Invoke the phrase “greatest movie of all time,” and you’d better bring your A-game. Film fans don’t take their “bests” lightly; while fleeting passions may prompt easy praise (Avatar anyone?), smart folks know that real quality stands the test of time. Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is one of perhaps ten films that you could call the greatest out of the gate without immediately being challenged. An undisputed masterpiece, it not only established the director’s reputation but it changed filmmaking in the process. The good people at Criterion, always mindful of cinema’s legacy, have assembled a Blu-ray copy worthy of its exalted status. Hit the jump for my full review.
From a technical standpoint, the film is flawless. Dappled lighting renders the black-and-white landscape a gorgeous tableaux, while DP Kazuo Miyagawa finds innovative ways to emphasize the links between the contrasting narrative. Kurosawa often uses visual tools to convey his story, relying on dialogue only when absolutely necessary. It creates a very Western look for the film while remaining quintessentially Japanese. The genre often returned the favor, with American remakes attempting to find their own rhythm in his shadow. (1964’s The Outrage was an acknowledged remake of Rashomon.)
But the real innovation comes with the subject matter, an ostensible crime film upended by its daring central thesis. A bandit who murdered a samurai on the road stands trial for the crime. We get four different accounts of what happened, from the bandit himself, the murdered man’s wife, the victim (whose spirit is channeled through an intermediary) and a peasant who witnessed the crime but didn’t report it. None of them has any reason to lie, and yet each account varies so wildly that they’re almost describing different events.
Kurosawa never reveals which account is the “correct” one, and that’s really the point. There is no “real” outcome here, besides the fact that a man is dead. The subjectivity of memory colors our views of the world, and the truths we cling to can twist like quicksilver if we hold them up to the light. The philosophical implications are grim, but Rashomon ends on a hopeful note… not by revealing the facts to us but by learning to acknowledge our own flawed perceptions.
That applies to the tyranny of the camera as well as the characters. Filmmaking alters our viewpoints while hiding behind the façade of objectivity (a fact we’re all very aware of in our brave new Photoshop-enabled world). To reveal that in 1951 like Kurosawa did – to show multiple views of the same event and prevent the audience from trusting any of them – was nothing short of a revelation. Hitchcock tried using an unreliable narrator in Stage Fright the year before and when castigated for it, while the old “it was all a dream” cliché had already become tired and used up when Rashomon arrived. It strikes at the heart of cinema’s unspoken contract with the audience, and made us all more astute film watchers in the process. Its impact appears in such modern classics as Fight Club and The Usual Suspects, but even they can’t duplicate the elegance with which Kurosawa unfolds his tale.
Previous films like Stray Dog and Drunken Angel highlighted the director’s potential, but after Rashomon, he seemed to operate on an entirely different level. Countless American and European directors (including the likes of Roman Polanski, Ingmar Bergman, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese) claim him as a major influence on their work. Few films can claim the legacy that it does, and fewer still can genuinely say the medium was never quite the same. Rashomon is an indelible testament to cinema’s artistry, as potent today as when it debuted sixty years ago.
As expected, Criterion has done their usual bang up job on the Blu-ray. The case’s physical weight comes from a thick booklet containing scholarly essays, analyses and a segment on the film from Kurosawa’s autobiography. Historian Donald Richie provides the audio commentary (the same commentary that appeared on the 2002 DVD release), and the bonus features contain three documentaries – looking at Miyagawa, star Takashi Shimura and the film as a whole – along with trailers and a fascinating session with director Robert Altman talking about the film. It goes without saying that the image is gorgeous, of course, making this disc an idea way to experience one of the movies’ true watershed moments.