Sunday, January 24, 2016
(December 1951, U.S.)
...and we return you now to the world of Akira Kurosawa and what is easily the best film of his career, in my opinion. It's best known for a plot device that involves various characters providing alternative, self-serving and contradictory versions of the same incident, and as a result of the film, inevitably derived the real life term known as the "rashomon effect". For the film's story, the conflicting accounts are of a rape and a murder by the hands of a notorious bandit. Even as the film opens, we're immediately made aware of a "strange story" as it will be told not by those who testified of its events at a local court tribune, but rather those few, including a local woodcutter and a priest, who were sitting in the background of the proceedings and who are now thrown together sitting beneath the Rajōmon city gate trying to stay dry during a torrential downpour. One must truly experience the film to fully appreciate the visual impact of the ongoing hard rain in this film, but here's a quick shot anyway to give you an idea of what I'm talking about...
And while RASHOMON is not necessarily a very complicated story, it does require the patience and close attention so as to effectively keep up with and understand each person's version of what happened on that fateful day in the forest.
And so, here it goes...
According to the bandit known as Tajōmaru , he claims that he tricked the samurai to step off the mountain trail with him, where he then tied the man to a tree and then brought the man's wife there to witness what he'd done to him. She initially tried to defend herself with a dagger, but was eventually seduced by the great bandit. The wife, filled with shame, begged him to duel to the death with her husband, to save her from the shame of having both men know her dishonor. Tajōmaru honorably set the samurai free and dueled with him, where they fought skillfully and fiercely, but in the end the bandit was victorious and the wife ran away from him.
According to the wife known as Machiko, she claims that Tajōmaru left after raping her. She begged her samurai husband to forgive her, but he simply looked at her with cold, loathing eyes. She freed and begged him to kill her so that she would be at peace from her shame, but he continued to stare at her with total unforgiveness. His expression disturbed her so much that she fainted with her dagger in hand. She awoke later to find her husband dead with the dagger in his chest. Presuming she had committed this murder, she attempted to kill herself, but failed.
(you following all of this so far?)
According to the samurai known as Masayuki (WAIT! According to the samurai?? He's supposed to be DEAD!), well, really, according to the spirit of the samurai as translated through a rather freaky looking and sounding medium, he claims that the bandit Tajōmaru, after raping his wife, asked her to run away with him. She accepted and asked Tajōmaru to kill her husband so that she would not feel the shame of belonging to both men. Tajōmaru, shocked by this request, gave the samurai a choice of letting the woman go or killing her. Interestingly, his immediate reply is, "For these words alone, I was ready to pardon his crime." The wife fled, and Tajōmaru, after attempting to recapture her, gave up and set the samurai free. The samurai then killed himself with his wife's dagger, which was then later removed from his chest by a stranger.
And finally, according to the woodcutter known as Kikori, he claims that he was actually there in the forest to witness the rape and murder, that the first three accounts are false and that he also chose not to get involved at the trial. According to his story, Tajōmaru begged the samurai's wife to marry him, but the wife instead freed her husband. The husband was initially unwilling to fight Tajōmaru, saying he would not risk his life for such a spoiled woman, but the wife then laughed and criticized both him and Tajōmaru, saying they were not real men and that a real man would fight for a woman's love. Spurring the men to fight one another, she then hid in fear once they raised swords against each other. The two of them appeared fearful of one another as they began fighting. Tajōmaru ultimately won through a stroke of pure luck. After some hesitation he killed the samurai, who begged for his life on the ground, and the wife fled in horror. Tajōmaru was unable to catch her, but took the samurai's sword and left the scene.
So, by the time all four stories are told to us, we're likely no closer to knowing or understanding the genuine truth of what happened in the forest as we were at the beginning of the film. Perhaps this is Kurosawa's deliberate intent, in that, right or wrong, truth is ultimately dependent on one's own point of view. Honestly, we're not given the opportunity for such a resolution of the truth before Kurosawa has turned the tables of his message on us in the form of an abandoned baby beneath the same city gate the men have sitting under. Through this baby, we are suddenly confronted with the very existence of man's own moral dilemas and his very capacity for good and evil. Up until now, we are meant to believe, as maybe does Kurosawa, as well, that man is cold and lacks any faith in its own humanity. But even as it seems the film may close with this negative message bestowed upon us, the tables are turned (again) to the better side of life's beliefs when the woodcutter offers to take the baby and raise him as his own, not only restoring the priest's faith in mankind, but possibly our own, as well. As the film closes, the persistent hard rain has finally stopped and the clouds have opened, revealing the hopeful brightness of the sun in contrast to the beginning where the visual overcast of despair once reigned.
In closing with the description of the sun, it's important to note that one of RASHOMON'S key ingredients (if not, the one!) is the film's use of sun, light and darkness in its brilliant cinematography, which also manages to give the story and its characters a certain feeling of ambiguity. Sunlight may easily be interpreted as "good", while darkness may easily be interpreted as "bad", but it's also noteworthy to mention that there are specific camera shots of the sunlight just before the wife's acts of betrayal against her husband when deciding to run away with the bandit. Does this make her "bad", or merely fickle by her own impulses, as too many people are in real life? Who can say? We only have our real life experiences and dramas to compare with what art cinema chooses to give us.
RASHOMON is, without question, classic black and white art house cinema at its best! Were I to take the time to find any fault with this film, I would have to say it's minor flaws in performance where we are endlessly subjected to the irritating, maniacal laughing of Tajōmaru (played by Toshiro Mifune), as well as the childish crying by the wife Machiko (played by Machiko Kyō), which I honestly can't tell if they're genuine or fake tears. Either way, they're annoying as hell! Oh, well...small price to pay for cinematic genius, which we have so little of by today's Hollywood standards!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Commoner: "It's human to lie. Most of the time we can't even be honest with ourselves."