Saturday, January 9, 2016

Film Review: Rashomon

"Rashomon"  **** (out of ****)

[Note: This review will contain spoilers without proper spoiler alerts. Please do not read this review if you have not seen this movie.]

Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" (1950) is often described as being a story about perspective. Even the sheep (movie critics) explain the plot as such. If I ever hear one more person say this about the movie I am going to wonder if anyone has ever seen the movie.

"Rashomon" does tell us a story repeatedly from the viewpoint of different characters. But that isn't what the movie is about. What is being said during these multiple tellings of the story? That is what "Rashomon" is about.

"Rashomon" is a morality tale. It is a story about lies, honor, the human condition. A story commentating on evil in society. Human nature.

In "Rashomon" the viewer is told a murder has been committed. Three people were involved. A husband, wife and a bandit. The husband (Masayuki Mori) was mudered. But how he died is a mystery. Was it the bandit (Toshiro Mifune)? The wife (Machiko Kyo)? Or suicide?

The movie begins with a heavy rainstorm. Two men; a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) seek shelter underneath the Rashomon gate. They sit bewildered. The woodcutter mutters to himself he doesn't understand. The priest has a defeated expression on his face. Soon a third man (Kichijiro Ueda) runs towards them, also seeking shelter.

The third man immediately notices the state of the other two men. He inquires what is wrong. Both the priest and the woodcutter confide in the third man, they have heard an amazing story. A story only amazing because of the horror it reveals about people. Intrigued by such a description the third man again asks them what happened. A man was murdered they reveal. The third man bushes this off. Only one? Big deal. Just beyond where they are he tells them they will find five or six unclaimed bodies. The priest concurs, yes, violence is everywhere; war, earthquakes, famine, fire, plagues. Here Akira Kurosawa is making a point. The destructive nature of the world. However, keep in mind "Rashomon" was released post-World War II. Remember the destruction Japan had to endure with the dropping of the bomb. Keep in mind the number of lives lost. The psychological effects it had on the survivors. This conversation between the three men about destruction and evil in the world would resonate with audiences.

The priest and the woodcutter explain they have just come from the court garden where they have testified about the murder. The woodcutter found the dead body while the priest was the last man to see the husband alive, with the exception of the wife and bandit.

While at the court garden the two men heard three different versions of what happened. The bandit's story, the wife's story and the husband's story - through a medium that has channeled his spirit. All three versions are different with some themes overlapping. The three stories however share themes of honor, saving face and sacrifice. In each story the person telling their recollection of events presents them-self as the honorable one.

The first story we hear is that of the bandit. In this version the bandit was taken by the beauty of the wife. He was determined to "have" her but wanted to do so without killing the husband. The bandit, named Tajomaru, devises a plan to take the husband and wife off a busy trail. He lies to the husband, telling him he has found many swords and mirrors and asks the husband if he would like to buy some. The husband and wife follow. Tajomaru overpowers the husband and ties him up. In order to embarrass the husband, Tajomaru brings the wife to witness the spectacle and then rapes the woman.

As Tajomaru is about to leave, the wife pleads with him not to. One of the men must die. She simply cannot live knowing two men will be aware of her shame. She must save face. The two men must fight. Tajomaru, in his defense to the court, presents his actions as honorable. He did not murder the man. The husband defending himself. The husband wanted to protect the honor of his wife. But, Tajomaru was just too strong, too clever. But, he still admits the husband was a worthy opponent.

In this version we will notice the one who comes out looking the best is the bandit. His story emphasizes his strength and cunning. He tricked the husband, raped the wife, accepting her plea to save face, allowed the husband the opportunity to defend himself, but in the end the bandit kills him. Within these actions, the bandit wants to suggest he was honorable. He did allow the husband to defend himself. He did take pity on the wife's plea.

The next version we hear is the wife's. Now it is explained to us after Tajomaru rapes her he runs away laughing while the husband is still tied up. She cuts the rope with her dagger, which she offers to her husband. She asks that he kill her. She has been disgraced in front of her husband and now must present herself as a sacrificial lamb. The disapproving look on her husband's face is too much for her to bear.

The husband doesn't kill her though. She is still holding on to the dagger when suddenly her memory goes blank. She cannot remember what happened next because she fainted. When she wakes up her dagger mysteriously stabbed her husband.

Of course here all the honor belong to the wife. She knew what happened was wrong and her husband could never love her the same way again, knowing another man had slept with her. She is willing to sacrifice herself for her husband's honor.

What is interesting here between the two version of the stories are the gender stereotypes in play, especially concerning women. Although the movie is Japaneses, American audiences should been able to compare this story to a noir movie. The woman is the cause of violence. She is pitting the two men against each other. This will become more prominent in the husband's version of the story. Mr. Kurosawa was often accused, in his homeland, of not telling stories based on Japanese tradition. His stories were too "Western". One could definitely see "Rashomon" being remade in America as a noir movie.

The last story heard in court is the husband's. In this variation of the story after the rape of the wife, the bandit tries to console the wife. The bandit tells the wife, he did what he did out of love. Upon hearing this the wife tells the bandit she will go away with him but first he must kill the husband.

The bandit is taken aback by the wife's cruel request. Turned off by her hateful way, the bandit tells the husband he will tell the woman for him, all the husband need do is give the word. The wife runs away and the bandit it unable to catch her. He cuts the ropes off the husband and leaves.

The husband feels betrayed. His wife had asked another man to kill him. His wife was prepared to leave him. Feeling he has nothing left to live for the husband picks up his wife's dagger and kills himself.

This time around it is the husband that is the sacrificial lamb. Each spouse viewed their death as a way to preserve honor. And of course, each person was prepared to make that sacrifice because of how bound to tradition they were. Really hitting home the point they are honor to those hearing the story.

So, which version was true? How did the husband die? The woodcutter doesn't believe any of the stories. But how is he so sure? After repeated questioning, he finally reveals to the two men, he lied. He didn't just happen to discover the body but witnessed the murder.

In the woodcutter's version, elements of the previous stories are intertwined. Now after having raped the wife the bandit is pleading with the woman to come with him. He loves her. But, she says she is a woman. It is not her decision. The men must fight. She will go with the winner. So, the bandit unties the husband but, the husband doesn't want to fight. He is disgusted by her. He refuses to defend her honor after she has been been intimate with two men. The husband tells the bandit, he can have his wife.

The wife however tries to use reverse psychology and questions what kind of men are they? How could a husband not defend his wife's honor? And what kind of tough man does the bandit think he is, raping a woman and then not being man enough to kill the husband and take what he wants.

In three of the four stories the woman pitted the men against each other. Only in her version was their no fight. What does this tell us about the nature of women?

"Rashomon" tries to redeem some of the characters by the end of the movie by having the three men discover a baby, that has been abandon. One of them steals the blanket covering the child while the other two condemn the man.

After hearing a story about murder and betray and lies, as human try to cover their tracks and justify their evil behavior, we ask ourselves, is their any good in the world? Mr. Kurosawa cannot leave us with a story that tells us there is no hope for the world, can he?

In order to capture the element of truth and lies, good and evil, Mr. Kurosawa makes interesting lighting choices. Some scenes in "Rashomon" are bright, the court scenes for example, while others are darker and have a melancholy feel, the husband's version of events for example. Light symbolizing truth and darkness serving as evil.

Acting wise it is interesting to see characters act out different scenarios of the same story giving them the opportunity to display their range. However, none of the acting impressed me. What I come away with most watching "Rashomon" are ideas. That is why I have reviewed the movie as I have, running through the plot and interpreting the character's actions, hoping to get across how the themes of lies, truth, honor and morality are present.

"Rashomon" is an interesting movie but it may require multiple viewings. That may be too much of a challenge for some viewers but this is a thought-provoking film. One can also see the Western influence on Mr. Kurosawa's work, which may make his movies easy for Americans to digest. If you are willing to give "Rashomon" a chance, you will find it to be a rewarding experience. It is one of the great master's best films.