by Allan Fish
(Japan 1950 87m) DVD1/2
Stories in the rain
p Jingo Minuora d Akira Kurosawa w Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto story “Inside a Bush” by Ryonosuke Akutagawa ph Kazuo Miyagawa ed uncredited m Fumio Hayasaka art H.Motsumoto
Toshiro Mifune (Tajomaru), Machiko Kyo (Masago), Masayuki Mori (Takehiro), Takashi Shimura (firewood dealer), Minoru Chiaki (priest), Kichijiro Ueda (commoner),
There are very few films in history that can truly be said to have become a word in themselves; Rashomon-like being a term applied to a plot that shows a tale in the past tense and from more than one angle. In the case of Rashomon itself, four ways, a method repeated in the awful US remake, The Outrage and, coincidentally or not, in the 1957 musical Les Girls. It opened doorways with regards to the restructure of cinematic narrative, quite appropriately considering the Rashomon of the title was a medieval gate.
In 11th century Japan, three men – a priest, a woodcutter and a commoner – gather under the ruins of the eponymous gate to shelter from the rain storm. The commoner finds the priest and the woodcutter shell-shocked and learns that they have been discussing the events of a few days previously that they have been party to. They relate the tale of how a famous bandit, Tajomaru, happened across a samurai, Takehiro, and his seemingly virtuous young bride, Masago, deep in the woods. With Takehiro found dead, all three relate their side of the tale (Takehiro by way of a medium), but is it the woodcutter, who saw everything unseen, who really knows the truth?
Rashomon is a film which revels in human weakness (“it’s because men are weak that they lie to themselves…”), from lust to pride to outmoded honour. Humanity is seen to be sorely lacking throughout, so not for nothing does Kurosawa introduce the crying baby at the end to restore the balance anew. But weakness can also lead to violence and that in itself, though weak, is terrifying. As the commoner says “the demon living here in Rashomon fled in fear of the ferocity of man.” Just as the gate lies in ruins, further destroyed by the commoner tearing planks off to light a fire to keep warm, humanity could also be seen to be in tatters. The woodcutter is in the end ashamed of himself for not telling all at the trial, but that is his weakness. The bandit’s weakness is his vanity in his reputation and in his lust for a woman. The samurai’s in dying and being overcome, losers always being painted as being weak. The odd one out here is the woman who seems weak yet is far from it, hiding an inner desire that can at best be described as dangerous. She’s the spark that lights the fire, sending the bandit into such lust that he rapes her, the samurai into such disgust he deserts her and, if we remotely believe her side of the tale, both of them into rage at each other by playing on their macho pride. The weakness is summed up perfectly by Mifune’s bandit when he admits “whenever I wanted to do something bad, I did it. That way it hurt less.” Weakness can thus be construed as taking the easy option.
Taking the easy option was something Kurosawa would never contemplate, not only in his characters but in terms of his narrative. Not only was his flashback structure revolutionary, so was every other aspect of the film; Hayasaka’s score seems to give a different theme for each character (with Kyo’s woman given a dreamy theme similar to Ravel’s Bolero) in a way later used by Morricone, Miyagawa’s photography is so far beyond gorgeous as to be in the next county. Among the iconic cast, Kurosawa’s two favourite actors, Mifune and Shimura, are superb in a big departure for them at the time (see Drunken Angel & Stray Dog), and Kyo likewise is unforgettable as the incendiary Masago, a vision with shaved eyebrows and dark haired mop, peering ghostlike from under her net (could this image have influenced Mizoguchi to cast her in Ugetsu Monogatari?). As for the film itself, unlike the characters in the film it has no apparent weaknesses. Acting, direction, script, music and photography combine to produce a film that knows that “a human life is as frail and fleeting as the morning dew” and, if maybe not quite as rich as his greatest films, it’s still an unquestionable masterpiece.