Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950): Japan

Reviewed by Kathleen Amboy.  Viewed on DVD.

  Three days ago, while strolling through the forest, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) discovers a woman’s hat strewn over a branch.  Ambling on, in motion to the non-diegetic drum beat, as bright sunlight cuts through the trees, he approaches a crime scene, and to his horror, it is the body of a murdered samurai.

  Prior to that, on the same day, a priest (Minoru Chiaki) was journeying along the road to Yamashina, and passed a veiled damsel upon a white horse, which was led by a very pleasant samurai, with sword and arrows at his side.  He surmises that “a human life is truly as frail and fleeting as the morning dew.”

  Two days prior, the well-known Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) was caught, and found in his possession were several arrows, “a leather bow, and a [white] horse.”  According to this notorious bandit, it was the stirring of the wind which caused him to trick the samurai and rape his wife.  But as luck would have it, he had “succeeded in having her without killing her husband,” because she encouraged him.  His original intent was to walk away, but she begged him, out of shame, to take her husband’s life, wherein both men fought valiantly, crossing swords “23 times.”

  An entirely different account of the ordeal is submitted by the samurai’s wife (Machiko Kyo).  The bandit forced her “to yield to him,” after mocking and humiliating her restrained husband.  After he strode away, cackling to himself, she embraced her husband and hurriedly attempted to release him, until his “cold light of loathing” unhinged her.

  Hypnotically swaying to and fro, his eyes followed every move, while she desperately tried to avoid the cold-hearted gaze, that contained “neither anger nor sorrow” from her beloved.  Becoming hysterical, she pleaded with her husband (Masayuki Mori) to beat her or kill her, but to not glare at her “like that,” until finally she demanded that he “stop!”

  A psychic medium was then brought forth on behalf of the dead husband, whereby his voice of pain testified from the grave, that Tajomaru suggested to his wife that they run off together.  Pointing back at her husband, while “in a trance,” she responded “take me wherever you want [but] please kill him!”

Rashomon is Kyoto’s dilapidated city gate, and a temporary shelter for three men (a priest, a woodcutter, and a commoner), who sit around a warm fire during a torrential downpour.  While dissecting the recent events, truths are revealed and distortions ripped apart, with every piece of kindling, ripped from the city gate and thrown into the fire.

As the rain pours, different versions come flooding out.  The priest and woodcutter remain dumbfounded by the courthouse testimonies they recently witnessed, and re-tell the proceedings to the commoner, who nonchalantly claims “it’s human to lie.”

Rashomon is a tale of light and darkness, truth and lies, but the light and truth are subjective.  With diffused lighting at the gate, and hard light at the courthouse, faces curiously change, in the evasive light and shadow of the woods, under variable testimonies of the crime.

Kurosawa’s camera observes each point of view with variant discretion – the wife’s beauty is luminous when the bandit catches his first few glimpses of her, and likewise the priest has a favorable first impression of the samurai as they pass on the road, however once the bandit has accomplished his dire deed, the wife suddenly takes on a cheap disposition, and the husband a distinctly cruel look.

A truly unforgettable scene occurs during the wife’s flashback.  Beginning with an over-the-shoulder shot, the camera is choreographed to the wife’s highly dramatic (Kabuki style) movements, as she sways back and forth, trying desperately to avoid her husband’s betrayed, fixed glare.  Eventually coming full circle, in a 360 degree move, we too are suddenly subjected to the samurai’s loathsome glare, as the entire scene builds in drama, while the background repetitive musical score – not unlike Ravel’s Bolero – builds in crescendo.




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