Monday, May 19, 2008

Monday Movie Review: Rashômon

Rashômon (1950) 9/10
In feudal Japan, the story of a rape and murder is told from four different points of view: The bandit (Toshirô Mifune), who came upon a husband and wife, raped the wife, and perhaps murdered the husband, the wife, the husband (through a medium), and an eyewitness. The stories all contradict one another, and all the storytellers may have reason to lie. Directed by Akira Kurasawa.

This is my second Kurasawa, and I liked it better than Seven Samurai. While Seven Samurai has sweep and adventure, Rashômon is a human story, full of sorrow and dread, while still being thoughtful and contemplative.

The wrap story for telling these tales is this: A woodcutter and a priest were both witnesses in court; the priest saw the couple on the road shortly before the crime, and the woodcutter was the one who found the body. They are both deeply disturbed at the lies they have heard; for the priest, it is a crisis of faith.

More... Caught in the rain and sheltering in the ruined temple Rashômon, a stranger approaches and they tell what they have heard. The stranger listens with amusement; he is cynical and unperturbed by lying; after all, everyone is motivated to lie, that's human nature. While a philosophical battle plays out in this downpour in this visually arresting ruin, the story itself is told. Again and again we see the bandit attack, we see the woman weep in despair while her husband, tied to a tree, is forced to watch. What happens next?

The story each tells is self-serving. It is an idealized version of the events; what each would have wished to happen. The bandit's version is amoral but heroic, while the husband and wife each reach for dignity for themselves, while blaming the other. The movie focuses more on the unknowability of the truth, but to me, the rewriting of history to make oneself seem good is more compelling. Additionally, the woman's story is full of dignity and pain. Her position in her culture is so low, so helpless, that virtually any action she takes is hopeless. Does she desire the bandit? Some versions would have us believe so, but is it desire, or turning to a man to escape shame, which is all she can do anyway? A loyal wife is expected to commit suicide for the "crime" of being raped, is it surprising she's interested in alternatives? But then, is she interested? And what of the dead husband? Did he hate his wife for being "soiled," or hate himself for being unable to save her? Or did he truly wish to fight for her honor?

The part that doesn't work for me is that this story drives the two witnesses into such dreadful despair. Is this case really, as the priest says, worse than famine and plague? Is his faith as ruined as the temple in which they shelter? It is moving but perhaps a bit too much.

(Cross-posted. Or was it?)