Monday, 21 June 2010

'Rashomon' re-issue review: A much needed big screen outing for a true classic...

I have recently written a fair bit on this blog about the work of Akira Kurosawa. Jon and I recently recorded a special Kurosawa-themed Splendor Cinema podcast, whilst I have also written here about my favourite of his films and about some of the re-makes he inspired. On Friday I visited the BFI Southbank in London where I took advantage of their awesome world cinema shop to purchase a copy of his splendid autobiography and also fill some the gaps in my DVD collection: I found copies of ‘The Idiot’, ‘The Bad Sleep Well’, ‘Drunken Angel’ and ‘High and Low’. Most importantly, I took the opportunity to watch his international breakthrough, the Golden Lion winning 1950 film ‘Rashomon’, now in a glorious restored print which has been re-issued at selected cinemas nationwide.

‘Rashomon’ had previously been a film I admired more than enjoyed. I appreciated how significant it was in opening the eyes of western critics to Japanese cinema and I also understood its influence, the narrative structure (focussing on four subjective accounts of a rape and murder) has been copied by a countless number of films and has also been adapted by science and philosophy – the so-called “Rashomon effect”. But when I saw it on Friday it marked the first time I had seen the film on the big screen and its impact on me was much greater.

Partly this was down to paying the film greater attention than I had possibly done in the past. In a cinema it is just you and the film. You can’t pause it. You can’t look at your phone. You can’t go and get a drink and you hesitate to leave for the toilet. It holds your complete, undivided attention.

This time I noticed the virtuosity of Kurosawa’s camera work, often panning and swooping in elaborate long takes. Just as often it is still and patient with the director allowing the action to move in and out of the frame. It is in many ways a masterclass in how to shoot a film, especially action sequences. Like his hero John Ford, Kurosawa is able to make everything look deceptively simple and made his films with great economy. The film feels tight, disciplined and is basically as close to perfect as any movie could hope to be.

The performances are also fantastic. Toshiro Mifune is at his most cat-like as a snarling bandit accused of murder, whilst Takashi Shimura gives a great turn as a woodcutter who reports the crime, with some scenes of emotional poignancy to rival his more celebrated role in ‘Ikiru’. There are also roles for lesser known Kurosawa regulars such as Minoru Chiaki (who plays a troubled priest) and Masayuki Mori (above) as the murdered samurai. There is also Machiko Kyō, who almost steals the show as the samurai’s wife. Kyō cries and screams with an intensity which renders her performance unforgettable. Like almost every female in a Kurosawa movie, she is also called upon to be somewhat conniving and manipulative which she does with some gusto (representations of women are not Kurosawa’s strongest suit, for that see Mizoguchi, Ozu or Naruse) .

But more impressive than its stars and the great craft of its master director is its typically humanist portrayal of the characters. During the varying accounts of the central murder, what struck me was that the emphasis is not on the practical differences between the accounts, but on something subtler. It is the difference in tone, the different emotional reactions to the event and the changes in meaning which shape this tale and give ‘Rashomon’ its depth. During the trial scenes, in which the characters gather to give their testimonies, the judges are unseen. We are only shown the storytellers themselves talking to camera. Therefore when they lie the implication is that they are only lying to themselves (and perhaps to us).

The bandit wants us to believe he is a hard man, a skilful swashbuckler and a user of women. Watching him speak you feel he has succeeded in convincing himself. The samurai (whose testimony comes via a medium) gives an account in which he dies an honourable death by suicide to compensate for the shame he feels at seeing his wife raped. However the woodcutter’s story (in all details but one final twist taken to be the “true” account) reveals that both men were cowardly: that they fought but that it involved a lot of falling over and scrambling in the dirt. During the encounter Mifune pants loudly: out of breath and full of fear.

They never really cross swords (as in the bandit's version above); instead they swing wildly and run away from each other. The samurai’s final words are “I don’t want to die”. The truth is pathetic, not heroic or romantic. The truth is human. Kurosawa’s point is not that all people are bad or that all people are cowards, but that people are flawed. That we should be suspicious of those who portray themselves as honourable, just as we should of those who promote the idea that they are the opposite. That people are not caricatures: they are complicated.

Happily, for Kurosawa and ‘Rashomon’, there is just as much good as bad in the world. The priest’s faith in humanity is restored by the woodcutter’s decision to adopt an abandoned baby and defend it against a man who seeks to rob it of its few possessions. The woodcutter is told by the man that all people are selfish and that being selfish is necessary to survive (a popular view among capitalists). But the woodcutter rejects this assessment of humanity and, although he already has six children, he takes on the responsibility of another. This final moment sees Kurosawa at his most sentimental, but it is the necessary conclusion to the story and one which gives us hope.

It is hope which is an important final message for Kurosawa and Japan in ‘Rashomon’. Made in the aftermath of the Second World War in a battered and defeated nation, the film is in part allegorical. It opens on a broken gate, a relic from a period of prosperity and cultural richness. The woodcutter and the priest find shelter under this ruin as a heavy rainfall lashes down throughout the film. When the woodcutter adopts the infant the rainfall stops and the duo are able to leave the broken past behind and walk into a more hopeful future, for Japan and for the world. Fitting for a film which heralded a similarly bright future for Japanese cinema.

I, obviously, highly recommend seeking out ‘Rashomon’ in a cinema near you. It is playing at the BFI Southbank until the 8th of July on an extended run and is rated ‘12A’ by the BBFC.

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