A riveting psychological thriller that investigates the nature of truth and the meaning of justice, Rashomon is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made. Four people recount different versions of the story of a man’s murder and the rape of his wife, which director Akira Kurosawa presents with striking imagery and an ingenious use of flashbacks. This eloquent masterwork and international sensation revolutionized film language and introduced Japanese cinema—and a commanding new star by the name of Toshiro Mifune—to the Western world.
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
I first saw Akira Kurosawa's 'Rashomon' during an elective film class while attending Cal State Los Angeles in 1992. I remember it vividly because Michelle and I, who were in an undefined relationship at the time, had to make our way across campus in a bad rainstorm, like the one that occurs in the film. The trek from the school parking lot to the classroom was a long haul, and without any umbrellas, we ended up soaking wet. The discomfort we experienced as a result of our clothing contributed to both of us being in foul moods, and later that night, we got into such a bad argument that I ended things between us. About three years later, we ran into each other at a local bookstore and decided to sit for coffee and talk. Turned out she remembered the end of our relationship differently, so whose version of what happened was the truth? Mine? Hers? Both? Neither? Did the story even happen?
Kurosawa dealt with the question of truth in his masterpiece 'Rashomon,' which opens as two men, a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), hide out from the rain near a dilapidated gate. A third man, identified as a commoner (Kichijirô Ueda), comes upon and finds them in a bewildered state. He inquires and they reveal they have just attended a trial and don't know what to make of the proceedings.
The woodcutter tells of finding a murdered samurai (Masayuki Mori) in the forest, along with a woman's hat, the samurai's hat, and cut ropes. The priest had seen the samurai and his wife (Machiko Kyô), earlier that same day. Both men were called to testify and stayed for the whole trial. The woodcutter then relates the testimony of the three main witnesses to the commoner. Kurosawa and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa shoot with the camera in one still position. No judges can be heard and essentially, the witnesses speak directly to the audience.
The bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) is brought in and accused of the murder. His version of the events is what you'd expect from a bandit. After testifying, he is asked about the wife's dagger, and says he is disappointed he left it behind. The wife follows and offers a different story of what took place between the three, uncertain of how her husband died. Through the use of a medium, the samurai tells yet a third version of what led to his death, different from the previous stories. He claims the dagger that killed him was removed from his chest, but he didn’t know by whom.
After telling all this to the commoner, the woodcutter reveals he witnessed what had happened, though he didn't tell the court. He offers a fourth and final version for the commoner and the audience to mull over. While the stories of the participants cast themselves in the best light, the woodcutter's story should be free from conceit since he was an innocent bystander, but is he any different from those that have gone before? And if not, can his version of the truth actually be the truth?
'Rashomon' is an outstanding film with the most impressive elements being the cinematography and the acting. Miyagawa's use of light, shade, and atmosphere make for an exquisite-looking black and white film, with the rain dictated by the story for thematic effect. The three lead actors get to stretch out and play a wide range of emotions, as their characters behave differently in each story. Kurosawa certainly chose the right cast and crew.
Based on two short stories by Ryûnosuke Akutagawa, "Rashomon" and "In a Grove," both of which are presented in the booklet by Criterion, Kurosawa became an international sensation with 'Rashomon,' earning honors at the Venice Film Festival and the Academy Awards. If he had never made another film, which would have been a great loss considering the many triumphs throughout his career like 'Seven Samurai' and 'Ran', he would still hold an important place in film history as the critical and commercial success of 'Rashomon' is credited with leading Western audiences to Japanese films.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Rashomon' (#138 in The Criterion Collection) is a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a 44-page booklet containing "The Rashomon Effect" by Stephen Prince, "Kurosawa on Rashomon" from Kurosawa's "Something Like an Autobiography;" and the two source stories.
'Rashomon' was restored in 2008 by The Academy Film Archive; The National Film Center of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, and Kadokawa Pictures, Inc. The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.37:1.
The liner notes reveal, "The basis for the restoration was a 35mm black-and-white print held in the collection of the National Film Center in Tokyo. Made in 1962 from the original camera negative, the print itself was in good physical condition, but the negative from which it had been made was extremely battered due to extensive printing and handling over the years; many shots had started to shrink and warp, and there were numerous scratches and abrasions. Moreover, dust, dirt, and other artifacts from the damaged negative had been photographed into the print."
"The print was scanned at 4K resolution at Lowry Digital in Burbank, California. The original scans were then converted to 2K files for extensive image processing and cleanup. Certain damage could be repaired using Lowry's automated software, but many frames had to be cleaned by hand. The warping in some shots and the blurring of every second frame of the film were addressed with customized visual effects tools. Once the image restoration was complete, two 4K digital intermediate 35mm negatives were produced, as well as a complete digital archive of both the raw scan and the restored image files."
A great variety of grays are on display. Blacks are deep and rich. Whites vary, appearing solid in some shots, and problematic in others. Bright backgrounds in the sun-lit exteriors overwhelm the frame at times and the shots into the sun and reflected sunlight into faces bloom and lose image detail as seen when the woodcutter is first seen walking through the forest.
While the transfer offers great details at times, as seen in the textures of the wood at the gate, in the garments worn, and beads of sweat, softness appears as well, usually seen in background items and likely an issue with the source. Film grain can be seen as well as occasional, though faint, marks on the film. There's also a slight jitter during the wife's testimony.
The audio is available in Japanese LPCM 1.0 and the liner notes state, "The film's audio was restored from the 1962 print and a fine-grain master positive in the Kadokawa Foundation's collection. The elements were transferred at DJ Audio in Los Angeles, and Audio Mechanics in Burbank identified the best source element for each shot, in order to create a seamless soundtrack."
The Japanese dialogue sounds clean and clear. The dynamic range is limited, revealed through the characters' shouts and whispers and Fumio Hayasaka's score, which has the harp on the high end and the oboe on the low end. The rain at the gate was the most prominent sound effect, coming on strong towards the end, yet never overpowering the other elements in the mix. Also, available is a mono English dub.
- Commentary – Criterion reuses the 2002 track from their DVD by Donald Richie, Japanese-film historian and author of "The Films of Akira Kurosawa." He offers insight into the film and the state of Japan's film industry at the time.
- Robert Altman on 'Rashomon' (1080i, 7 min) – Altman discusses the film's impact and how he incorporated some of the techniques on his very next job as a television director.
- The World of Kazuo Miyagawa (1080i, 13 min) – An excerpt from a Japanese documentary about the cinematographer. It's unfortunate more wasn't made available.
- A Testimony as an Image (1080i, 69 min) – 'Rashomon' script supervisor Teruyo Nogami reunites with members of the cast and crew to reflect on their experiences working on the film. In contrast to previous extras, this could have been cut down with editing.
- Interview with Takashi Shimura (16 min) – An audio interview from 1961 between Shimura and film critic Gideon Bachman at the 1961 Berlin International Film Festival with Richie providing the translation.
- Trailer (HD, 3 min) – The original Japanese trailer is included.
Coming five years after WWII, Kurosawa's 'Rashomon' is a landmark film that helped reveal a common humanity by way of a crime drama that explores how people cope by lying to others and themselves. Each viewing offers more understanding of the story and more appreciation of the film's components.
Criterion does a marvelous job presenting this recently restored version of the film and offers a good deal of extras to further explore the material.
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