Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Exfanding Review: Rashomon

This past Thursday, Nathaniel and I continued the plunge into our brand-new fandom: the films of Akira Kurosawa. For our fourth foray into the work of the internationally famous Japanese filmmaker, we watched Rashomon, which was the shortest--and strangest--of the films we've seen so far.

What was Rashomon about?

Alex: It was about 88 minutes. Ha!


Right. Well. Actually, the plot of Rashomon is quite complex and layered, and its themes are, simply stated, haunting. There is a murder and a rape somewhere deep in the woods, and four people (including those involved in the incidents) testify in court as witnesses to the crimes.

However, each of the four witnesses has a different version of what actually happened. Through flashback sequences, each narrated by one of the witnesses, the viewer is exposed to four possible "truths" concerning the events that took place. We never see exactly what happened, we only learn of the events through the narration of the witnesses.

Rashomon movie pictureAn interesting side note that I came across on Wikipedia--today, when witnesses give different accounts of the same event, this is sometimes referred to as the Rashomon effect, named for Kurosawa's film.

Nathaniel: I'll add my own interesting side note as well: This is, ironically, the least explicit Kurosawa film we've seen yet. Not that the other films have been especially graphic or profane (save for two or three short scenes), but Rashomon really downplays the worst of it.

Describe Rashomon in three adjectives or fewer.

Alex: Which one is an adjective again?

[We pause momentarily to load Wikipedia...]

Annnd...oh. According to Wiki: "In grammar, an adjective is a word whose main syntactic role is to modify a noun or pronoun, giving more information about the noun or pronoun's referent."

Well, then. That clears things up nicely. Lessee...three adjectives...um...oh!

No, wait. "Haunting" is a verb.

Ummm....How 'bout "provocative," "shadowy," and "unreliable"?

Rashomon movie pictureNathaniel: If "unreliable" is referring to the DVD, then Alex must be confusing this movie with the last one we watched. My adjectives? "Unsettling," "engaging," and "deep."

Rashomon is much shorter than the other Kurosawa films we've seen; please discuss.

Alex: Well, the other films we've seen were truly epic in nature, and so they needed a much larger (literal) canvas of lots and lots of film. Rashomon is a character piece, and as such, the story is told on a much smaller scale, so the running time seems appropriate.

Rashomon movie pictureNathaniel: What he said.

What was the most striking scene/aspect/performance in Rashomon, and why was it so striking?

Alex: As I mentioned above, this film was very much a character study, with a small cast and constant, tight close-ups of each main character. I feel like, of all the Kurosawa films we've seen, the actors in Rashomon needed the most "chops."

I mean, the camera was literally zoomed in on the witnesses' faces in scenes of either great sadness, great madness, or intense, seething hatred. These are all emotions that can come across as being ham-fisted--especially when the camera pulls in so tight--but the actors in Rashomon were exceptional.

Rashomon movie pictureNathaniel: For me, it's the opening scene: A half-dilapidated temple (or gate, or something impressive) stands alone in the midst of a colossal downpour, and a few men are taking shelter there from the rain. The visuals captured my attention right away; literally half the temple is in good condition, while the other half is in serious disrepair, as though the men had been taking shelter from the unstoppable rain for weeks and needed to selectively break off boards and beams to use for firewood. I can't think of any other movie from the '50s where the setting was so rich and textured.

What kind of an impact did the music have on the film?

Nathaniel: For a movie that involves murder, rape, and a scene where someone channels the spirit of the murdered man, the music is unusually upbeat, almost inappropriately so. Alright, so it's not like there was a happy calliope and a plucky banjo and a winsome kazoo, but if you heard the movie's soundtrack out of context, you probably wouldn't guess it belonged in a movie with such serious themes.

That being said, the music helped to soften the strong emotional impact of the movie. I don't believe the purpose of the movie was to make its viewers depressed, which is why I didn't mind the strangely upbeat music; I never got hit so hard by the bad stuff that I was unable to appreciate the concept, the twists, and the acting.

Rashomon movie pictureAlex: At one point, I turned to Nathaniel and mentioned that the movie would play much creepier if there was no music. And, by "creepier," I mean flat out, Michael-Myers-Standing-Still-In-the-Bushes-Outside-of-Laurie-Strode's-House creepy.

So, even though the music, for me at least, sometimes brought too much levity to an otherwise intense scene, I guess without the music, the film would have been too dark; too unrelenting.

How does this movie compare to the other three films we've watched--The Hidden Fortress, Ran, and Yojimbo?

Nathaniel: Though a few elements reminded me a bit of Fortress, the film is almost entirely different from the rest. There's much less exposition, no large-scale battles, no long journeys through the countryside, no political intrigue, and a very small number of characters.

Despite the costumes and the fact that people fight with swords instead of guns, the film could almost take place almost anywhere in almost any time period--it was as though Rashomon was Kurosawa's interpretation of a stage play, whereas the other films we've watched felt distinctly like sweeping epics that wouldn't have worked in any other format.

Rashomon movie pictureAlex: Well, frankly, I have to say that the film honestly took me (and I'd say Nathaniel, too) by surprise. Knowing nothing about the movie before popping it in the DVD player, I was struck with how...unconventional...the film was.

From the way the movie was shot with its extreme close-ups, to the maniacal performance delivered by Mifune, to the mature themes presented, it was just not what I was expecting. There was a samurai, sure, and a sword fight, but even that was unconventional and, frankly, odd, in the way it was filmed.

During the last sword fight in the film, Nathaniel mentioned that it played out as though the actors were ad-libbing the direction of the fight. It was so different that it just didn't look choreographed.

Now, I'm going to say something here that will probably leave some Kurosawa fans scratching their heads in unison. Rashomon was my favorite of the movies we've watched thus far, and I realize that there's not nearly as much action, and the film is nowhere close to the same size scale as Ran, but I just found myself way more vested in these characters than I was in the characters that inhabited the other flicks.

I think a lot of the reason why has to do with the fact that the film is shot on such an intimate scale, and there are only between one and three characters in every scene.

Talk a bit more about the acting, if you would.

Nathaniel: So a husband and wife and a bandit walk into a Japanese movie. The husband left no significant lasting impression on me, which I think was the point--it's not really spoiling anything to say that he's the one who gets murdered, so I saw him as more of a catalyst for the interactions between the wife and the bandit; as such, he filled his role quite nicely. Both the bandit and the wife displayed a wide range of acting ability, sometimes shifting between dispositions in an instant; very well done.

In fact, the bandit was played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune, who played a leading role in the other Kurosawa films we've seen. In our review of Yojimbo, Alex joked that he could probably play Mifune's characters--"brooding, scowling, arms always crossed," but this film allowed him (Mifune, not Alex) to exhibit all sorts of emotions and behavior that just weren't called for in the other films. From the major characters to the minor ones, the performances were spot-on.

Rashomon movie pictureAlex: Like I said, this was a film with exceptional acting. This type of film needed perfect performances, and I think everyone involved gave just that. Even though some have criticized Mifune's part as being over-the-top in his manic delivery, I think it's exactly what the film called for.

Which of the four versions of "truth" are you most inclined to believe?

Alex: None of them. I think they each included lies--and, if not lies, then mistruths--and the audience cannot take anything in this film at face value.

Rashomon movie pictureNathaniel: Aw, really? I was really hoping the version where the husband and the bandit have a duel to the death to determine who would take the wife home--because the wife requested it, no less--would be the real truth. Somehow that version seemed the most plausible to me, and it was an interesting story in that there wasn't really a villain--in the end, there were no sinister motives responsible for the husband's death; it was all about honor.

Were you satisfied by the ending?

Nathaniel: Yes, although the part where a baby mystically spawned in the temple confused me a little. Maybe the baby knows the truth, and we just don't know how to translate its cries.

Rashomon movie pictureAlex: Yes, because of my reasoning in the previous answer. Just like a judge or jury who comes to the "action" in the courtroom, after the events have already transpired, Kurosawa puts his audience in a role of not knowing.

Even when a jury convicts someone in a "slam dunk" case, ripe with evidence and insurmountable proof, that jury still wasn't at the crime scene when the crime happened. Unlike other films and TV shows, Rashomon never allows us to see what really happened.

All we get are the testimonies of the witnesses, and that's the real beauty of this film. If, let's say, the ending was a flashback to the woods where we see exactly what went down, the entire effect of the movie would be lost.

And, finally, was watching this film better than reading the best of H.P. Lovecraft?

Alex: Whereas the characters in Rashomon went mad, I was--at no time during the watching of the film--in danger of going mad myself. Reading Lovecraft, however...

Nathaniel: That depends. Will Cthulhu eat me if I say ye--GRAAAAH!!! OM NOM NOM!!! SLUUUURP!!!

1 comment:

Scott said...

I loved this film, too -- for many of the same reasons. It also just goes to show that Kurosawa was as versatile a director as Mifune was an actor.

There's another film that Rashomon always makes me think of due to the story-within-a-film framing device: Harakiri (1962, Masaki Kobayashi). If you guys want to see another older Japanese film to compare/contrast with Kurosawa's works, I strongly recommend Harakiri.

I have to warn you, though -- it contains one of the most profoundly disturbing scenes I have ever seen on film. When we watched it in class at Bucknell, some people fled the classroom and one person fainted in the hall. It's made even more disturbing by the fact that it's not to entertain or show off special effects, but is used to thoroughly ground the story in reality.

One more word of caution: the Wikipedia article is just one long spoiler.