Blu-ray Review: Rashomon

As I watched Criterion’s beautiful new Blu-ray edition of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, I noticed how patterns of three ripple through this masterpiece. You have, of course, the love triangle (well, more like a lust and violence triangle) that centers the story. But you also have the three men under the Rashomon gate. And the three intertwined locations where the complex story is told.

I’ve written about Rashomon before, specifically in Kurosawa Diary, Part 7: Rashomon. There, I wrote about where it stood in relation to Kurosawa’s films before and after it. This time, I’ll concentrate on the film itself.

In medieval Japan, a notorious bandit waylays a high-born couple in the woods, ties up the husband, and rapes the wife. The husband is killed, but who killed him and how? This story is told in flashbacks, and in flashbacks within flashbacks. They contradict each other.

Kurosawa, a director known for long and expensive epics, made Rashomon as a chamber piece. It runs less than 90 minutes, contains only eight actors, and was shot entirely out of doors during daylight hours. Not a frame is wasted.

The entire story is told within three locations, cutting back and forth between them. When the film moves to a different location, it also moves to a different time. Or more precisely, to a flashback.

The framing story is set under the large Rashomon gate, already a crumbling ruin when the story is set. Three men take refuge there from a rainstorm. They talk about a police investigation. Two of them gave testimony as witnesses, and they’re shocked by the contradictory stories and the larger implications of such contradictions. The third man, a cynic, enjoys listening to their stories and mocks them for their concern.

The second setting, also a framing story, appears to be a police yard. All we see is the ground, a wall, and people talking to an unheard, off-screen presence–presumably an investigator. Even the dead man, speaking through a medium, tells his version of what happened in the forest.

That forest is the third setting, and shows the incidents that fuel what everyone says in the others. Once again, it concentrates on three people–the no-love triangle that fuels the story. The husband shows utter contempt for everyone, including his wife (especially after she’s been raped). The bandit, motivated by a lust he confuses with love, wants to marry the woman whose life he has just ruined. And the wife, with no possible choices within the framework of her strict society, manipulates both men for ends she’s not entirely sure of.

The film also contains what I believe are Kurosawa’s first two swordfights–or, more accurately, two very different versions of the same swordfight. From the winner’s point of view, the duel is as romantic and exciting as anything with Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone. But from the point of view of a third party, comic ineptitude reigns, at least until the fight becomes, in its own clumsy way, frighteningly deadly.

Here, finally in high-def, is one of the best films by the world’s greatest filmmaker. You can’t possibly expect me to be objective.

imageFirst impression

This single disc package comes in a slightly thicker-than-usual clear plastic case. The front cover sports a color illustration of star Toshiro Mifune by Eric Skillman.

In addition to the disc, the case includes a 44-page booklet, which includes the film’s cast and credits, two essays (by Stephen Prince and Kurosawa himself, excerpted from his autobiography), the two short stories that the screenplay was based on, and "About the Transfer." The book also contains additional Skillman illustrations.

How it looks

Rashomon is a movie of textures. Dappled light coming through the leaves. Bright sunlight and flickering shade. Torrential rain. Human skin, wet and beaded with sweat. Photographed by the great Kazuo Miyagawa, it’s one of the most beautifully photographed black and white films ever shot.

Unfortunately, time has not been good to Rashomon‘s original source material. The camera negative and the prints made from it are warped, torn, and in poor condition. Fortunately, the film was painstakingly restored in 2008, and while the restoration didn’t quite bring it up to the original sparkling quality, it got close.

This Blu-ray is one major beneficiary of that restoration. I can’t call it consistent, but much of it glistens with the light, shadow, and wetness of Kurosawa’s and Miyagawa’s images. And even at it’s weak points, the transfer is still passible.

Except for one odd error. About 25 minutes into the movie, something really strange happens in one of those Kurosawa-patented wipes. As the wipe moves from left to right, replacing one shot with another, an extra bit of new shot appears on the left. I’ve never seen this problem before, and it’s certainly not on the older DVD.

How It Sounds

As usual, Criterion provides us with the original mix as an uncompressed PCM soundtrack. The audio strains a bit in loud scenes, but that’s the limits of 1950 Japanese sound recording, not of the disc. This is certainly as good, and probably better, than what Kurosawa originally signed off on.

The disc also comes with a Dolby Digital, laughably-bad, dubbed English-language track. Here, the actors all speak English with fake Japanese accents.

And the Exras

By Criterion standards, the offerings aren’t extraordinary. Most of them came with Criterion’s original DVD release. All of the video extras look like standard definition.

  • Commentary by Donald Richie. His voice is a little dull, but what he says is usually interesting. He talks about composition, character, editing, and plenty more.
  • Robert Altman on Rashomon: 7 minutes. Not that interesting.
  • The World of Kazuo Miyagawa: 13 minutes . Excerpt from a Japanese TV documentary about the cinematographer. Really fascinating.
  • NEW: A Testimony as an Image: 68 minutes. Rashomon script supervisor Teruuyo Nogami interviews people she worked with while making the film. Badly shot and edited, but be patient and you’ll get to some good stories.
  • NEW: Interview with Takashi Shimura: 16 minutes. Audio, only. A 1961 radio interview with the actor by Gideon Bachmann, with Donald Richie translating.
  • Original trailer:

Beautiful, exciting, depressing, existential, and in its final moments inspiring, Rashomon belongs on any list of great motion pictures. At least, that’s how I remember it.