By now the cultural impact of the classic Rashômon (1950) is well known. It was the film that introduced the world at large to master director Akira Kurosawa and his frequent, infinitely watchable star Toshiro Mifune – and consequently to Japanese cinema as a whole – opening westerners’ eyes to one of the most important countries in the world of cinema. Nowadays it is such a linchpin of the canon that the film itself is often obscured by its legacy, so this new British Film Institute Blu-ray release of the 2008 restoration has a dual role to play: to place it into its cultural and historical context whilst letting the film stand on its own as the work of art as it is.
An essay, documentary and commentary by Stuart Galbraith IV helps locate the film in a time and place and sheds light on its production, but what this release really needs to do is cut through the cultural import and allow the film to be assessed on its own merits. It’s hard to separate Rashômon from the numerous renditions of its structure that came after. Aside from its US remake The Outrage (1964), it’s gone on to influence everything from The Usual Suspects (1995) to The X-Files. A story in which numerous characters recount an event from their own perspective, with their own interpretations and variations depicted, is now a trope and one forgets how revolutionary it once was.
The camera had made visible the internal workings of its character’s minds before, but it had never before been entrusted to such unreliable narrators. Its camera isn’t just subjective here, it behaves in the exact opposite way to how it’s supposed to: it acts to obscure the truth, over and over. It outright lies. We see a story in which a woman is raped and a samurai is murdered four times throughout Rashômon, but we never learn what actually happened. Such powerful questioning of the camera’s objectivity was audacious at the time, and even now that it’s a concept we’re familiar with, it still has the power to transfix.
This transfer is near pristine, the rich textures of Kurosawa’s painterly compositions clearer than have ever been available in the UK. It’s a relatively small film from the man who became famous for epics like Seven Samurai (1954) and Ran (1985), featuring only a handful of characters and settings, but it still has a mythic, bombastic quality, brought about not least by the intensely theatrical acting style that it employs that renders its characters as ciphers in its highly symbolic morality play. His use of deep focus is remarkable throughout, mapping the distances between his players as their relationships shift and transmute whilst still keeping their faces in close-up, emotions writ large.
Certain sequences have a hypnotic power that few other than Kurosawa can achieve – the passage in which the samurai tells his tale has a mystical intensity, the medium’s dancing like brushstrokes upon a canvas. The honour code by which the characters live their lives was out of the past in the 1950s and feels even more shocking now, but Kurosawa’s moral standpoint still shines through. Of course, Rashômon isn’t about what actually happened in its woodland grove. There is no enquiring search for the truth, just the despair of living in a chaotic world – when the idea that one of these stories might be true is suggested, the commoner replies, “Don’t worry about it. It isn’t as if men were reasonable.”
A desperate sadness for a more heroic, possibly fictional time permeates the film, looming over it like the crumbling gate from which it takes its title. But it’s in the film’s coda – a quiet, bittersweet cry for kindness and compassion – that Kurosawa’s enduring faith in humanity becomes clear. The wood may be thick, but there’ll always be the sun shining through the branches.
Adam Howard | @afahoward