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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
directed by Akira Kurosawa
at the Harvard Film Archives
on December 8
In 1951, an extraordinary event occurred at the Venice Film Festival. "Rashomon," a Japanese film by an unknown director named Akira Kurosawa, took first prize. The film caused heated debate in England and the United States, for "Rashomon" was unlike any film the Western critics and public had ever seen. The New Yorker dismissed it in a vitriolic and condescending article. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times championed it. Most people wondered that a good film should have come out of Japan at all, attributing its merits to the effects of the American occupation. In any case, RKO Pictures picked up the distribution rights, and "Rashomon" became a success, going on to win the Oscar for best foreign film.
More than 30 years later, as "Rashomon" makes its appearance at the Harvard Film Archives as a bona fide classic of world cinema, it is difficult to see what all the fuss was about. The respect that Japanese cinema commands nowadays, respect won in part by "Rashomon" prevents one from imagining a time when this wasn't the case, a time in which "Roshomon" would have come as a bomb of sorts.
That said, it is obvious to the viewer why "Rashomon" is considered a masterpiece. The film's plot is extraordinarily simple. The frame narrative of the film, set in the 8th century, takes place at the Rashomon, the great gate of the imperial city of Kyoto, which lies in ruins. A woodcutter, a Buddhist priest and a traveler have gathered at the gate to seek shelter from torrential rain, and to pass the time they discuss a trial of a crime that took place some days before. A samurai and his wife were traveling through the woods. They were assaulted by a famous bandit, who tied up the husband, raped the wife, and stole the samurai's sword. In the course of this, the husband was killed, and the film is devoted to discovering the identity of the killer.
The film presents four versions of the event, told by the three participants and the woodcutter, who discovered the body. The participants testify in front of the camera, which is ostensibly recording the bandit's trial, putting the audience in the position of the judge. Tajomaru the bandit, played by the great Toshiro Mifune, gives a version in which fate led him to desire the samurai's wife (Machiko Kyo). After raping her, he set the husband free and fought with him for possession of the woman. It was a fair and glorious duel, choreographed in a balletic fashion, at the end of which the bandit killed the samurai.
In the wife's version, Tajomaru fled after raping her and she found herself alone with her husband. She tried to make him kill her to relieve her of her shame, but he would not. Driven mad by the contemptuous look in his eyes, she fainted, and upon awakening found her dagger in his chest. In the husband's version, related by a medium, the wife wanted to escape with Tajomaru and told the bandit to kill him, but Tajomaru would not do it. The wife fled the scene and the bandit went after her, and then the husband committed suicide. Finally, we see the woodcutter's eyewitness version, in which Tajomaru fights with the husband at the wife's insistence, and the fight we see is anything but glamorous. It is a brawl between two frightened, panting men goaded by the woman's laughter and impugning of their manhood.
At the end of the film, we are no closer to knowing the truth, and that is in great measure the movie's theme, the very unknowability of truth. Kurosawa's film has become so associated with this notion that the word "rashomon" has passed into the language, and is used to describe a situation in which the truth cannot be known. This notion of truth is a slight and hackneyed one. That Kurosawa was able to create "Rashomon" from this is a testament to his mastery and genius; it is a case of a film rising above its material. "Rashomon" is an example of a very cinematic film, one in which the camera is an active participant, so much so that film critics have called it Kurosawa's "fifth witness." In a justifiably famous sequence, the camera follows the woodcutter into the forest, traveling behind him, then in front of him, around him, below him when he crosses a footbridge, until at last we see the dead man's arms stiff from rigor mortis. It is a dazzling tour de force, the kind of sequence that sends film school students into raptures.
The performances are also something to see. When the film came out, the performances were a point of contention, called naturalistic by some and grotesque by others. In retrospect we can see that they were not influenced by kabuki, as so many facilely claimed, but, rather, by silent films, which Kurosawa greatly admired. Toshiro Mifune's feral performance as the bandit is legendary, and Machiko Kyo brings off the task of presenting what are in reality four different women. Masayuki Mori as the husband is excellent; his serpent-like look of contempt is unforgettable. Takashi Shimura as the woodcutter is the quiet core of strength and humanity in the film, almost the movie's moral center. The music, which was written to resemble Maurice Ravel's "Bolero," is notoriously distracting, but this is an unfortunate cultural accident. At the time the movie was made, the Ravel piece was unknown in Japan and so Kurosawa was being innovative, unaware of the parodic status to which the music had descended in the West.
Disregard the music. Disregard the overdone scenes in
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