Movie review: Akira Kurosawa's 'Rashomon' is rerelease

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 13, 2009

Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's 1950 "Rashomon" has had such a profound cultural influence that there is even a psychosociological phenomenon named after it. Taking its name from the film's exploration of eyewitnesses' widely divergent recollections of a crime -- in which a woman (Machiko Kyo) is raped and her husband (Masayuki Mori) murdered -- the Rashomon Effect refers to the way in which a single event can be interpreted from multiple, and sometimes equally plausible, angles.

But the film is more than social science. As we witness the incident in contradictory flashback after flashback -- first from the point of view of the attacker (a wonderfully over-the-top Toshiro Mifune), then the wife, then the dead man speaking through a spirit medium (Fumiko Honma), and finally a woodcutter who happened onto the scene (Takashi Shimura) -- it becomes increasingly clear that somebody must be making something up. Even unreliable witnesses aren't this unreliable.

There's a moral here, and it's best expressed by one character's assertion that "it's human to lie, even to ourselves." That sad but likely truth is underscored by Kurasawa setting the stage for the parade of reminiscences in a pouring rain storm. The woodcutter opens the tale by recounting his recent court testimony -- and that of the other witnesses -- to another passing peasant (Kichijiro Ueda). It's as if the heavens are weeping at man's dishonesty.

But why "Rashomon," which takes its name from the photogenic ruins of the ornamental gate under which the woodcutter presents the various narratives, like a storyteller on a stage? And why now?

Accusations of lying seem very much in vogue these days. But the rerelease of Kurosawa's masterpiece has more to do with its recent restoration in a new, digitally-scrubbed 35mm print, made from a 1962 print of the original camera negative. The rain sequences alone are stunning, in appropriately somber black-and-white. The rest of the film looks great, too. (Full disclosure: The print that was screened for critics suffered from poor sound quality and will be replaced with a new copy, according to a spokesman for Landmark Theatres.)

Film buffs should love it. But so should anyone who appreciates a good yarn or two (or three or four). "I don't care if it's a lie," says the peasant whose attempt to escape the rain makes him "Rashomon's" on-screen captive audience. "As long as it's entertaining," he adds.

It is.

**** Unrated. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains fighting with sword, knife and fist, an off-camera sexual assault and the ghostly channeling of a dead man's spirit. In Japanese with English subtitles. 98 minutes.

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