(Region B)   Akira Kurosawa’s unquestioned top rank classic remains a fascinating study of truth and justice. A forest encounter left a man murdered and his wife raped. Or did something entirely different happen? The witnesses Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura and Machiko Kyo give radically differing testimony. This UK edition offers a full commentary by Japanese film expert Stuart Galbraith IV.

Region B UK Blu-ray
1950 / B&W / 1.33:1 / 88 min. / Street Date September 21, 2015 / Available at Amazon UK / £15.99
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijiro Ueda, Fumiko Honma.
Cinematography Kazuo Miyagawa
Art Direction So Matsuyama
Film Editor Akira Kurosawa
Original Music Fumio Hayasaka
Written by Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa
from stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Produced by Minoru Jingo, Masaichi Nagata
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This reviewer doesn’t review most foreign discs, but with major studios licensing out their libraries, there are now more reasons to think about getting an all-region Blu-ray player. One is extras. Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon is already available in Region A from Criterion, but companies like Arrow and BFI produce discs with alternate special features. I’m considering going after a foreign disc of Eyes without a Face, just to catch up with a Georges Franju short subject I’ve always wanted to see.

In the case of Rashômon, the UK disc gives us authoritative and entertaining new extras from author and Japanese film authority Stuart Galbraith IV.

Rashomon was one of the first Japanese movies to crack the U.S. market, in ‘specialty’ art theaters. Critics tagged it as a hands-down masterpiece from day one, a judgment that has never been challenged. The film is a deceptively simple investigation into the ‘know-ability’ of truth, as seen in a trial following a deadly forest encounter between a Samurai, his wife and a notorious bandit. Much of it consists of speeches delivered to the camera, yet it is wholly cinematic. Kurosawa’s international breakthrough offers real insights into the nature of cinema storytelling. Its ‘testimonial flashbacks’ are just as daring, and perhaps more faithful to human nature, than the flashback structure of Citizen Kane. Rashomon is of course a boiler plate film school syllabus screening item.

The flashbacks to a tragic incident are framed as eyewitness testimony, and the testimony is itself related as a second framing story. Waiting out a torrential rain under the ruined gate called Rashomon, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) recounts shocking recent events. Three days before, a man was killed and his wife attacked in the forest. The bandit presumed responsible has been captured. But during the trial, each of the participants and witnesses tells a distinctly different version of events. How can justice function when establishing simple facts is so difficult?

Rashomon is too entertaining for the narrow confines of film school. The story has action, intrigue, mystery and sex, not to mention excellent characterizations from its stars. Toshiro Mifune plays a somewhat less lovable variation on his familiar rascal bandit. In the spate of Kurosawa remakes that followed  The Magnificent Seven, Martin Ritt transposed Rashomon to the American West as The Outrage, with a woefully miscast Paul Newman as a Mexican bandit. The remake took place on phony interior sets, a change that makes Kazuo Miyagawa’s great location photography look all the more magical.

Most of Rashomon plays out in a verdant forest, under a canopy of high foliage that bathes the actors in moving patterns of dappled light. With the shadows of leaves always in motion, there’s no such thing as a static shot. Whether or not the truth is altered by memory, the unchanging setting insists that the witnesses cannot alter nature. The truth is in the trees somewhere — perhaps there are higher powers that will remember. Kurosawa softens his vision of humanity as a hell of selfish mendacity, with a closing gesture towards loving charity. It’s a satisfying coda.

The film-school lesson of Rashomon can be found in any textbook. The cinematic experience is different from a literary one because films always present an immediate reality, always in the present tense. Movies can fracture time with flashbacks, but they can’t express ambiguity the way a book can — a tree is either there, or it’s not. By and large, psychological complexity must come from the written script or the director must use symbols and allusions — in effect, become more self-consciously arty.

Rashomon’s memory-flashbacks seem simple enough until the accumulation of conflicting testimony trips us up. From the empirical evidence, it’s not easy to evaluate who might be telling the truth. If these flashbacks lie, is any testimony or memory reliable? Hitchcock tried a single false flashback in Stage Fright, and only caused problems for himself — audiences decided that he was ‘cheating’. Rashomon’s conflicting testimony innovation saw frequent use for comic effect in later shows, like the farce Les Girls.

The film poses an obvious emotional puzzle. Characters that are reserved or stoic in one person’s testimony-episode are assigned completely different personalities in another episode. As the wife, Machiko Kyo shows a wide range of emotion, but Mifune’s contrasting interpretations of the bandit character are surprising as well. Finally, Takashi Shimura, later the leader of the Seven Samurai, provides a solid spine in the moralistic framing story. The movie has the effect of a basic psychology test — viewers come away with different ideas of what the intended “truth” might have been.

The BFI’s Blu-ray of Rashômon appears to be the same excellent restoration as seen on Criterion’s 2012 release. The improvement in image quality will impress viewers familiar only with earlier presentations. The audio has some surface noise at times. Fumiyo Hayasaka’s surprisingly European music score stands out much better than it did on old 16mm prints.

The discs extras give us the benefit of author and Japanese film authority Stuart Galbraith IV. His feature commentary has an insider’s knowledge of Japanese culture, and his insights into the filmmakers have the benefit of years of research interviewing dozens of actors and crew people. I didn’t realize that several of the actors here are also in Seven Samurai. Galbraith also gives us the full story of the film’s exhibition history. Initially thought a failure in Japan, it was recognized only after winning accolades overseas. Japanese studios then began making films with an eye on their appeal to the foreign audience. Before Rashômon, much of the world had no idea that Japan made movies at all.

Galbraith has also assembled the half-hour docu Rashômon at 65, which takes us to where the Daiei studios once stood, and a children’s park in Kyoto where the historical gate once stood. That of course reminds us of Ikiru.  Here in Hollywood the former site of the giant Intolerance set is now a Pep Boys. But the beautiful forested lane where the fated meeting takes place still exists, and the featurette captures it on HD. Galbraith has also located several former Daiei employees, who share their memories of the studio. One publicist says that he could always recognize the Daiei style from the stiff acting! Another old crewmember still has his Rashômon script. He won’t put it on eBay, he says, but his wife might when he’s gone.

John Boorman provides an introduction to the film and talks a bit about working with Toshiro Mifune on his Hell in the Pacific. BFI’s 24-page illustrated booklet gives us Galbraith’s full essay, where he offers more analysis and special insights on the long working association of Mifune and director Kurosawa.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Rashômon Region B UK Blu-ray
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Audio commentary by Stuart Galbraith IV; new documentary Rashômon at 65 (34 mins); John Boorman on Rashômon (6 mins), BFI promo trailer; Illustrated booklet with an essay by Stuart Galbraith IV.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 31, 2015

Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson