Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sight & Sound Sunday: Rashomon (1950)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 Poll Rank: #26 (tied with Andrei Rublev)

Is there any way to know the truth about something you never witnessed?

This is the main quandary that Akira Kurosawa's international breakthrough, Rashomon, concerns itself with. Even audiences who have never seen the film, which introduced acclaimed auteur Kurosawa and - to a larger extent - Japanese cinema to American and European audiences, are familiar with the mechanics of the film's plot. A woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki), taking shelter from a torrential downpour under the Rashomon gate to Kyoto, recall to a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) the trial for a heinous crime that they had witnessed earlier in the day. The events of the crime - the rape of a woman (Machiko Kyo) and the murder of her samurai husband (Masayuki Mori) - are told from multiple perspectives, including the bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), the woman herself, the woodcutter, and the samurai, via a medium. These multiple tellings alter the facts, creating doubt in who's telling the truth.

What separates Rashomon from the myriad movies and episodes of television that followed the same narrative format (a superior example: It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's "Who Got Dee Pregnant?") is that the film never settles on which version of events is accurate. Kurosawa, working in close collaboration with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, works to make the ambiguity of the truth visual as well as narrative. There are numerous shots of the sun being viewed from beneath the forest canopy, the silhouettes of the leaves obscuring the light. The scene of the crime is somewhat shaded, not quite bright enough to see every detail of what happens, but not so dark that the events can't be seen. Even the final scene at the gate features a clever obstruction via the architecture, further illustrating how the truth isn't so obvious at first glance.

However, the film is mostly interested in perception versus reality, for whatever the latter really means. The various twists and turns of the accounts inspire two differing schools of thought amongst the characters at the gate. While the commoner believes that each individual involved had a motive to commit the crime and simply acted on it out of self-interest, the priest struggles to maintain his faith in the goodness of humanity. Again, the film doesn't take sides: each point of view is presented as possible, and even though the film ends with the priest optimistically believing in humanity again, the commoner has provided enough doubt that it's not a definitive stand.

All of this is even more interesting when the context of the film's production is considered. Though the stories that it's based on were first published between 1915 and 1922, it is possible to read Kurosawa's film - made in 1950 - as an allegory for Japanese anxiety after World War II. It's perhaps telling that the "present" of the film finds the three men taking shelter in a Rashomon that is severely dilapidated, with the commoner even tearing it apart further in order to build a fire. Japan's defeat in the war left the nation confused and in ruin, reeling from the effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Kurosawa seems to insinuating that there is no way of deciphering what went wrong in the war effort, and that there's no understanding the fallout, only accepting it. Worse still, the destruction of the nation could have been from their own hands. And yet, there's that optimism at the end: despite the catastrophes that have haunted them, there's still new life, and new chances to rebuild.

There may not be any way of knowing absolute truth, as Rashomon asserts. But there's always the possibility of learning from what we perceive to be true, and that, hopefully, the positive can outweigh the negative.

On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: The Godfather (1972)

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