`Rashomon': The Artful Truth about Lies
Arnold, Gary, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
The great Japanese movie "Rashomon," an allegorical whodunit directed in 1950 by Akira Kurosawa, begins on a note of perplexity.
"I don't understand it, I don't understand it at all," muses Takashi Shimura as a woodcutter. He is taking temporary refuge from torrential rains under the roof of a majestic ruin, the Rashomon Gate, the southern portal of medieval Kyoto.
Shimura's state of mind is shared by a priest, played by Minoru Chiaki. When the brooding pair are joined by a passer-by, a cynical peasant played by Kichijiro Ueda and identified as "The Commoner" in the screenplay, the priest resorts to hyperbole. "There was never anything as terrible," he claims, alluding to the still-unexplained source of his companion's gloom. War, famine, epidemics - all pale in comparison.
The Commoner responds with skeptical impatience and mockery. No sermons, he insists, just tell me the story. Between what prove contradictory versions of the story, he dismantles the battered gate a little more, breaking up the scattered panels for firewood. His initial comic resistance to the prevailing mood plays out in funny ways once the mystery is eventually solved, during the fourth and final account of a recent case of rape, murder and incorrigible lying.
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When Toshiro Mifune died on Christmas Eve at 77, the management of the American Film Institute Theater had hoped to quickly program a career tribute. Mr. Mifune loomed large in both volume and influence: 120 features, including 16 in collaboration with Mr. Kurosawa from 1948 to 1965, when they produced such classics as "Rashomon," "The Seven Samurai," "Throne of Blood," "The Hidden Fortress," "Yojimbo," "Sanjuro" and "Red Beard."
A comparable Hollywood milestone might have seen us losing John Wayne, Marlon Brando and Gregory Peck in a matter of days. Mr. Mifune embodied heroic archetypes that we tend to associate with those actors separately. The hard-bitten man of action and sagacious loner that became a Wayne emblem at least as early as "Red River," when Mr. Mifune was still a novice, later personified the Japanese actor.
The insolent, instinctive young roughneck that typified early Brando was a Mifune style even earlier. As Tajomaru, the feral bandit of "Rashomon," he scratches and bellows and flaunts his animalistic appetites in a primitive context that the young Mr. Brando might have envied.
Moviegoers love the scowling, snarling, swaggering, swashbuckling Mifune. But the handsomely brooding idealists and crusaders that flattered Mr. Peck in such movies as "Gentlemen's Agreement" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" also were a Mifune specialty in Japan.
An adequate retrospective will not happen until at least April. Meanwhile, the AFI Theater will content itself with a brief revival of "Rashomon," enhanced by a fresh 35mm print - "the first in decades," according to programmers Michael Jeck and John Sery.
A new print is appealing, given the pride Mr. Kurosawa expressed in the movie's imagery, "an elaborately fashioned play of light and shadow," entrusted to cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa.
"Rashomon" remains a formidable and indispensable classic. It delivered Japanese cinema from the shadow of World War II when it was named the grand prize winner at the Venice Film Festival in 1951.
The Motion Picture Academy also did itself proud by voting "Rashomon" a special award as best foreign language film of 1951. It was another five years before a separate, annual voting category was installed for imported movies at the Academy Awards. A foreign movie had to command exceptional respect to win the honorary recognition.
Many of the pictures that commanded respect during the 1950s were pictorially streamlined and thematically sobering:"Rashomon," "Forbidden Games," "The Wages of Fear," "La Strada," "The Seventh Seal," "Pather Panchali. …