Friday, March 5, 2010

Rashomon (1950)


Woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and Priest (Minoru Chiaki) struggle to understand a court hearing they just witnessed in which a well known thief Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) was being charged with the rape of a woman (Machiko Kyo) and murder of her samurai husband (Masayuki Mori). The problem? Every account of the events told was entirely different.

Priest: "I don't want to hear it. No more horror stories."
Commoner: "They are common stories these days. I even heard that the demon living here in Rashômon fled in fear of the ferocity of man"

Throughout my years as a Kurosawa fanatic I've always had a rather overbearing love-hate relationship with his breakthrough film, Rashomon. On the one hand I indescribably admire it for everything it has accomplished throughout the years in cinema. It's importance just simply can't be measured in words, or actions. While on the other hand I'm never really certain just exactly what I feel about it. It's not a movie you walk away from with an overwhelming feeling of excitement, usually a feeling of mental anguish and analysis. It's the kind of movie that entertains those willing to analyze and attempt to understand. A movie about the dark side of human nature is seldom a cheerful affair.

Perhaps that's where my review should begin. With all of the Kurosawa films I've seen, it's easy to say that Rashomon is one that wears its message right on its sleeves. It's about our need to lie, cheat, anything to retain some semblance of honor. It analyzes the old Japanese code of honor, critiques it for what it leads men to do. At the same time it goes in the opposite direction. It shows us what becomes of those of us with no honor. And ultimately wonders: how great a difference is there really? Throughout the film just about every character lies, cheats, steals, anything to make themselves seem more honorable. Somehow they wish to portray a level of self-perfection in any instance.

It's analysis may be argued to be better than its contents. Like I discussed with Ran, the acting here is very theatrical, very over the top, and intentionally so. Kurosawa wants you to see every feeling right down to the extreme of their eye flinches. This works, for the most part, but is a bit comical. This is especially evident in the over the top laugh of Tajomaru and the Commoner, a bit more like a hyena than anything. When watching it with my sister it was quite evident these took a bit out of the intensity of some situations, but I personally feel they were put there as emotion breakers. They transition from harsh conversations to harsh scenes.

Still that's where Rashomon's strength lies. Somewhere in the void between absurdity and depression, it wonders trying to understand humanity. Because, there's no logical transition from rape to purity. No way to go from murder to self sacrifice. Or as Rashmon would put it: There's no way to make those transitions..... except in the self-justifying done in one's own mind.

There's no likable characters in Rashomon. Even the sympathetic aren't admirable. It's a movie about our own attempts to justify ourselves. To somehow explain away our own misgivings. Something even Rashmon itself tries to do. It's greatness is not a matter of being a perfect film. Even I'll admit it's narrative is well flawed, structurally speaking. Rather, it's a matter of how well it forces you to confront humanity.

Alternate Perspectives:

"It's remarkable how one event can be twisted and manipulated to produce multiple narratives, woven into a repetitive but engaging structure" - Film Forager

"As a landmark piece of cinema then yes but as a film in it's own right there are too many muddled morals and over-long scenes for me, although it's easy to see why others will overlook, forgive or not recognise Rashomon's failings to ensure its place as a cinematic great." - This Time it Will be Different

"It made me feel proud to be so obsessed with film and what such a medium offers. Its not representation or a substitute for sound - it is an art form in and of itself..." - Entertain Me (Film Reviews)

"...Kurosawa takes the viewer on a visual whirlwind, with some of the most breathtaking cinematography and art design you will ever see on screen! The performances are operatic in tone, which perfectly match the profound explorations that exist within." - Brian's Film Review Blog

"It's this viewer's belief anyone willing to venture into some Kurosawa material is intelligent enough to figure out at least most of what's going on here. The exchanges near the end feel very 'black on white'" - Between the Seats

3 better thoughts:

Rick "The Hat" Bman said...

Rashomon was my introduction to Kurosawa back in an "intro to film" class that I took in college. I completely fell in love with it. Such an amazing film.

The Floating Red Couch said...

The basic take -- stories change depending on perspective -- is the one that perhaps anyone who sees this film is going to get without too much deliberation. That particular level of complexity at the most superficial is so novel for cinema at this time. I walked away from this film feeling so excited that a movie this old (and I would soon find older) could simply be so intricate.

Aiden R. said...

One of my favorite movies of all-time, might be the most inherently human movie I've ever seen. Great review, really really really need to buy this one.

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