October 15, 2012

Rashomon (1950)
Grade: 77/100

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Machiko Kyô

What it's about. This Samurai murder mystery, told from four different perspectives, takes place in feudal Japan. It is the second most famous movie by legendary director Akira Kurosawa, trailing only the vaunted Seven Samurai.

The principals agree on the following: notorious bandit Tajômaru (Toshirô Mifune) encounters upper caste beauty Masako (Machiko Kyô) in an isolated forest and decides to rape her, despite the presence of her arrogant husband Takehiro (Masayuki Mori). Tajômaru accomplishes this by luring Takehiro deep into the woods, then tying him up. He leads Masako to Takehiro and has his way with her in front of her husband.

This is where the stories diverges, as told by Tajômaru, Masako, and Takehiro in court testimony. Since Takehiro was by then dead, a medium, Noriko Honma, provides it for him. A woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) who first reported the body of Takehiro later gives his version of the story, relating it to a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and thief (Kichijirô Ueda) finding shelter at a temple during a rainstorm.

How others will see it. Rashomon has always been highly regarded in the West. It won an honorary Oscar for best foreign language film, and BAFTA nominated it for "best film from any source." It did even better at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, winning the Golden Lion.

More than 60 years later, Rashomon is as beloved as ever. At imdb.com, it has a whopping 57K user votes (huge for a black and white Japanese movie) and a hefty 8.4 user rating. The only remotely sour note comes from women over 45, since 21% of that demographic gives the movie just 1 out of 10. Presumably, that comparatively small segment cares little for the way Masako is treated by her husband and the bandit.

How I felt about it. The first matter for discussion is, which of the four versions of the truth is most accurate? It is curious, not to mention confusing, that each of the three antagonists (Tajômaru, Masako, Takehiro) confesses as sole killer. This must have something to do with Japanese honor. Tajômaru claims it by killing Masako in self-defense; Masako by murdering her sneering husband; Takehiro by hari-kari.

But the most honest perspective is presumably from the witness, who has the least at stake and is thus the most objective. We find it implausible that the woodcutter watched the spectacle unfold and was unseen the whole time, but perhaps he was on a hill, while the others were in a valley, and perhaps the woodcutter has outstanding eyesight. Anything is possible in a movie.

Thus, we believe that Masako resisted briefly before submitting, strictly out of self-preservation. We also believe that Takehiro was scornful, and that Tajômaru murdered him, in a manner somewhere in between an Errol Flynn sword fight and two pigs wrestling in mud. Masako ran from the bandit, the presumed winner, and one can hardly blame her for that. It could well have been a fair fight between Takehiro and Tajômaru due to the supreme confidence of Tajômaru that he could best the husband.

What is the message of the movie? Are we all victims of our own biased perspective? Are we all liars, even to ourselves? Yes. That is the film's inescapable conclusion. We cover up our base actions and instincts with illusory noble motives.

Thus, the secondary storyline of a newborn child abandoned at the temple was apparently added to soften what might otherwise be seen as a misanthropic effort by Kurosawa. We are unconvinced of its necessity.