|There’s a saying in the insurance industry – that scrutiny of different eyewitness reports of the same traffic accident, with all their numerous contradictions, can make one wonder about recorded history. Rashomon is classy Japanese cinema by one of the world’s greatest directors, and it examines this principle with skill, insight and superb drama: how reality is very often highly subjective, and wholly dependent on flawed human perceptions – coloured by our prejudicial emotions.
Although the concept is straightforward, the narrative is a jigsaw puzzle of four different interpretations by three participants and one bystander to a rape and a murder (or suicide?). As a great deal has already been written about this film in the five decades since its release, I thought it would be interesting – in keeping with the theme of the film itself – to consider the varied critical reactions, instead of my simply adding to the praise.
Leonard Maitlin has called it “a superlative study of truth and human nature”; Gavin Lambert (for the Monthly Film Bulletin) described it as “a masterpiece and a revelation”; while in Cahiers du Cinéma, Andre Bazan observed, “this film can truly be said to have opened the gates of the West to Japanese cinema.” And, of course, there’s more. “A mixture of the mysterious, the legendary and the realistic that sets it apart” (Dilys Powell); “that rare event in film – something entirely, excitingly and peculiarly new” (Leonard Mosley, Daily Express); “As a curiosity the film is impressive; as entertainment it is frightening” (Paul Holt, in the Daily Herald); “…combines pictorial beauty and poetic cinema techniques” (Steven H. Scheuer).
On the other hand, the late Pauline Kael offers: “The introductory and closing scenes are tedious; the woman’s whimpering is almost enough to drive one to the nearest exit.” Time magazine remarked: “Kurosawa… becomes self-consciously infatuated with the look of his own images.” Fred Majdalany, writing in the Daily Mail, admitted, “I cannot prostrate myself before [it] with quite the fervour of the Venice festival judges”, while Tony Rayns (in Time Out Film Guide) dislikes “the closing spasm of gratuitous, humanist optimism” and notes “the film is much less formally daring than its literary source” – stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa.
It’s probably true that some audiences will find Rashomon slow moving, and repetitive, but it’s also worth noting that even those reviews expressing a measure of disdain for pace and structure found other things of value. Here’s Time, again: “a stimulating movie-going experience”; while Kael joyfully acknowledges “the film transcends… it has its own perfection” and, contrary to Rayns’ reservations, Time Out included Rashomon in the top 100 film list from their centenary poll.
DVD extras: biographies and photos of the star (Toshiro Mifune) and director, a poster, trailer for The Seven Samurai, scene access in 12 chapters, sleeve notes by Philip Kemp, DVD-ROM link to the BFI website.