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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 3/26/02

1950 (2002) - Daiei Studios (Criterion Collection)

review by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits

Criterion's Rashomon Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/A

Specs and Features

88 min, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary by Japanese film scholar and Kurosawa historian Donald Richie, excerpt from The Camera Also Acts: The World of Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa documentary, theatrical trailer, 28-page booklet with book excepts and reprints of source novellas: In a Grove and Rashomon by Ryunosuke Akutagaw, video introduction from director Robert Altman, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (13 chapters), languages: Japanese and English (DD mono), subtitles: English

Of all the literature, poetry and films dealing with the subject of "truth," virtually all fall short when held against Akira Kurosawa's breakthrough film, Rashomon. Winner of the 1952 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, Rashomon opens with the only bit of absolute truth shown in the entire film. Three man stand stranded at Japan's dilapidated Rashomon gate during an incredibly torrential rain storm. They include a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), one of the central characters in the story, a priest (Minoru Chiaki), who may have lost his faith in man, and an unsuspecting vagabond (Kichijiro Ueda). The woodcutter and the priest are emotionally beat up, having seen a murder trial where the very questions: "what is truth" and "what do we perceive as being truth" are shaken down to their fundamental roots. The woodcutter proceeds to tell the vagabond (who has no idea of the tale he's in for) his awful story, which starts with a stroll through the woods.

In a glen, seemingly at the center of the deepest Japanese woods, the woodcutter finds a woman's hat, a dagger sheath and the dead body of a noble samurai. He runs straight to the local constables to alert them of a murder. We then cut to a trial, more specifically, the trial of the notorious bandit Tajomuru (Toshirô Mifune). He's being questioned as to why he was caught with the murdered samurai's horse and bow, and he immediately fesses up. He himself murdered the samurai in an honorable duel, but there's more to his story. While he was laying in the shade of the trees, a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyô) walked by. It could have been the way the sunlight hit her, or it could have been the fact that he was lonely and looking for some company. Either way, he knew he had to steal her away from her husband, even if that meant killing him. So he quickly hatched a plan to lure the warrior away from his wife. Once the man was tied up and pacified, he took the wife as his own (yes, raped her). And then, to make good the deal, he challenged the man to a duel - the winner gets the woman. That's Tajomuru's story and he's sticking to it. Except, as we find out back at Rashomon, that doesn't seem to be the truth. Not the whole truth at least. Maybe not even a partial truth.

You see, the man's wife was found hiding in a temple, and when she was brought to the court to tell her story, she contradicted everything Tajomuru had to say. Yes, the husband was lured away. He was tied up and she was raped. But afterwards, Tajomuru left the scene of the crime. He got what he wanted and away he went. The wife, full of shame, found her husband staring at her as if the darkest dirt known to man had muddied her virtue. She couldn't stand the look in his eyes, and so she asked that he kill her. She even brought a dagger for him to do the job... but in a blackout, she must have killed HIM because of her shame and the disparaging look in his eyes. That, indeed, must be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But it isn't. At least according to the woodcutter.

The story told to the vagabond continues; a medium was then brought to the court to spiritually connect to the husband, who communed a story even more different than the previous two. Again, the husband was brought to the glen, he was tied and Tajomuru took his wife... but the man's spirit claimed his wife told Tajomuru to kill her husband so she could run away with him. Tajomuru was utterly shocked and gave the samurai the choice of having her killed or letting her live. Hearing her options, the wife ran in fear with Tajomuru in hot pursuit. When Taj came back empty handed, he freed the man and left. The husband, full of pity and self-loathing, killed himself with his dagger and fell into the bushes to die. But as he lay there dying, he felt a hand reach down and remove the dagger from his chest.

So who removed the dagger? That story is explained by the woodcutter; who apparently also didn't tell the entire story - truthfully or otherwise. He held something back. In fact, he witnessed the entire story, and the version he tells contains aspects of every story that preceded it with major theatrical flourishes. When it's all said and done, you won't know who is telling the truth, who is lying and, most importantly, why.

And it doesn't matter one bit. Kurosawa isn't interested in truth, lies or anything of the sort. He's interested in reality, and the reality of human truth is that no one will ever really know it. Did O.J. kill Nicole? We'll never know. He could come on TV tonight and say he did it, and half of America wouldn't believe him even then, thinking he was just promoting a new website or something. And it doesn't matter. Even days after the murder occurred, we all knew we would never know the truth. The truth settled into the ground with Nicole's blood.

I've always enjoyed Rashomon. It's an incredible film. The cinematography is beautiful. The acting at first seems off, but once you see "why", you know that the acting is perfect. When I first saw this film, I knew that Mifune was the greatest actor I had ever seen. I still think he is. This is Kurosawa's masterpiece. He's made better "movies" in my opinion, but as a commentary and a piece of cinematic art, there's very little you will find that could even stand in Rashomon's shadow.

Criterion does here what it does best, which is to give us a great version of this film on DVD. The picture quality is very, very good for a film of its age and country of origin. There are some moments of wear but, for the most part, you have never seen this film looking this good before... unless you happened to see it in the 50s in a Japanese theater. The sound is mono, and there is some hiss and pop associated with the film's age. But it certainly sounds better than it probably should, or ever has in the past. I'm very pleased with this DVD.

But what makes it even better is the special edition treatment this film gets on DVD. To start with, you get an incredible audio commentary track by Donald Richie, who walks us through the film and seems to answer every question you may have before it pops into your head. Richie knows what he's talking about, and never sounds scripted or as if he's reading from notes. He simply loves this film and the filmmaker more than any commentator we've heard before on a Criterion disc. I really enjoyed hearing everything he had to say.

Next, we get a short video introduction from Robert Altman, who also seems to love the film. He talks about its influence on his work (and the work of many filmmakers), as well as the importance of the film as an art piece. The original trailer is on hand, as is an excerpt from a documentary made about the life and career of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, who still owned the original Rashomon sign from the film when the documentary was shot. He has since passed away. Also in this little film is an interview with Kurosawa conducted before his death. It's a very cool piece, where Kurosawa and Miyagawa both go into how some of the more elaborate shots were created with shadow cheats, complicated dolly shots and a stolen wardrobe mirror. It's good stuff, but I wish the whole documentary was on here. But the best extra you get here isn't even on the disc - it's in the huge insert booklet. Along with excerpts from books about Kurosawa, and the standard essays, the two original stories this film is based on are reprinted here in their entirety. That's a great and rare gift indeed, because I personally know that it's often hard trying to track down a film's source material... especially when they're from another land.

I always enjoy Criterion's editions of Kurosawa films. I can't help feeling disappointed by the fact that a few of my all-time favorite Kurosawa films have yet to be released on DVD with this kind of treatment (if at all). But if they eventually arrive with this kind of quality, I can wait. Let's just put Ikiru out next, shall we guys?

Todd Doogan

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