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While weather is windy and bitterly pouring,
Four stories are told when the truth needs exploring,
Four different accounts with the witnesses warring,
But no outright answer for askers imploring.
While some simply welcome whatever’s not boring,
The doubt is too heavy for easy ignoring.
Both lies and the truth can leave consciences roaring,
But everyone’s faith is in need of restoring.
_________________

MPAA rating: Not Rated (should be PG for mature themes)

 

This is a last-minute contribution to the Criterion Blogathon, hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings, in order to honor the old and new film classics selected by the Criterion Collection. After thoroughly admiring Akira Kurosawa’s epic Seven Samurai, I thought I might check out his earlier work, in this case Rashomon, the film that sparked pioneering interest in Asian cinema throughout the West. The story of Rashomon is simple yet profound, intimate yet eclectic, an art film with plenty of moral insight and a technique that has inspired everything from Western remakes (The Outrage, Hoodwinked!) to TV episodes (such as Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “A Matter of Perspective”).

Rashomon itself is an abandoned gate between Kyoto and Nara, though its name always sounds to me like a character from Digimon. The rain-drenched frame story allows a woodcutter and a priest to recount a trial they just witnessed to a surly passerby as they all take shelter beneath the decrepit Rashomon gate. The two watched as the infamous bandit Tajōmaru was tried for the murder of a samurai and the rape of his wife, and both are clearly shaken, having had their faith in humanity cast in doubt.

What follows are four stories of the fateful encounter from four different perspectives. All have the same outcome, yet none are the same. The bandit (Toshiro Mifune of Seven Samurai and other Kurosawa projects) boasts about his daring, recounting an admittedly impressive swordfight against the samurai (Masayuki Mori) after having his way with the woman (Machiko Kyō). The woman ignores any mention of a fight and casts herself as a victim of both men. The samurai may be dead, but a possessed medium explains his viewpoint with rather disturbing behavior, casting more blame on the woman than on the bandit. And then there’s the truth. Or is it? While the final tale seems to be the most plausible in spreading the guilt around, there’s still the smack of hypocrisy, and one can’t help but wonder what all four may be leaving out to suit their own point of view. Ambiguity and doubt are prevalent, yet Kurosawa doesn’t try to discount morality in general through his questioning of what really happened. The world may be full of liars, but human kindness can still have its say.

In addition to its morally debatable themes, Rashomon is also noted for its cinematography and tight editing. As commendable as these are, the film does embrace certain excesses in the way it is told. The opening scene, for example, in which the woodcutter wanders through the dense forest foliage before coming upon the crime scene, is meant to build tension and recall the silent film era, but it unfortunately drags, just one scene that stretches the audience’s patience to the edge of boredom. While much of the acting is subtle and faultless, other moments are acutely overacted, such as the crazy outbursts of two of the players and the woman’s incessant sobbing. These criticisms can doubtless be attributed to the acting conventions of the time, since this film is far from the only aged offender in that regard.

Yet despite the shortcomings of individual scenes, Rashomon is still the classic so many critics have hailed, well deserving of its honorary Academy Award five years before the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film was established. Influential in its uncertainty and thought-provoking in its divergent narrative, Rashomon helped to solidify Kurosawa as an esteemed director the world over.

Best line: (the surly peasant, defending yet impugning everyone from liars to storytellers) “I don’t mind a lie if it’s interesting.”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2015 S. G. Liput

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