Rashomon (DVD)

If the greatest films of all time are also the most prismatic, Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece Rashomon deserves its high slot in the pantheon, for simultaneously encouraging and questioning every interpretation tossed in its direction. From the opening shots of an almost biblical torrent of rain, Kurosawa blankets the screen in layers of obscurity, filtering "the truth" through ambiguous images, conflicting testimonies, self-serving motivations, and subjective memory. As Robert Altman points out in his introduction to the film's sumptuous new DVD edition, people intrinsically trust what they see—"Seeing is believing," as the expression goes—but no one comes away from Rashomon with the same understanding of what happened. Kurosawa doesn't just muddy the characters' points of view; he divides the audience along with them, letting viewers bring their own personal histories and experience to bear on the story. Expanded from a pair of Ryunosuke Akutagawa short stories, both included in the DVD's extensive liner notes, Rashomon employs a radical flashback structure to look at a single event in the forest from four wildly varied perspectives, as recalled at a trial three days after the fact. The only uncontested truth is that a man (Masayuki Mori) was killed in an incident involving his wife (Machiko Kyô), who may or may not have been raped, and a bandit (Toshiro Mifune) who may or may not be responsible for the rape or the murder. The bandit claims the wife freely yielded to him and he killed her husband in a duel for her affections, the wife insists that she was raped and her unforgiving husband committed suicide with her dagger, and the deceased, speaking through a medium, pins full responsibility on his wife's womanly treachery. To confuse matters further, a seemingly impartial witness (Takashi Shimura) watched the whole thing unfold, yet even his testimony sounds conspicuously biased. Flip-flopping the conventional whodunit, which starts out with confusion and leads to a clear answer, Rashomon moves further away from the truth as more information comes to light. Every element in the film, from the dense thicket of forest branches to master cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa's deceptive framing and lighting design, is precisely calibrated to make the facts more difficult to discern. Winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1952, Rashomon not only altered film language significantly (and brought the legal term "the Rashomon effect" into the lexicon), but also opened up Japanese cinema to the Western world, which may be its most enduring achievement of all. With his elegant essay on the slipperiness of vision, Kurosawa bridged cultures with the common truth that what they see may be a lie.

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