Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Rashomon (1950)

This is one of those films that suffers for its ingenuity, at least as far as later viewers are concerned. That is not to say that the film is any less important/well done/interesting than it was fifty years ago. What it is to say is that at this point, I’ve seen so many reviewers call other things "the Rashomon of _________" that it’s like raising a kid on The Lion King and then letting him find out about this guy named Shakespeare when he gets to high school.

Rashomon is reportedly when we learned that what we saw on screen, with our eyes, could not be trusted. I actually had to think about this really hard before I realized that that is a pretty harsh lesson. I’m a thoroughly post-modern kid; it seems to me I’ve known forever that I can’t trust anything I see, especially if the media’s involved. I never got disillusioned about that, because I was never illusioned. The way politicians’ fallibility doesn’t ever surprise me; I was born way post-Nixon. But think about this: you’ve been watching movies your whole life, movies which do not ask you to interpret what you see on screen. It’s a play. It’s a story played out in compressed time but pretty straightforward. Then you’re asked to watch the same story four times with four different outcomes, and Clue won’t be out for another several decades so you don’t even have that preparation.

That’s pretty disconcerting.

So, much in the way Citizen Kane looks to me now like an amalgamation of stuff other people have done, Rashomon is one of those classics I felt guilty about not having seen but wasn’t astonished by for the reasons I was supposed to be. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and I learned a lot of other things. For instance, Toshiro Mifune is one badass mother. This guy is crazy. And utterly brilliant everywhere I see him; he’s like an animal, a force of nature, one of those prints from Japanese theater come to larger-than-life. I often wonder, watching him, if he would be as entertaining in English. Would it all seem over the top if I could actually understand?

Does it matter?

Visually, the film has a lot to offer as well, as Kurosawa and cinematographer Miyagawa create not only a fantastic rainstorm framing device but a richly shadowed forest (watch the patterns of leaves on Mifune as he rests by a tree), a tracking shot that curves around a woodcutter as he ventures into the woods, a direct shot of the sun, and the beautifully poetic costume-choreography of the medium. I also very much liked the fact that though the film was structured as an interrogation, one never hears the questions—only receives the answers from the participants as they stare out at you from the screen. Despite the familiarity of the narrative, they, and the movie, still have a lot to tell us.

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