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Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon DVD
Bilingual DVD
88 Minutes
Black and White
Akira Kurosawa
Criterion Collection
Home Vision Entertainment
One of Kurosawa’s strongest films, but not quite as good as Seven Samurai.
Overall Rating:

Animefringe Reviews:
Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon DVD
By Ridwan Khan

I’ve said it before, but Akira Kurosawa is one of the greatest directors of all time. The list of directors influenced by Kurosawa is long and includes such notables as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola. Among his films, Rashomon is one of the most recognized. It is, in fact, considered, one of the best known of all Japanese films. One of Kurosawa’s earliest films, it was not considered for competition in film festivals outside of Japan, until it was happened upon by competition judges from the West. Winning French and American awards Rashomon was the film that made Kurosawa the darling of Western cinema.

The film describes the murder of a samurai and the rape of his wife in the woods. The incident is described by the participating parties – however, as if taking a note from Emily Dickinson’s “tell it slant” all their versions are different. Along the way Kurosawa makes us question the subjectivity of reality and the human tendency to lie.

Rashomon opens at a dilapidated temple at Rashomon Gate. A priest, played by Minoru Chiaki, and a woodcutter, played by Takashi Shimura (both later appeared in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) lament the dismal state of the world as personified in some unnamed incident. A commoner runs from the rain pouring down outside and into the temple to see the two, staring off into space. As he begins to start a fire, he asks the pair what has put them in such a state. They begin describing their experiences in the case of murder of a samurai and the rape of his wife.

The woodcutter begins to describe how he was traveling through the woods and began seeing signs of a struggle. He continued on and found the body of the samurai in the woods. Following him, the priest describes seeing a samurai leading his wife on a horse. The two sit by as several more characters describe their relation to events. An officer describes catching the notorious bandit Tajomaru, who had a horse and a bow and arrow similar to those of the samurai’s. Tajomaru sits and listens, until he recounts his own version of how he killed the samurai and raped his wife. His account differs greatly from that of both the wife and the dead samurai (who speaks through a medium). Each of their stories serves to make the teller seem to be in the best possible light.

In this day and age of Law and Order it might not seem so profound, but when it came out, Rashomon was revolutionary. It did well in Japan and did even better in the West, winning France’s GP award and the Academy award for best foreign film. It stands up remarkably well today; the visuals are exciting (Kurosawa relied heavily on silent films for the look of all his movies, but especially Rashomon), and the story still is informative and relevant. Kurosawa shows how humans instinctively lie, to themselves and to the world, and how these lies become reality. The performances are brilliant. Toshiro Mifune displays his wild and precise style in this early film, a style that we see again in Seven Samurai. Machiko Kyo, playing the samurai’s wife, delivers an incredible performance as one of the strongest women in a Kurosawa film; her performance seems to be reincarnated in the later Kurosawa film, Ran. Masayuki Mori moves from style to style as his character is portrayed in different lights. Even Chiaki, Shimura, and Kichijiro Ueda (the commoner) enliven the film in their small roles. The only glaring weakness of the movie is the score (the one during the flashbacks; the Rashomon gate score is what the rest should have been); the film was one of Kurosawa’s earliest and it features a hideous, almost Disney-esque score, done in the style of Russian movies that influenced Kurosawa. Japanese films tend to have Western scores, since movies are considered a non-Japanese art, but i>Rashomon’s doesn’t have any of the beautiful subtly of Seven Samurai’s. It distracts from the movie as a whole.

And what of the Criterion release? Criterion DVDs are priced much higher than normal DVDs (usually around $25 to $30 USD), mostly due to the niche status of most of its releases. However, they do know how to dress up a DVD release. Rashomon is the best Criterion release of a Kurosawa movie so far. The DVD itself contains a commentary track by Donald Richie. Which, frankly, is a rehashed version of Seven Samurai's commentary, but Richie does offer a lot of insight into a complex film. Also featured on the DVD is a substantial NHK special documentary on Kazuo Miyagawa, the cinematographer of the film. The DVD’s booklet has several large texts, including an excerpt from Akira Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography and the two texts that influenced the film; Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s In a Grove and Rashomon. The DVD even has an English language track, which is more a novelty than useful feature; who would buy a nearly 50-year-old Japanese movie to watch it in English?

Weighing in at more than $30, it’s harder to recommend Rashomon than Seven Samurai. The latter has wider appeal, more action, and a more solid plot. However, for film buffs or Kurosawa fans, Rashomon is a must see.

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