In Rashomon, director Akira Kurosawa uses a plot that’s launched a thousand thrillers as a springboard for a poetic lament on the wobbly, chaotic state of human existence. The first images are of a rainstorm of bibilical intensity (there’s no other kind in Kurosawa’s films) and we soon see the huge, partially ruined, but still beautiful feudal gate known as Rashomon, which is on the border of Kyoto. The Woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and the Priest (Minoru Chiaki) are waiting out the storm under Rashomon’s roof, and are soon joined by the Commoner (Kichijirô Ueda), a cynical jokester who pesters the pair to relate to him their obviously shared source of torment.
The story the Woodcutter and the Priest discuss with the Commoner is ingeniously structured by Kurosawa and his brilliant collaborators (including the justly celebrated cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa) as a series of partially conflicting narrative nesting dolls that would have considerable and lasting impact on films and pop culture in general. Rashomon established Kurosawa as a major film artist (though he’d already made several films of note, including Stray Dog), garnered Japanese cinema global attention, and furthered notions on the potential dexterity of the film image, which can be manipulated to contain multiple truths or non-truths at once.
The story that the Woodcutter tells is essentially of a universal love triangle that plays out in concentrated, abbreviated extremis (the Priest’s involvement is less direct to the narrative and more symbolic). A man (Masayuki Mori) and a woman (Machiko Kyô) are traveling through a forest that’s expressionistically dense with foliage when a bandit (Toshirô Mifune) springs upon them with the intention of seizing the woman for prurient means. The man is stabbed to death, and the woman and the bandit eventually find themselves testifying directly to the camera (or us) to an unseen judge. The Woodcutter, who stumbled upon evidence of the attack in the forest, and the Priest, who stumbled upon the bandit sometime after the crime, are in the court and witness the bandit and the woman’s differing testimonies of the events, as well as, in a surprising and jolting sequence, the dead man’s own version of the story, which is spoken through a medium who swishes and writhes in response to what we can assume is the specter’s ongoing agony over what transpired. There are commonalities to the various accounts (the bandit and the woman probably had sex, the bandit and the man likely dueled over possession of her), but the specificities, such as whether the sex was consensual, and whether the duel was an impassioned myth-making assertion of machismo, remain nagging in their elusiveness. But most importantly, the ultimate killer remains unknown.
As Robert Altman says in an interview included on the Blu-ray, we eventually come to realize that “we know everything and nothing.” The story of the man, woman, bandit, and eventually the Woodcutter is revisited time and again, often filtered through the consciousnesses of two, three, or four storytellers, and we come to realize that, while quite a bit of the details of the testimonies don’t cohere with one another, many important, at first misleadingly incidental, details do. These characters, accustomed to playing out the roles their society (11th-century Japan) dictates, are eventually retrospectively shed of these roles through the ultimate collision of the multiple stories. We may not know who killed the man by the end, but we have a good idea of who these people are.
Each of the four versions of the tale in the forest unsurprisingly asserts the essential righteousness of the storyteller. The bandit tells the story in a fashion that reaffirms his myth of himself as a rowdy, amoral daredevil. The woman accentuates the purity and yielding chastity expected of a woman in a very male-driven society. The victim paints himself as a tortured martyr. The Woodcutter, though more detached from the event than the others, possesses a viewpoint that’s potentially skewed by his own desperation and culpability.
But commonalities arise. In all four versions, the man is clearly alienated by his wife from the (probable) sexual encounter, the bandit is a more vulnerable person hiding behind a pose, and the woman, even by her own account, is capable of powerful manipulations the blustery men can barely bring themselves to acknowledge. The Woodcutter’s story essentially unites all of the tales, and we see the power that subjective experience has over the pursuit of objective purity. Subjectivity, easily warped by countless and unquantifiable variables, potentially leaves us adrift on an interior island; the panic that subjectivity helps to inform over life’s ultimate “meaning” might begin to partially explain the everlasting pull of religion and, much later, certain forms of therapy.
In lesser hands the film could be inhumanly conceptual and too “worked out” to come alive dramatically, but the filmmaking is so dense and immediate that Rashomon is often overpowering in its emotional intensity. Every image counts, commenting on the characters’ evolving relationships (most obviously exemplified in the repeated use of triangular shapes), and the actors give performances of exacting subtlety that quietly shift to fit the specific storyteller’s contortions of the events. Aspiring to reclaim the succinct image-consciousness of silent films, Kurosawa creates a rich visual fabric that’s surreal in its hyper-reality, which is particularly clear in the close-ups of the actors (the sweat on Mifune’s brow is more dramatic than many actors’ entire performances) and in the blocking of actions, such as the swordfights and the woman passing by the bandit, ghostly, in her carriage. The ultimate achievement of Rashomon is that it’s a film that has remained, to an extent, elusive since its release over 60 years ago; it seems like a different film every time you watch it depending on your age and your specific emotional emphasis at the time of revisiting it, which was, of course, almost certainly Kurosawa’s ultimate aim.
Taken from a print refurbished in 2008, Rashomon has never looked or sounded better. Many of the flaws that were detectable in previous DVD editions, such as glare issues with certain close-ups or an occasional blurriness in the storm sequences, have been eliminated. Minute visual grace notes now pop with a vibrancy that occasionally substantially affects the film’s dramatic power (the forest setting has never seemed more present in the film as a character), and the blacks have been rendered with a newfound depth and richness. Hisses and cracks have been removed from the sound mix, and the playful, varied score registers with greater dimension. All that said, this careful restoration doesn’t sand away natural grain or impose an inappropriately bombastic soundtrack. As of this writing, this is the way to see Rashomon.
As usual, Criterion provides you pretty much everything you’d want in terms of contextual clarification of a classic film. The audio commentary with Japanese film historian Donald Richie is an erudite yet unpretentious gem that walks the viewer through the thematic and symbolic implications of every shot. Excerpts from The World of Kazuo Miyagawa and A Testimony as an Image collectively present an exhaustively researched yet succinct portrait of the varying challenges and artistic contributions that informed the making of Rashomon. An archival interview with Takashi Shimura (featuring Richie as his translator) provides a revealing glimpse of Akira Kurosawa’s methods of working with actors, particularly his reliance on multiple evolving rehearsal sessions. Also included is a brief, charming tribute by the late Robert Altman, an essay by film historian Stephen Prince, an excerpt from Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography, the two stories that inspired the film, and a variety of trailers.
Rashomon is still one of the most glorious testaments to the frustrations and exhilarations of chasing a satisfactory and unvarnished, or ultimate, truth.