RASHOMON – Blu-ray review

SOME NOTES ON “RASHOMON” SINCE YOU SURELY DON’T NEED YET ANOTHER REVIEW OF THIS MASTERPIECE:

1) “Rashomon” is certainly a film about the elusive nature of truth and the unreliability of witnesses/narrators,  but an emphasis on the movie’s grand themes can obscure the specific ways that each of the characters distorts the truth.

While watching this snazzy new Blu-ray release from Criterion, I was struck by the way that the three accounts provided by men all suggest, to varying degrees and for varying reasons, that the woman actually liked being raped, while her sobbing testimony (and she is the only woman in a primary cast of seven) indicates quite the opposite. The misogyny is so pervasive it goes entirely unquestioned, and in retrospect, a fairly minor moment in which one man dismisses the woman’s story (“Women use their tears to fool everyone”) becomes yet another gross act of violence. This time around, all of my sympathy was trained on Machiko Ryo and the double crime perpetrated on her character, the rape and the sick male fantasy that she enjoyed it.

2) The adjective “Rashomon-like” has been lazily applied to an array of films with unreliable narrators, but in the case of “Rashomon” they (or at least a few of them) are unreliable for a very specific and simple reason: they are lying. At the very least, we know that the woodcutter’s eye-witness account is a bald-faced lie designed to keep him from getting involved with the law and to cover up his theft of the pearl-handled dagger. Tajomaru (Mifune) may indeed have convinced himself that the woman was won over by his sweaty studliness and that he really fought a glorious battle, but I don’t think the film is nearly as much about self-deception and the subjectivity of memory (as many allegedly “Rashomon-like” movies are) as it is more straightforwardly about flat-out liars.

3) That shot (actually, two shots) where Tajomaru and the husband (Masayuki Mori) touch sword tips right at the point where we see the woman standing in the background? That would be a pretty funny dick joke if you could forget about the rape, which I can’t. In fact, if you could remove the rape from the equation, the woodcutter’s whole version of the story would play out like a silent comedy, with its main characters taking constant pratfalls on what must be the most slippery carpet of leaves in movie history – leaves that offered very sure footing in Tajomaru’s account, mind you.

4) The murdered husband is allowed to speak in court through a female medium. I can forgive an 11th century Japanese tribunal for accepting such dubious testimony (the living witnesses don’t do much better), but since today we know without a doubt and beyond any dispute that all mediums are scum-sucking, low-life, bottom-feeding con artists who deserve to rot in jail next to the serial killers and Bernie Madoffs of the world, it’s tempting to view that entire sequence as a scam. She’s already heard two versions of the crime and she wouldn’t be a medium if she didn’t know what her audience wanted to hear: “I’m in darkness now! I was betrayed! Blah blah blah.” Dead men tell no tales, but a medium with a catchy act can still cash a check. It’s steady work, after all.

5) Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa likely didn’t have the DVD market in mind when he shot, but if you play some scenes in the film on FFx1 you are in for a treat. The partially rotating close-ups on either of the men in the forest transform into kaleidoscopic compositions on fast forward: the leaves and branches and dappled patches of sunlight constantly morph in the background behind Mifune and Mori as they prepare for battle. Try it, it’s trippy.

6) It would be an exaggeration to divide cinema history into pre-“Rashomon” and post-“Rashomon” but can it be a coincidence that it was released precisely at the mid-point of the first (and last?) full century of cinema? OK, so it’s a coincidence, but it’s a lovely one, and even if the adjectival form of the film’s title has been overapplied, its influence on film, both immediate and immense, has not been overstated.

Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio.

From the Criterion booklet: “This restoration of ‘Rashomon’ was produced in 2008 by the Academy Film Archive, in association with the Kadokawa Culture Promotion Foundation and the Film Foundation. The basis for the restoration was a 35 mm black-and-white print held in the collection of the National Film Center in Tokyo. Made in 1962 from the original camera negative, the print itself was in good condition, but the negative from which it had been made was extremely battered due to extensive printing and handling over the years…”

I won’t quote the rest, but the print was scanned at 4K resolution at Lowry Digital in Burbank, CA, and then extensively restored. The final product is a substantial improvement over the 2002 SD release by Criterion, with only modest signs of damage and scratching visible and none of the previous problems with registration. While this high-def transfer may not be absolutely pristine, it’s really not too far off from Criterion’s best, and that’s impressive considering the state in which “Rashomon” has been stored.

If there’s one area where the improvement is most noticeable, it’s the film’s use of dappled sunlight in the forest. This looked a bit washed-out in the old SD version, but in 1080p it stands out with remarkable clarity. Obviously, the film has never looked better for the home video market.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono audio track has also been restored, though the improvements are not quite as stark as with the video. There’s the occasional dropoff and a bit of background noise audible at times, but nothing that interferes significantly with playback. Criterion has also included an English-dubbed audio track in Dolby Digital Mono which might be worth checking out as curiosity, but nothing more. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

Extras:
Several extras have been imported from the 2002 SD release, but there are a few new ones as well.

From the SD:

We still get Donald Richie’s comprehensive commentary track, recorded in 2001. Robert Altman’s video introduction (6 min.) remains as does a 12-minute excerpt from the Japanese TV program “The World of Kazuo Miyagawa” which spotlights the cinematographer’s working relationship with Kurosawa on “Rashomon.” The Theatrical Trailer (3 min.) is also included.

New to the 2012 Blu-ray are:

“A Testimony As An Image” (68 min.) in which Teruyo Nogami, who worked as a script supervisor for Kurosawa and later as a writer and critic, interviews crew members from “Rashomon,” including co-writer Shinobu Hashimoto and assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka. I sampled the first 15 minutes (all Hashimoto) and found it pretty dry, but I have to give it a full pass.

We also get an interview with actor Takashi Shimura, a Kurosawa veteran who portrayed the woodcutter in “Rashomon.” This 16-minute audio interview was conducted by writer Gideon Bachmann at the 1961 Berlin Film Festival and features the omnipresent Donald Richie as translator.

The hefty 44-page insert booklet reprints all of the content from the 2002 SD booklet, but with different graphics. The booklet includes an essay by writer and film professor Stephen Prince as well as a lengthy excerpt from Kurosawa’s 1983 book “Something Like an Autobiography,” translated by Audie Bock. We also get reprint of the two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (translated by Takashi Kojima) that served as source material for the film: “Rashomon” and “In a Grove.”

Film Value:
Kurosawa was already an established filmmaker before 1950, but “Rashomon,” which won the Golden Lion at the Film Festival, provided his introduction to a global audience. It was an instant sensation that has lost none of its potency. This Criterion Blu-ray release presents the film in a beautiful transfer that is worth a double dip all by itself.

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