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Rashomon

Directed by Akira Kurosawa with Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijiro Ueda, Fumiko Honma and Masayuki Mori, 88 minutes, 1950

VHS cover of Rashomon

By Carter B. Horsley

There are certain books and movies that are landmarks in the intellectual history of the world. The movie "Rashomon" is one of them.

Like Samuel Beckett's play, "Waiting for Godot," that dates to about the same period, "Rashomon" is deeply disturbing and lingers long in the viewer's mind, forever casting doubts about an individual's perception of reality and understanding of the concept of "truth," and ultimately the meaning of life.

Like the play, the movie's cast of characters is small, but unlike the play, "Rashomon" is packed with action and stirring emotions.

It could also be compared to Shakespeare's play, "King Lear," in its emphasis on different interpretations of apparently simple actions, although Shakespeare's play is, of course, much more complicated.

In "Rashomon," three men independently seek shelter in a ruined temple known as Rashomon near Kyoto, Japan, more than half a millennium ago. The men are a priest, a woodcutter and a vagabond. A rainstorm pelts down on them ferociously. The priest and the woodcutter are unpresupposing persons who apparently are in a state of shock over a recent event. The vagabond joins them and encourages them to tell him of the allegedly "terrible" event.

The priest, played with mournful stoicism by Minoru Chiaki, begins to recount how a scruffy bandit encounters a man escorting a beautiful woman on horseback in the forest and proceeds to tie him up and watch him rape the woman and then be killed by him at the request of the raped woman. The event is shown in flashback where the bandit, played by Toshiro Mifune, is being held at a trial and he recounts the incident.

Prior to the commencement of the bandit's retelling of the incident, the movie is very somber, oppressive and rather depressing.

Mifune's performance as the bandit is explosively vulgar, unpredictable and frightening. He is obviously a very, very coarse man given to hysterical ravings. In many ways, his character is so mesmerizing as quintesential evil that one could almost conjure the hypnoptic speeches of Hitler. Mifune comes across as a great force of evil, a force that is not without its fascination.

Mifune's tale is recreated on film and Kurosawa's visual depiction of the bandit wandering through the forest and glimpsing through the dappled sunlight on leaves a very large woman's hat with huge veils astride a horse drawn by what appears to be a nobleman is a mesmerizing enchantment that understandably leads the bandit to chase, at a distance, the couple. The entire sequence of the bandit's tracking and chase and final encounter with the couple is one of the most sensational cinemagraphically in history and is more beautiful and impressive than even Steven Spielberg's forest chases in "Star Wars" decades later.

The movie has dramatically switched from an almost drab historic piece to a riveting, scary and exotically intriguing adventure and melodrama culminating in the lifting of the hat's veil by the woman, played by Machiko Iyo. Her visage is climatically startling. She appears to be very beautiful and to act very much like a lady. Kurosawa's initial close-up of her face in this sequence is only matched by Grace Kelly's first appearance as she is about to kiss James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" a few years later. Both cinematic moments are extraordinarily effective and recall Josef Sternberg's dreamy entrances for Marlene Dietrich some years earlier. These "entrances" attest to the power of beauty and of women and clearly indicate that sexual attraction is very important.

The bandit's rendition of the event moves back and forth between his recollection and his testimony at the trial and Kurosawa has Mifune go through almost pyrotechnical acting transformations that also conjure episodes of "Frankenstein," so horrific are the bandit's temperament, countenance and actions.

At the end of the bandit's version of the incident, he admits to the rape and the murder of the woman's husband.

The vagabond at the temple is not overwhelmed by the story, but the woodcutter says that there is more to it and introduces the retelling of the incident by the raped woman who appears at the same, open-air trial.

Her version is self-serving and she claims that she did not instruct the bandit to kill her husband. Her version, however, is quite convincing as the actress is wondrously believable as an innocent victim.

The vagabond at the temple is a bit more interested, but the priest then tells him to listen to the dead husband's version, which will make him understand better why he and the woodcutter are so shocked. The vagabond asks how the dead husband could testify and the priest introduces the segment of the trial at which a woman medium, played with memorable eeriness by Fumiko Honma, speaks for the dead husband in a ghostly voice. The scenes in which the medium testifies with her flowing robes and long hair is spellbinding, and very beautiful. Her version, that is, the husband's version, is altogether different in that after the woman is raped and the bandit runs off after a furious fight with him and he commits suicide because he is ashamed that his wife had been raped and wants to abandon him for the rapist.

The vagabond's interest is now piqued, but his attention now turns to the woodcutter, played with a pitiable sullenness by Takashi Shimura, who reveals that he was a witness to the incident and proceeds to give yet another version, which, again, differs from the others, but which seems more reasonable since it is not self-serving.

The three men at the temple begin to try to unravel the truth from the contradictory stories, noting that there are elements in each that are believable and that none of the versions is very satisfying.

The message of the film, therefore, would seem to be that truth is relative, fragile, fleeting and uncertain. In his review of the film, James Berardinelli noted that that movie "is not about culpability or innocence." "Instead, it focuses on something far more profound and thought-provoking: the inability of any one man to know the truth, no matter how clearly he thinks he sees things. Perspective distorts reality and makes the absolute truth unknowable." (His review may be found at http://us.imdb.com/Reviews/110/11025.) Some other reviewers have made analogies with the film and the O. J. Simpson trial, the Clinton/Lewinsky Affair and the Clarence White/Anita Hill controversy, and some have also read into a foreshadowing of the Deconstructivist theories that would become popular several decades later.

Before any resolution of the discussion by the three men, they are interrupted by a baby's cry elsewhere in the temple. They rush around and discover the baby and the vagabond instantly rips away her blanket for himself, much to the distaste and dismay of the other two. The priest lifts the baby into his arms and the woodcutter then pleads with him to let him have the baby as he has eight children and while very poor knows how to take care of babies. The priest relents and gives the woodcutter the baby and the film ends on this fairly high, optimistic note of humanity.

This coda however is brief and not powerful enough to cast aside the very weighty bulk and import of the film. Some critics have, with good reason, criticized the "happy" ending of the film, but virtually all have correctly noted that the film's impact on the viewer's conscientiousness and conscience is immense. Some of these critics have argued that the film's message is that individuals can only see themselves in one, favorable, light, while others, more on target, expound on the film's upsetting of the basic underpinings of knowledge and the foundations of the notions of truth.

"Rashomon" is a brilliant but bleak and very dramatic examination of epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge, the need for certainty and its frail attainment.

A few other great films like "Last Year at Marienbad" (see The City Review article) and "Providence," both by Alain Resnais, and "The Seventh Seal" (see The City Review article) and "Persona," both by Ingmar Bergman, have seriously tackled "heavy" themes like the meaning of life or truth, but none with more brilliance than "Rashomon," whose truly memorable acting and cinematography are haunting.

"Rashomon" is not perfect as the "happy" ending is too convenient and the music score by Fumio Hayasaka is disappointing as it is sort of a Westernized version of Ravel's "Bolero," and becomes a little obvious and boring.

The performances of Mifune and Iyo, alone justify this film as great, but its psychological and philosophic mandates and imperatives elevate it to the highest ranks of cinematic achievement.

This film ranks 10th in Carter B. Horsley's list of the 500 Best Sound Films.

The film is available now only on VHS and the version is a bit grainy. It can be ordered from Amazon.com for 10 percent off its $29.95 list price by clicking here.

The film is ranked 54th in the Internet Movie Data Base's Top 250 films

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