Rashomon [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (7th October 2018).
The Film

"Rashomon" 「羅生門」 (1950)

Note this review has major spoilers for both "Rashomon" as well as "Seven Samurai"

Taking shelter at the partially destroyed Rashomon gate are two men, a woodcutter (played by Takashi Shimura) and a priest (played by Minoru Chiaki) both of whom earlier in the day testified at a court hearing. A commoner (played by Kichijiro Ueda) rushes to also take shelter and sees the two men, both distraught and confused by what had happened at the hearing. The men try to explain to him what they had witnessed and see if he could make any sense out of the seemingly simple yet unusual outcome.

A samurai husband (played by Masayuki Mori), his wife (played by Machiko Kyo), and a bandit named Tajomaru (played by Toshiro Mifune) were involved in an incident. The wife was raped and the husband killed. The woman escaped and the bandit was later caught by a policeman (played by Daisuke Kato). The case seems simple enough, but getting to the truth of the incident proves difficult, as each of the testimonials given have some differing details of how the events unfolded. Who is telling the truth? Who is telling a lie? Is anyone telling the absolute truth?

Due to a labor dispute at Toho in 1948 where director Akira Kurosawa was employed, the filmmaker was able to find work as a licensed director at other studios, starting with Daiei in 1949 with "The Quiet Duel". For his second feature at the studio, he looked to make an adaptation of celebrated writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa's work, which at the time none had ever been adapted to the screen. An idea to film an adaptation of Akutagawa's 1922 short story "In a Grove" (Yabu no naka) was previously passed over by Toho s being difficult to understand and grasp. With some rewrites, restructuring and addition of wraparounds and themes inspired by Akutagawa's 1915 short story "Rashomon", the project was given a greenlight at Daiei with a fairly small cast and limited setpieces for the production. The cast was comprised on only nine actors including the uncredited baby. The large gate was the biggest and most expensive piece of the production which was constructed on the Daiei lot in Kyoto. All other scenes were also shot outdoors - in the forests of Nara, along a riverbank, and the sparsely set outdoor court scenes.

What separated "Rashomon" from all other films at the time was the use of the camera as a character itself. Not in the sense of "found-footage" but as in the camera becomes the unreliable narrator. In film language whatever is shown on screen is "truth" - from what characters say, what the environment looks like, the actions that take place. There are exceptions, such as a dream sequences for example, but even in those cases it can be said that it is true the character had that specific dream, in which case it is "truth". "Rashomon" was the earliest major film to break the rule. After the woodcutter explains the story of finding the body, alerting the authorities, and hearing the testimonial of Tajomaru humiliating the husband by violating the wife and then killing the man, the story shifts entirely when the testimonials of the wife is repeated, an then the husband's from beyond the grave is also given. The stories contradict each other. Was the husband killed or was he murdered? Did the wife order Tajomaru to kill her husband for her? Did she actually enjoy the moments of being with another man? During the course of the film, four versions of the same incident are shown, all told from differing viewpoints. Whatever was shown on screen was not necessarily what happened. Whether it's the saying of "every man is right in his own eyes", or a victim or perpetrator trying to retain some form of dignity, the complete facts of what had happened will never be known. With many real life sexual assault cases such as, the actor/comedian/serial rapist Bill Cosby cases, the most recent United States Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh hearings, and countless others in the #MeToo movement, there are usually two sides to the argument, and whether all the facts are presented or not, people will side with one or the other whether it's political, social, or personal reasons. "Rashomon" moves the case beyond that by introducing more than just two sides of the story, and the audience must decide for themselves where the truth was. In addition the ending also suggests that the Woodcutter was also lying about a key fact, and in turn makes all versions of the incident questionable. The audience is never shown the outcome of the court hearing, nor are they shown the actual judge during the court scenes. Was Tajomaru sentenced? Was the wife arrested? That is never answered, nor is it important to.

Not only was the narrative structure groundbreaking but so was the cinematography and the music. This would be the first of three collaborations with famed cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa and Kurosawa (the others being "Yojimbo" (1962) and "Kagemusha" (1980)) and the camerawork would be filled with visuals that were incredibly impressive. From having the camera pointed at the sun for lens flares in the opening, the incredibly intricate tracking shots seen throughout, the use of shadows and light reflecting off some off-camera mirrors within the forest, and the uses of closeups were magnificent, unlike any other productions of the period. Composer Fumio Hayasaka worked with Kurosawa from 1948's "Drunken Angel", and later on 1949's "Stray Dog" and 1950's "Scandal". "Rashomon" was the composer's first period film for Kurosawa, though the score was not treated as such. Borrowing from European rhythms including bolero and using strings and horns rather than traditional Japanese instruments, the score had a strangely modern European flavor yet somehow works in marrying with the visuals. It's one of the composer's most recognizable scores, along with "Seven Samurai" and "Ugetsu", but his career in composing would not last long, as he died of Tuberculosis at the age of 41 in 1955 while working on the score for Kurosawa's "I Live in Fear".

As for the performances, Toshiro Mifune as Tajomaru was an absolute standout, as his facial expressions, his infectiously strong laugh, and his silly mannerisms were unlike any other character of major cinema. Machiko Kyo had the most transformations in character as the wife, from dignified helpless woman, to a woman in emotional and physical distress, to a wickedly manipulative bitch. Masayuki Mori's character may have had the least in terms of emotional and physical performance, but as a nobleman that wouldn't show his weakness at face, it is very understandable. Takashi Shimura's performance as the woodcutter is in some ways similar to the character of Watanabe from "Ikiru" which he would play in 1952 for Kurosawa, and a far cry from the headstrong characters he would play in "Stray Dog" and "Seven Samurai". As with a Kurosawa film, most of the film's actors would continue working with the director. With a film that relied on visuals and especially closeups, the actors were able to use facial expressions to full effect and greatly helped the rhythm and tone.

There is interesting foreshadowing to Kurosawa's later film "Seven Samurai" in the final scene of "Rashomon" with the woodcutter and the priest. When the woodcutter offers to take the abandoned baby and give it a new home, he says the following line to the priest. (Note this is not the English translation from the BFI subtitles nor the Criterion subtitles, but my own translation.)

Woodcutter: "I have six children in my household. Whether it's having six or having seven, the struggle is the same."

In "Seven Samurai", the character of Heihachi is the optimistic and supportive samurai and happens to be the first of the seven to be killed. Following his death, the good spirit of the villagers turns to sadness losing their hope. But as the rambunctious samurai Kikuchiyo points out, it is no time for crying and whether six or seven, the struggle is the same to protect the village, with everyone having to pull together even more to compensate. In "Rashomon" the woodcutter played by Takashi, who also plays the leader Kambei of the seven in "Seven Samurai" tells the priest played by Chiaki, who also plays the first doomed Heihachi in "Seven Samurai". It was almost as if he was foretelling the character of his death in another film. Interestingly and pointed out in the commentary track on the BFI disc, the deaths of each samurai in "Seven Samurai" are almost opposite of how the men died in real life, with Chiaki outliving the other six actors, passing away on November 1, 1999 at the age of 82. Shimura passed away on February 11, 1982 at the age of 76, and played one of the three samurai that survived the final battle.

Getting back to "Rashomon", Daiei's executive producer Masaichi Nagata was not pleased with the finished product, not seeming commercially viable. His name was not included on the credits like most other Daiei films, but was still able to recoup costs being one of the more successful Daiei films of the year in Japan. Nagata still wouldn't see it as a "success". Interestingly the film's recommendation for international release came from someone outside the film industry - Japan-based Italian teacher Guiliana Stramigioli who recommended the film to an Italian film agency for inclusion in the Venice Film Festival. It became the first post-war Japanese film to receive an international screening, and surprisingly won the Grand Prix at the festival - the Golden Lion. It later won an Academy Award for foreign language film and many more internationally. Although Daiei had no hope for the film abroad, it opened the floodgates for Japanese cinema to a world audience, reinvigorating the country on the international scene only five years after the end of World War II. Although Nagata disowned the film before, he was only happy to receive the international awards on behalf of Kurosawa, a gesture that Kurosawa always felt was unjust.

With many works from 1964's adaptation "The Outrage", the character of Verbal's testimonials in "The Usual Suspects" in 1995, multiple views and video feeds in 2010's "Vantage Point", the impact and influence that "Rashomon" had is undeniable. Nearly seven decades later, the film continues to reach audiences, question them, and make them think about what they saw, as well as what they didn't see.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray

Video

The BFI presents the film in the original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, in 1080p in the AVC MPEG-4 codec. In 2008 the film was restored by the Academy Film Archive in association with the Kadokawa Culture Promotion Foundation and the Film Foundation, with the primary source being a 35mm print struck from the original negative in 1962, held at the National Film Center in Tokyo, Japan. Due to it being printed twelve years after the film had been originally made, the print included damage from the negative such as cuts, scratches, warps, and film shrinkage due to handling over the years. The print was scanned in 4K for preservation and digital restoration, removing and correcting extensive damage from the image. Many of the major issues were corrected such as specs, scratches, and warps, though not all could be corrected. There are some instances such as the opening credits in which a little wobble still remains. Very minor specs can still be spotted from time to time. Grain structure changes from shot to shot. But in comparison to previous home video releases prior to 2008, the restoration is an incredible step up, with consistent grey levels, fine details in closeups, and an image probably clearer than when it was first projected in cinemas.

I personally saw the 4K restoration in motion when it was screened at the National Film Center in 2008. I was absolutely in awe with the restored black and white image, which even though I had seen the film multiple times on DVD and television, this was like seeing it for the first time, both because it was on a large screen and because of the restoration correcting many of the flaws from before. The 4K restored version received its home video debut on Blu-ray in Japan in early 2009 from Kadokawa, the rightsholders of the Daiei Studio's works. It wouldn't be three years later until 2012 that an English-friendly Blu-ray of the 4K restoration would be released, by The Criterion Collection in the United States. For the UK another three years would pass when the BFI would release their Blu-ray of the restored version. Having viewed both the US and UK Blu-rays, they thankfully are both very faithful transfers of the restoration.

The film's runtime is 88:14 which also includes text screens on the restoration at the start of the film.

Audio

Japanese LPCM 2.0 mono
The original mono track was restored using both the 1962 print and a fine grain element. Considering that all of the dialogue was recorded outdoors, including the ADR done outside, the experimental nature also created a less than ideal audio track. In addition, Mifune has always been known as having a unique voice that was equally powerful as it was hard to understand with vintage microphone equipment. The audio elements were digitally restored to remove hisses, pops, crackle, and other damage, but again, only so much could be done to restore the sound. An underlying hiss remains on some portions, some of the voices can sound slightly distorted, especially in yells and screams and other high pitched sounds. One scene that was always problematic was with the female medium speaking with the hollowed voice of the husband from beyond the grave, the sync issue with his voice and her mouth was always noticeable. While it seems some correction has been applied to try to sync the sound and image better, the mouth not matching the dialogue is still noticeable. Fumio Hayasaka's memorable score also has its fidelity issues sounding a little flat, but is still very effective. Considering the source material there was so much that could be done. It may not be on the same level as the image restoration, but the audio track is still fine, though underwhelming.

There are optional English subtitles for the main feature in a white font. The translation is different from the one used on the Criterion Blu-ray with some slightly different wording. The subtitles are free of errors and are timed accordingly.

Extras

Audio commentary by Stuart Galbraith IV
Author of "Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune", Stuart Galbraith IV (who we interviewed in 2017) gives an exclusively recorded solo commentary for the feature, packed with solid information. From the background on the making of the film, biographies for the actors and crew, comparisons to the original source material to the film, connections to other Kurosawa productions, the reception, and much more are discussed. Galbraith has contributed to numerous commentaries over the years with well researched information and this one is no different. An excellent track that covers many bases.
in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

"John Boorman on Rashomon" featurette (5:59)
Filmmaker John Boorman, who directed Mifune in the 1968 film "Hell in the Pacific" gives some of his thoughts and memories of Kurosawa's films as well as meeting him in person. Boorman seems to be asked the question suddenly, so his speaking isn't exactly smooth with some blank spaces and time for thinking. This interview was previously on the UK Optimum Releasing DVD of the film.
in 576i MPEG-2, in 1.78:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

"Rashomon at 65" 2015 documentary (34:03)
Directed by Galbraith, this documentary visits key locations and also includes interviews with some noteworthy crew members and family. Visited are the monument where the Rajomon gate once stood in Kyoto, the forest in Nara where the forest scenes were shot, and the locations of where the Daiei studio once stood. There are some newly conducted interviews with Tsutomu Nakamura formerly of Daiei, the film's sound recordist Iwao Otani, as well as Mototsugu Hayashi, the son of the film's sound assistant Tsuchitaro Hayashi. Otani was 95 at the time of the interview. He died on August 3, 2017 at the age of 97. Tsuchitaro Hayashi died on July 9, 2015 at the age of 93. His son Mototsugu who also became a sound engineer was undergoing treatment from lung cancer at the time of the interview, and less than two months after his father's death, he also passed away on August 23, 2015.
in 1080i 60hz AVC MPEG-4, in English/Japanese LPCM 2.0 with optional English subtitles for the Japanese portions

2010 BFI theatrical reissue trailer (1:50)
The reissue trailer is similarly edited to the US Janus Films restoration trailer, with the music fully re-orchestrated in stereo. It's easily one of the most well made reissue trailers out there.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.37:1, in Japanese LPCM 2.0 with burned-in English subtitles and English text

Booklet
A 24 page booklet is included, with an essay, film credits, special features notes, transfer information, acknowledgements, and stills. There is only one essay but a lengthy one, by Stuart Galbraith IV entitled "Gate to the World" which is a sightly edited version of the same essay found in his book "The Emperor and the Wolf". While there are some passages that are repeated in the commentary track, it is an excellent essay covering numerous aspects of the film.


The restored edition of the film was first released on Blu-ray in 2009 in Japan by Kadokawa. It strangely didn't carry over most of the extras from the Pioneer DVD edition, including the lengthy 68 minute documentary, and only keeping the theatrical trailer and adding a short before/after restoration featurette. The US Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection was the first English friendly Blu-ray release, and it carried over all the Criterion DVD extras with a commentary by Donald Richie, a Robert Altman interview, excerpts from an NHK documentary on Kazuo Miyagawa, and the original trailer, while adding a vintage interview with Takashi Shimura, the 68 minute Japanese DVD documentary, and the reissue trailer. The Criterion also included a booklet that had both "In a Grove" and the disturbingly grim "Rashomon" by Akutagawa reprinted in English. There is no overlap in the extras department with the US Blu-ray and the UK, which makes either version very worthy, and having both in a collector's movie collection would not be out of place.

Overall

"Rashomon" is undeniably one of the greatest achievements in film and a turning point for world cinema and film narrative, influencing countless films over generations. It is infinitely rewatchable with new finds through every viewing, a narrative that lingers in the mind long after the film ends, and that is what truly great cinema can do. The BFI release gives the restored transfer new life and excellent extras to compliment the film. Absolutely recommended.

The Film: A+ Video: A- Audio: B Extras: B Overall: A-

 


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