Rashomon

  • Reviewed by: Todd Doogan
  • Review Date: May 22, 2013
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Director

Akira Kurosawa

Release Date(s)

1951 (November 6, 2012)

Studio(s)

Daiei Studios (Criterion - Spine #138)

Review

Of all the literature, poetry and cinema dealing with the subject of “truth,” virtually all fall short when held against Akira Kurosawa’s breakthrough Rashomon.  Winner of the 1952 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Rashomon opens with the only bit of absolute truth shown in the entire film: Three men standing around, stranded, at Japan’s dilapidated Rashomon gate during a torrential rain storm.  These men are: A woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), one of the central characters in the story; a priest (Minoru Chiaki), who at this moment seems to have lost his faith in Man; and an unsuspecting vagabond (Kichijiro Ueda).  The woodcutter and the priest are emotionally trampled, having witnessed a murder in which the very questions “What is truth?” and “What do we perceive as being truth?” are shaken down to their foundation.

The woodcutter proceeds to tell the vagabond the awful story.  Deep in the forest, the woodcutter says he found a woman’s hat, a dagger sheath and the body of a samurai, so he ran to the local constables to alert them of a murder.  The woodcutter then tells of the trial, which involved the notorious bandit Tajomuru (Toshirô Mifune).  Tajomuru was asked why he was caught with the murdered samurai’s horse and bow, and he immediately confessed, saying it was won in an honorable duel.  He then spilled the details of how the duel originated: He was laying in the shade of the trees, when the samurai (Masayuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyô) walked by.  It could have been the way the sunlight hit her, or the fact that he was lonely and looking for some company; either way, Tajomuru knew he had to steal the woman from her husband.  So he quickly hatched a plan to lure the samurai away, tie him up and rape the man’s wife.  When he was done, Tajomuru challenged the samurai to a duel, and the woman was awarded to him as the winner.  However, as we find out back at Rashomon gate, Tajomuru’s story may not be the whole truth... or even part of it.

It seems that the samurai’s wife was found hiding in a temple during the trial.  When she was brought to the court to tell her version of things, she contradicted Tajomuru’s story.  Yes, the husband was lured away and tied up.  Yes, she was raped.  But afterwards, she claimed Tajomuru left the scene, having gotten what he wanted.  The wife then found her husband, who stared at her as if the darkest dirt known to man had muddied her virtue.  Unable to stand the look in his eyes, she said she asked her husband to kill her to restore her honor, even offering a dagger for him to do the job.  But then she claimed she must have blacked out and killed him instead in her shame.  That must be the truth.

But the woodcutter’s re-telling of the trial continues: A medium was then brought to the court to spiritually connect to the dead samurai, who offered yet another version of the events.  So which one is the real truth?  Who was lying and why?  And is the woodcutter himself telling the stories truthfully?  Like any real world jury, the audience is left to sort the fact from the fiction.  But as a director, Kurosawa himself isn’t interested in the real truth, or the lies or anything of the sort.  He’s interested in reality... and the reality of human truth is that no one will ever really know it.

Rashomon is an incredible film, filled with beautiful cinematography and pitch-perfect acting.  Without doubt, Mifune proves himself here to be one of the greatest actors in film history.  This is considered by many to be Kurosawa’s masterpiece and it’s easy to see why: As both a piece of social commentary and pure cinematic art, few films are its equal.

The video on the Blu-ray release is presented at 1.37:1, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC.  This particular print was originally scanned at 4K resolution and then converted to 2K files before being cleaned up both digitally and manually.  And let me tell you, it looks awesome.  The depth of detail is what is really impressive.  This was always a great looking film – but it had a lot of age issues which have been almost totally removed.  Really, the only way this film will look better in your home is when the 4K transfer gets released someday – until then, this is about as definitive as you’ll get.  The audio has also been greatly improved with any of the slight hissing in the background that appeared on the previous DVD release being nicely minimized to the point of full-removal.  It’s clear at this point that any flaws you may hear on this Blu-ray are simply age-based and are part of the film’s presence going forward.

The special edition material is mostly ported over from the company’s 2002 special edition DVD release – and stands as among Criterion’s best.  To start with, there’s an incredible audio commentary track by Japanese film historian Donald Richie, who walks us through the entire film and seems to answer every question you might have before it even enters your mind.  Richie knows this material well, never sounding scripted or as if he’s reading from notes.  There’s a short video introduction to the film by the late Robert Altman, who talks about Rashomon’s influence on his own work (and that of other filmmakers), as well as the importance of the film as a work of art.  Also available on the disc is the film’s original trailer, along with an excerpt from a documentary on the life and career of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, who still owned the original Rashomon sign from the film when the documentary was shot.  (He’s since passed away.)  The excerpt includes an interview with Kurosawa himself, conducted before his death.  Both he and Miyagawa describe how some of the more elaborate shots were created with shadow cheats, complicated dolly moves and even a stolen wardrobe mirror.  (One wishes the entire documentary was available here.)  Perhaps the best extra included here isn’t even on the disc – it’s in the insert booklet tucked into the case containing liner notes by film historian Stephen Prince and an excerpt from Kurosawa’s own autobiography, along with the two original Ryunosuke Akutagawa short stories upon which this film is based, reprinted in their entirety.  That’s a great and rare gift indeed, as it’s often difficult to track down such source material... especially when it originates in another land.

That’s not to say that those upgrading to Blu-ray aren’t getting new stuff.  There are two additional special features collected here for your education and enjoyment.   Interview with Takashi Shimura is a sixteen-minute radio interview by Gideon Bachmann conducted at the 1961 Berlin Film Festival.  The fantabulous Donald Richie appears here as a translator, and through him Shimura discusses Kurosawa’s methods as a director, producer and storyteller.  They discuss everything from how Kurosawa’s technical process starts and ends, how he works with his actors and a little on why Kurosawa returns to his repertory actors, like himself and Mifune.  It’s fascinating, but it’s fatal flaw is that as a radio interview it’s a bit distancing because of the time it takes for the questions and answers to get through the translation process.  We’ll take what we can get, but something like this will always be better served with video.  It’s nice to have though.  A Testimony As An  Image runs sixty-eight minutes and it’s a very basic but thoroughly engaging documentary.  We start with Kurosawa’s longtime script supervisor Teruyo Nogami as  she sits down with an utter who’s-who on the production of this legendary film, taking us through the complete history of the making of Rashomon, from the twists of fate that got writer Shinobu Hashimoyo to turn a short story into a screenplay that was serendipitously placed into Kurosawa’s hands and on through a crew panel meeting (with Rashomon’s sound designer Iwao Otani, assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka, lighting assistant Genkon Nakaoka, sound assistant Tsuchitaro Hayashi, dolly effects artist Hiroshi Shibata, camera assistants Kenichi Araki and Kanichi Aoki and trailer cinematographer Fujio Moira) where they talk about the set construction, rain effects, battles with studio bosses and department heads, how they created the lightning effects and on – all in a no-holds-barred fashion.  Ms. Nogami then sits down with Tokuzu Tanaka to discuss Tai Kato, the chief assistant director on Rashomon, who started as a good friend of Kurosawa’s but, because of stubbornness on both of their parts and some inherent jealousies held by Kato, ended up being demoted to working on the trailer and off of Kurosawa’s set.  There’s also a private chat with Mitsuo Wakasugi, who was the film’s second assistant director.  Wakasugi tells a story about Kurosawa, who took it upon himself to personally age some costumes.  When the assistant directors joined in, impromptu discussions about the best way to visually represent Summer and Winter in Japan on film popped up.  The awe these men feel towards “The Emperor” is still obvious all these years later.  Wakasugi also discusses how happy accidents shaped some iconic shots and how important it was to hear the music score by Fumio Hayasuka while they were shooting.  On the subject of Hayasuka, legendary composer Akira Ifukube pops in to tells us a little bit about Hayasuka going back to their first meeting as young students and his take on Hayasuka’s film music (admitting that, though they had a great many conversations about music, they generally never discussed their own film work with each other).  He also tells an interesting story about the publishing company for Ravel’s Boléro sending a plagiarism complaint about the Rashomon theme and how he was brought in to give his professional opinion on whether it was true or not.  The interview heavy documentary is rounded out with discussion about Kurosawa’s groundbreaking use of storyboards and how the crew aped its use to keep track everything from shot lists, camera angles and script note tracking, experimental camera dolly work, how specially designed mirrors were used to create textured lighting and how a fire at the studio during post-production almost cost us this glorious film.  It all comes together as over an hour of time well-spent with some of the best informed Rashomon experts ever.  Finally, the disc includes the theatrical trailer and a re-release trailer.

Rashomon has been, and will continue to be, a shining jewel in Criterion’s crown.  If you haven’t seen the film, this new Blu-ray edition is by far the best way to do so.

- Todd Doogan

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