Saturday, 4 December 2010

Rashomon

20. Rashomon (1950)
Dir: Akira Kurosawa


The technique of telling a story from multiple viewpoints and with questionable narrators has become a fairly well-used gimmick in film and TV but it was never used more effectively than in Akria Kurosawa's 'Rashomon', which famously pioneered this approach to cinematic storytelling. While later uses of the technique often relied heavily on it as a self-concious flourish, in 'Rashomon' it is used to stunning effect, leading to a gripping examination of the nature of truth.

'Rashomon' begins with three men taking shelter from a heavy rainstorm underneath the Rashomon gate; a priest, a woodcutter and a commoner. This acts as a beautifully shot framing device for the main plot, in which the story of the rape of a woman and the murder of her husband are recounted in flashback from several different viewpoints. In each case, the story differs slightly to serve the purposes of its narrator, leaving the audience to work out for themselves which version, if any, is the truth. The narrative structure of 'Rashomon' is easy to follow but also complex upon reflection. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, narrators recalls the narrations of other people. In one sequence, the priest recalls the account of the events by the dead husband channeled through a medium, effectively presenting us with three narrators at once, none of whom are necessarily telling the truth!

Given its complex structure, 'Rashomon' wisely keeps its main story simple. There are only three settings: the Rashomon gate, the courtyard where the trial takes place and a forest clearing, where the different accounts of the crime are reconstructed. Kurosawa, whose screenplay was based on two short stories, expertly flips between his three locations, constantly reminding the viewer who is serving as storyteller at any one time. We slowly see these characters unfold, our allegiance switching as individual credabilities are undermined. The film says much about Japanese gender roles and codes of honour, as well as providing a universally-focused commentary on morality, humanity and truth.

In the acting stake, 'Rashomon' certainly belongs to Toshiro Mifune, a regular Kurosawa collaborator who made sixteen films with the director and became well known for his bold, forceful but frequently comic performances. Mifune is unforgettable as the morally bankrupt, violent bandit Tajomaru, who is by turns animal-like (Kurosawa reportedly asked Mifune to base his actions on those of various beasts) and child-like, pointing and laughing like a naughty schoolboy despite the heinous nature of the crimes that inspire this juvenile act.

The Rashomon gate and courtyard scenes are dominated by dialogue but the forest scenes which they invariably lead into are characterised by visual storytelling and frequent bursts of action. Numerous fights are detailed, some of them comic as different narrators portray each other as bungling, pratfalling incompetents. For these scenes, Kurosawa was influenced by silent cinema which leads to vivid imagery galore. His use of light and dark is extraordinary, with one scene featuring a camera pointed directly at the sun while the dappled light used throughout reflects the blurring of truth and self-serving fiction.

Although its subject matter is grim, 'Rashomon' is ultimately a hopeful film. In its dissection of one event from different viewpoints, Kurosawa touches on many elements of human nature and while the emphasis is on the negative, the positive creeps through like the light penetrating the forest leaves and as the film ends, the viewer leaves with a sense of enlightenment and optimism at the glimpses of good in a world filled with evil. In recognition of its innovative storytelling style and visual brilliance, 'Rashomon' was awarded an Honorary Academy Award for best foreign language film released in America, making it a crucial influence on the eventual creation of a regular Best Foreign Language Film category, just one more feather in the cap of this massively influential masterpiece.

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