Criterion // 1950 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // December 18th, 2012
"I don't understand my own soul."
Rashomon is the Citizen Kane of Japanese cinema. It pushed the boundaries of storytelling and composition into new artistic territory that's still being explored today. Whether it's the film's layered, repetitive story structure or the lengthy, complex camera movements, Kurosawa broke more than a few molds with this one. It's an important movie so, naturally, Criterion has put in the legwork to make it look better than it ever has before.
Kurosawa's film unfolds with three layers of storytelling, each composed with its own visual language. The first is reality: three men huddled under the Rashomon temple gate in the pouring rain. They're talking about a trial that two of the men (a priest played by Minoru Chiaki, and a woodcutter, Takashi Shimura, Seven Samurai) just testified in. The third, an abrasive commoner (Kichijiro Ueda), is fairly sure that everyone's lying. The second layer is the trial, a stark, plain courtyard where the actors face the camera, talking directly to the audience. It's a high contrast buffer between the first layer and the third: the grove where the murder was committed.
Throughout Rashomon the murder scene is replayed over and over, each from a different perspective. A bandit named Tajomaru (played by Kurosawa stalwart Toshirô Mifune, Yojimbo) comes across a couple traveling through the woods. Tajomaru ties up the man (Masayuki Mori) and rapes the woman (Machiko Kyô). A short while later, the guy is dead. Who killed him, how he died, and whether or not it was justified is undetermined. It's the grove scenes, which are some of the most beautiful in the film, where Kurosawa and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa really excel. Using mirrors to reflect light, leaves and branches to create mysterious shadows, and complex dolly moves that weave around the characters, the forest becomes a metaphor for the questionable, ever-changing testimonies in the trial.
Everything about the film works, including some of the risky twists attempted in the third act. The acting is superbly melodramatic; the score commands emotions; and the writing is direct and powerful. In the end, Kurosawa tosses you a sliver of hope in an otherwise depressing, pessimistic world, and you leave the film wondering how 88 minutes could be so awesome.
It's easy to recommend this movie, especially with the digital restoration found in this Blu-ray release; this may be one of Criterion's best restoration efforts. The 1080p transfer is clean and crisp, retaining just the right amount of grain from the original film stock -- there are a few scratches here and there, but they're more character-adding than distracting. The blacks are rich and inky but there's still plenty of detail. The visual style that Kurosawa imbued in the three layers of the film is highlighted here thanks to added contrast and clarity. There aren't any noticeable artifacts or digital hiccups, either. There's no better version of Rashomon out there.
While there's technically less Criterion could do with the film's sound (short of faking a 5.1 mix through trickery), Rashomon does have a new, uncompressed mono audio track. It sounds great across all channels, with a wonderfully even mix of music, dialogue, and sound effects. If there's any complaint with the film's presentation, it's that the subtitles can be a little tough to see: they're in white with only a slight black stroke around them.
Rashomon is also packed with special features, some recycled and some totally new. Carried over from the previous Criterion release, the disc has a fantastic audio commentary by film historian Donald Richie complete with a timeline so you can see what topics he covers; a video introduction by director Robert Altman; excerpts from The World of Kazuo Miyagawa, which goes in-depth with the film's cinematographer; and a booklet with reprints of the original short story. In addition to that already-great slate of supplements, there's also a 68-minute documentary called Testimony as Image, which catches up with a lot of the crew from the film, and an old radio interview with actor Takashi Shimura. Both of these new features are worthwhile and insightful.
It's hard to not be hyperbolic when talking about this film, or a number of other Kurosawa movies. The guy was certainly one of the best, and Rashomon is a great achievement. It's provocative, daring, and, now, looks better than ever. If you have a previous release, this is worth the high-def upgrade.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1950
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site