versions of an incident in a forest, seemingly involving the killing of a man and the rape of a woman. We are at two removes from the events to begin with, as we have not just flashbacks but flashbacks within flashbacks. The accounts by the four people – the bandit, the wife, the dead samurai (speaking via a medium) and the woodcutter – all differ. Rashômon does not present this as a mystery to be solved, but instead shows us something cinema audiences were not used to seeing in 1950: if the narrator is not telling the truth, or is telling a partial truth, then the camera, seemingly objective, is as partial as the narrator is. The woodcutter presents his, final, account as the truth, but it could be just as partial as the others. This goes further than, say, Citizen Kane had done eight years earlier in its multiple views of the central character: in any case, Kurosawa had not seen Welles's film when he made Rashômon.
While the device of multiple irreconcilable views of the same event is what people remember Rashômon for mostly, what is just as impressive is the technical command Kurosawa displays, in what was his tenth feature film: the striking compositions and impressive use of camera tracks (though when the camera seems to circle the characters it's actually the characters circling the camera). This was also one of the first time a camera was pointed at the sun. The cinematographer was one of Japan's most distinguished, Kazuo Miyagawa, who worked again with the director on Yojimbo and, much later, Kagemusha.
Toshirô Mifune had worked with Kurosawa since Drunken Angel in 1948 and became a regular collaborator with the director for the next decade and a half, during which he also acted internationally. Machiko Kyô., while still maintaining a distinguished career in Japan (she's still with us, aged ninety-one, as I write this) made one film in the USA: 1956's The Teahouse of the August Moon, best known nowadays for featuring Marlon Brando in Oriental makeup. Not for the first nor the last time in Kurosawa's filmography, Rashômon had an English-language remake, The Outrage, directed by Martin Ritt in 1964, a film I have not seen.
There is an argument that Kurosawa is rated as highly as he is in the West because he is more "western" than other Japanese fimmakers. That's open to argument, but there is little doubt that he has as distinguished a body of work as any of his compatriots, establishing himself in a decade which in retrospect established the careers of several great directors who primarily worked in languages other than English.
Rashômon is released on Blu-ray and DVD by the BFI. It was a checkdisc of the former which was supplied for review. Certificate X (sixteen and over) without cuts on its original UK release in 1952 (described by Monthly Film Bulletin as "a masterpiece, and a revelation", and reviewed in the same month as another All Time Best contender, Singin' in the Rain) , it now rates a 12.
The film was made in black and white and Academy Ratio. This Blu-ray transfer is derived from a 2008 restoration. The scenes at the Rashômon Gate, with heavy rainfall, are intentionally darker than the scenes in the sunlit forest, which are in places quite high in contrast, but I don't have reason to doubt that that is intentional. Grain is certainly plentiful and filmlike, and contrast seems fine.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0, and dialogue, music and sound effects are well balanced. English subtitles for this Japanese-language film are optionally available,
|One name features heavily in the extras on this disc, that of Japanese-resident American critic and author of the 2002 book, The Emperor and the Wolf – The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune Stuart Galbraith IV. He provides a commentary, wrote, produced and narrated one of the featurettes on the disc and also the booklet essay is adapted from a chapter from his book. The commentary is excellent: thorough and detailed with few pauses, as in 88 minutes he puts Rashômon in context in the careers of its director and leading actors, and also in the context of the Japanese film industry.
Galbraith's featurette is "Rashômon at 65" (34:03), in which he visits the site of the Rashômon Gate, of which little remains, what there is being part of a children's playground. He also visits Mount Watakusa, where the forest scenes were shot, and Daiei Studios. Among the interviewees is ninety-five-year-old Iwao Otani, one of the few surviving people who had been involved in the film's making. We hear of the studio fire which interrupted post-production and necessitated Mifune to travel on the night train from Tokyo to re-record one line of dialogue. (The location scenes were largely shot with direct sound, which was unusual in Japan at the time.)
Also on the disc is a short (5:59) to-camera interview with John Boorman, who had directed Mifune in Hell in the Pacific. He seems a little ill-at-ease as he describes the impact Rashômon had on those who saw it at the time, and also a dinner he and other British filmmakers (such as David Lean) had with Kurosawa when he visited England. Finally on the disc is a trailer (1:50) from the BFI's theatrical reissue of Rashômon in 2010.
The BFI's booklet (twenty-four pages plus cover) features a long essay, "Gate to the World" by Galbraith, adapted from a chapter of his 2002 book mentioned above. Given more space than the commentary allows, he is able to go into greater detail about the film's inception, making (in particular Kurosawa's drawing on silent-film techniques) and reception and so commentary and article complement each other well. Also in the booklet are credits for the film and the extras, transfer notes and disc credits and stills.