Wednesday, February 24, 2010

RASHOMON (Akira Kurosawa, 1950, Japan)


A forlorn priest curses the weakness of men who are cruel slaves to their own selfish desires. Director Akira Kurosawa cross examines four witnesses to a savage crime, a shadow of doubt eclipsing their testimony though each avers to the truth.

Kurosawa begins the film in a torrent as two figures huddle under the eaves of the dilapidated Rashomon gate, finding little shelter from the downpour. One man mutters under his breath his confusion about some event, and his companion gazes self-reflectively into his interior abyss. Soon, another ragged man joins their group and begins a fire, and the story begins. The tale is a prima fascia case of murder and rape, told from four different perspectives. The witnesses include: a bandit, the wife (victim of the assault), her husband, and a woodcutter. Each story is told as a flashback with different fact patterns…but the same outcome with one exception. This is a clue that leads to a greater understanding of Kurosawa’s moral. The bandit tells of his conquest and great sword-fight, as he and the husband pass 23 times resulting in the husband’s death. The wife swears to her assault at the merciless hands of the bandit but he runs away, leaving her to suffer the gaze of her intolerant husband: she takes her dagger and faints, unintentionally stabbing her betrothed. The husband avers that he committed suicide after his wife’s assault, because he failed to protect her. And the passing woodcutter tells of bumbling swordfight and the bandit begging to marry the wife, and the husband dying in the brawl. In each case, the husband dies by being stabbed in the chest by a sword…or the missing dagger.

The key to realizing the film is examining each characterization, attempting to uncover their misconceptions: they are each telling the truth as it should have been…not as it was. The bandit’s frailty is arrogance, the wife is consumed by shame, the husband impotence, and the woodcutter suffers from a guilty conscience: these human elements share a common denominator of selfishness, the moral of the story. The dagger is an exclamation point to the imposed sentence. The ragged commoner listens to each incident and with his practical viewpoint passes judgment.

Kurosawa uses light and shadow to create an ethereal atmosphere, shooting directly into the sun that is obscured by branches: an apt metaphor for the human condition. The brilliant tracking shots charge through the forest creating an immediacy that heightens the volatile tension before the crime. Toshiru Mifune’s animalistic performance as the bandit reflects the inhuman aggression that snarls just under the surface of our skin: he is both childishly charismatic and totally evil.

Finally, the three men discover an orphaned infant and the commoner steals its belongings, causing the priest to lose his faith in the humanity: this world is truly hell. But the woodcutter, accused of stealing the dagger, offers to adopt the child. The epiphany comes in the realization that he stole the jeweled dagger to feed his starving family. The priest curses him and then suddenly understands his selfless intentions, and it’s this act that redeems his faith in mankind. 



Final Grade: (A+)

2 comments:

Shubhajit said...

You've managed to capture the essence of Rashomon, one of the great masterpieces of world cinema, with tremendous aplomb.

The movie literally invented the fractured narrative that is so popular these days. And the scene soon after the movie begins where a horde of cameras were used to track the woodcutter's walk into the forest - that scene gives me the creeps each time I watch it. It'll surely rank as one of the most astounding sequences in cinematic history!!!

On a different note, since you have been reviewing a lot of Kurosawa these days, I'd really love to see a couple of reviews of the filmmaker the Japanese master had the highest regards for - Satyajit Ray.

Alex DeLarge said...

Thank you!

I own UK Artificial Eye DVDs of THE APU TRILOGY because the discs available in the US are of very poor quality. The set has been on my stack since the Holidays so now is the time to view and review! Check back soon:)