15:00 - 5th July 2015, by Calum Waddell


It is a testament to the lasting brilliance of Akira Kurosawa that when yours truly once quizzed Park Chan-wook, director of Oldboy, on the film which had inspired him, he immediately shot back with “Rashomon”. It is not difficult to see why this is: the movie’s Shakespearian layers of deception, intrigue, panic and suspense continue to cast a spell over anyone talented enough to attempt a similar, densely plotted story of mystery and madness. Watched today (it was released in 1950), what is most mesmerising about Rashomon is how quickly the film unfolds. Unlike so many of Kurosawa’s classic works, from Seven Samurai (1954) to Ran (1988), there is no bum-numbing length. Yet, in the same breath, it is easy to see why so many critics continue to argue that this is his crowning achievement. Kurosawa effortlessly un-spools various stories in quick succession, but with a totally convincing, and strangely epic, sense of time, place and era.

The basis of the film is focused on truth – and also the human capability for lies and dishonesty. Kurosawa asks if fictionalising actual events, regardless of how it may affect us or others, is just part of our nature. As such, Rashomon introduces to a court trial – which we experience in the past tense – which is linked to a horrendous rape and murder. A travelling outlaw, played by Kurosawa regular Toshirô Mifune, is faced with charges relating to the slaughter of a samurai and a concurrent sexual attack on his wife. Both bandit and wife address the proceedings – and so does the deceased swashbuckler himself (presented via a psychic). Meanwhile a fourth ‘witness’ – a woodcutter – dismisses the three who came before him and tells his own version of the events. The audience, and supporting characters, are consequently invited to wonder if fact and fiction are always interlinked. Indeed, can there ever be a real version of history?

Given that Rashomon was made in Japan’s immediate postwar climate – during the destruction of its own colonial Empire across Asia – one could argue that Kurosawa’s story is symbolic of his country’s own contemporary crimes. As the Japanese rape of China, and the invasion and enslavement of Burma, Hong Kong, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines and elsewhere was hurriedly hidden from a new generation, Rashomon’s obviously relevant tale of historical revisionism becomes all the more effective. On the other hand, such is its director’s skill that it could be argued Kurosawa is attempting to contextualise and conclude that finding an unbiased answer for why brutal acts are committed, or who even incited them, is easier said than done. Regardless, in capturing the confusion, and even repression, that must have surrounded his countrymen and women during this period, the filmmaker continues to provide food for thought with this, one of his most powerful projects.

As one would expect from a Kurosawa classic, Rashomon also features style galore. Few, if any, celluloid mavericks can stage a rainstorm like the old Japanese master – whilst the attention to period detail is simply faultless. Minimalist locations further succeed in creating a mood of enclosure and a feel of tepid, uneventful living. Indeed, one factor that has been largely uncommented on in critical talk of Rashomon is how Kurosawa’s use of mood allows us to understand why there would be such discussion, and misrepresentation, of a crime scene. Yet the subtle manipulation of his character’s placement allows us to understand – even unconsciously – that there is very little else worth engaging with. In a perverse way, the revelation of corporeal horror awakens the sleepy, countryside living of the various screen personalities. To this day, whenever a small town crime is committed, the ordeal is repeated – as exploitation and sensationalism frequently inspires the worst in humanity.

As a frequently sombre black and white outing that now dates 65 years, the young contemporary thrill-seeker may well wonder what Rashomon has to offer. Thankfully, when revisited now something becomes very clear – this is a masterpiece that has actually defeated the passing of time. Perhaps it is the use of such audacious elements as a medium – channelling the spirit of a murdered husband – but Kurosawa has dared, with Rashomon, to even introduce elements of the fantastical into what would, otherwise, be a far more straightforward drama. It is curious, in light of this decision, that his potent story of justice and honesty rarely gets any sort of grilling for its brief, but nonetheless compelling, shift into fantasy. Such a contention, of course, might horrify the more ‘esteemed’ Kurosawa-scholar but – for all intents and purposes – Rashomon is a genre project and a five star one at that.

Naturally, this is not the first time viewers will have had the chance to see Rashomon. But given the BFI’s dedication to glorious HD restorations, it is doubtful that we will see it treated with more care again – at least in the foreseeable future. Less of a lazy Sunday afternoon option than Kurosawa’s most expansive efforts, Rashomon is one for a late night bout of existential pondering – and a reminder that the best tales of corruption and crisis remain relevant even when their creator has long since passed.

A faultless thriller that comes recommended to even the most black and white-phobic of NEO readers…
SCORE: 5/5
TAGS: Rashomon, BFI
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