Thursday, December 16, 2010


I have always liked the unreliable narrator as a plot device.  Why should I assume that the person telling the story is telling the truth, anyway?  Isn't it just how they see things?  Whether it be used in poetry, prose, or film, I always enjoy a well-constructed story where I don't know what I am supposed to believe.  Of course, the subjectivity in storytelling is not a new concept; ask the police how often they get conflicting statements from witnesses that saw the same event.  That phenomenon --- people recollecting the same event in wildly different ways --- is sometimes called the Rashomon Effect.  Why?  Well...

Toshiro Mifune as Joakim Noah
Rashomon is the story of a rape and a murder.  Having fun yet?  Actually, it's the story about the stories about the rape and murder.  During a heavy rainstorm, a commoner in Feudal Japan seeks shelter in a large, decrepit gate.  There, he finds a woodsman (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki), both staring into nothingness; the woodsman keeps repeating "I don't understand."  The two men were just in court, testifying in the case of the death of a samurai and the rape of his wife.  That sounds simple enough, and each of their stories is.  The priest encountered the couple on a road, shortly before they were victimized.  The woodcutter came across the scene afterward; while walking in the woods, he found a woman's hat on the ground, and later some rope that had been cut, and then he found the samurai's body.  The twist comes when the other witnesses testify.  The infamous bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), the wife (Machiko Kyo), and --- through a medium --- the dead samurai (Masayuki Mori) himself, and all of their stories conflict.  Shocking, I know.  The surprising thing is that, instead of shifting blame onto another, all three witnesses accept the blame themselves.  Why would anyone willingly take a murder rap?  If you buy into the idea of unreliable characters, how can this ever be resolved?  Who do you believe? 

Rashomon was the first work of director Akira Kurosawa that received international acclaim; for the next decade and more, he would be one of the most respected directors in the world.  The reason for that respect is the amount of meaning he can pack into visual imagery; this story does not answer all of its own questions, so Kurosawa provides answers subtly.  In this film, the presence of sunlight and clouds is important, as is the rain.  These things don't jump out at you when you are watching, but I found myself believing one story over the others, primarily (I figured out later) due to lighting effects.  As you might guess from that, there is a lot of symbolism in Rashomon, although noticing it isn't essential to enjoying the movie.  For example, all the stories are told while the characters are seeking shelter at Rashomon gate; you don't need to realize that the gate functions as a gateway to the stories (among other things), but it's a nice artsy touch.  And that artistic bent is fueled by the cinematography, which does an excellent job framing each scene to show only what is important to the story.

The acting in Rashomon is kind of strange.  In some ways, it is very over-the-top and theatrical, but it can also be very subtle.  Most of the cast is pretty low-key, and each actor plays their part well.  Toshiro Mifune and Machiko Kyo are the best examples of the theatrical acting; both break out into abrupt, loud laughter at key moments and the effect can be jarring.  On the one hand, I sometimes want to give the movie a "what the hell was that" laugh, but if you just turn your trucker hat around and roll with the over-the-topness ("it's like flipping a switch...!"), you begin to appreciate it by the film's end.  I always enjoy Toshiro Mifune in his Kurosawa roles, and this one is no different; he excels at being a charming scumbag and he has some of the best nonverbal acting around (although a lot of it involves him scratching himself).  Machiko Kyo begins the movie as a typical damsel in distress, but she gets positively nasty by the end.  I'm a little creeped out by the traditional Japanese custom of women plucking all their eyebrows out and drawing exaggerated ones on their forehead, but Kyo did a great job with an uncommonly complex (for the time) female role.
"Washing your forehead would be a good start."

I think I appreciate this movie more than I like it.  I get the symbolism and the technical prowess of the filmmakers, and I enjoyed the acting.  The action is pretty good, particularly the completely graceless (and therefore, probably more realistic) final fight between the samurai and the bandit.  I really like the idea of several conflicting stories of the same event, but something about the story leaves me unsatisfied.  Maybe it is the setting; having a crime story with so many complicated ideas is tough enough, but factoring in foreignness as well as a different time period seems like an unnecessary hurdle to overcome.  The plot's not difficult to follow (deciding what is the truth is hard, though), but my knowledge of samurais comes largely from a James Clavell book.  One of the key points of the plot revolves around old Japanese values, and the film might have had more of an immediate impact on me if I was actually familiar with those values.  Still, this is an interesting, intelligent film that makes the gutsy choice to let the audience decide what really happened.
Does anyone dislike this movie?  The answer is no.

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