Having previously covered Rashomon’s Region 2 release from the BFI, the following review will for the most part reproduce that piece. For those wishing to see how this new Optimum disc compares please skip the section entitled ‘The Disc’.
Rashomon concerns itself with an alleged murder and/or rape in twelfth century Japan. The uncertainty is intentional as the film recounts events from four differing viewpoints. The bandit accused, for example, emphasises his own bravado and skills with a sword; the ‘murdered’ husband (narrated via a medium) claims he committed suicide following the death of his wife; she in turn points up the inadequacies of both men; and a woodcutter who appears to have witnessed everything refuses to portray anyone in a good light. Director and co-writer Akira Kurosawa is leaving the ‘truth’ to the audience as such, the only concrete element is that he is painting a particularly bleak portrait of humanity.
This is all undoubtedly intentional. Each viewpoint is delivered in a courtroom situation, yet the audience is never treated to a sight of the judge, rather they occupy this position themselves as each testimony is delivered to the camera. A further framing device, that of three men (including the woodcutter) discussing what they believe to be the truth, enhances this as they are only referred to by their occupations – a working man, a holy man and a servant – suggesting a cross-section of the population, and are unable to come up with a uniform judgement; suggestive, perhaps, of the response of the audience. Kurosawa is also keen to isolate these three individuals so as to play up their importance. The languid portrayals by Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki and Kichijiro Ueda are at odds with the energy and vivacity found in the protagonists of the main narratives. Indeed, this is true to such a degree that when Toshiro Mifune makes his first appearance as the bandit (not speaking but rather laughing maniacally) it is easy to imagine the response of audiences at the 1951 Venice Film Festival – where the film made such an impact that it took away the Golden Lion for best picture and introduced Japanese cinema to an international crowd.
In fact, it would not be overstating the case to say that Mifune’s performance in Rashomon ranks alongside the all-time greats, even if its power has been slightly diminished by the variations the actor was to play on the character in later roles (both Seven Samurai and Yojimbo spring immediately to mind, although this is not intended as a criticism of either). As the film progresses, he resembles more and more a Klaus Kinski with the stamina of Douglas Fairbanks; the sheer idiosyncrasy makes one wish the actor had at some point in his career hooked up with Werner Herzog. The remarkable achievement, however, is that he manages to make such a charmless, unsympathetic figure so completely magnetic. Each scratch, snarl or any other animalistic tic may make him increasingly repulsive and offensive, yet it is impossible to tear your eyes away from the screen. As the wife, Machiko Kyo offers a performance of similar pitch – she would have made a terrific Lady Macbeth in Throne of Blood; slightly melodramatic perhaps but equally mesmerising. Of course, Kyo and Mifune have the balance just right; Kurosawa needs the audience to see the bad sides of these characters – and not once in the viewpoints, not even their own, are they presented in an even remotely favourable manner. If any of the portrayals (Masayuki Mori deserves a mention for his small but telling role of the husband) were in the slightest bit sympathetic then the film’s meaning would be inextricably altered. As the servant puts it at the midway point: “Even the castle demons fled, because they were horrified by what men do!” Incidentally, and this is of minor importance, the cover image the BFI have chosen for their release of this disc is wonderfully witty (intentionally or not) as it presents leads Mifune and Kyo in a typical 1950s romantic film star pose – something completely at odds with their actions in the film yet oddly indicative of their on-screen presence.
Indeed, Kurosawa seemingly takes their energy and infuses the entire film with it. Jump cuts take the viewer from one time period to another, swipes emphasise action and Rashomon as a whole is so ferociously edited that its brief 86 minute running time appears even briefer. The music of Fumio Hayasaka is equally integral, providing a virtually continuous rhythm, highlighting both pace and suspense. Less immediately apparent, but no less important, is Kurosawa’s ability to frame an image. Whilst his widescreen compositions for Yojimbo, say, or Dersu Uzala are justly celebrated, his command of the boxier Academy ratio has been somewhat ignored. Yet each composition is so perfect in its efficiency that it seems somehow instinctive; only the essentials are presented, so that the viewer understands each situation immediately. Moreover, and even while utilising his famed mobile camera technique (which always gains a mention in the same breath as the film) Rashomon is always beautiful to look at.
Kurosawa’s only mistake is his decision to include an overly sentimental coda. The impression given is that he simply couldn’t face presenting such a downbeat, unredemptive look at life, and felt compelled to include a final note of optimism. The fact that this note includes an abandoned child may prove too hard to stomach for many viewers (myself included). Nevertheless, Rashomon remains one of its director’s finest achievements and a genuine classic. Moreover, given its themes and techniques it is a piece that still feels modern today and, as such, deserves to continue having as wide an audience as possible.
Rashomon’s previous UK DVD, issue by the BFI in 2001, was far from perfect. Taken from a scratchy print with poor audio, it was watchable but further limited by burnt-in subtitles and perfunctory extras: bios for Kurosawa and Mifune, sleeve notes and poster gallery. Unfortunately, whilst an improvement in some areas, Optimum’s disc is perhaps the lesser of the two for one simple reason: standards conversion. Once again we find an East Asian film hampered by NTSC-PAL issues resulting in a soft, interlaced image, a problem that’s all the more annoying given the dynamism with which Rashomon treats its on-screen action. The sweeping tracking shots now become blurry messes, whilst clarity is imprecise throughout. Indeed, it is difficult to tell whether this is the same damaged print as employed by the BFI; the scratches were more apparent there but then the image was so much sharper. We do, this time around, get optional English subtitles but it’s a minor concession at best. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is as hissy as it was before, once again suggesting that the BFI disc is the superior Region 2 offering.
The extras do improve, however, primarily for its central documentary. This 67-minute Japanese production, rather clumsily entitled A Testimony for an Image: Rashomon, catches up with many surviving crew members for individual interviews and a roundtable discussion akin to those BBC4 documentaries from a few years back which reunited the personnel from Quadrophenia and the like. Unfortunately, the likes of Kurosawa and Mifune have since passed away, the only key member present being screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, but then the assembled survivors do offer plenty of anecdotage – such as the studio’s water tanks repeatedly running dry during the storm scenes – to provide ample interest. Furthermore, it makes a refreshing change to hear from lighting assistants and stills photographers rather than just the usual suspects. (As with the main feature, A Testimony… comes with optional English subtitling.)
Also present are a brief six-minute introduction from director John Boorman and the original theatrical trailer. Sadly the Boorman piece little besides a pair of anecdotes (regarding his first meeting with Kurosawa during the making of Hell in the Pacific with Mifune and another at a dinner held in the director’s honour at the time of Ran’s release) and only a perfunctory mention of Rashomon. Whilst a terrific filmmaker Boorman is a poor choice here and a more suitable candidate would have been a critic offering far greater insight and context.