Rashomon (1950)

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*. A genuinely entertaining art house film. There aren’t that many.
*. I don’t like hearing about the so-called Rashomon effect: the idea that all truth is subjective/relative. I don’t think this is what the movie is about. I think it’s about people who are lying. We don’t see the same events from different perspectives and with different emphases or interpretations so much as we see entirely different events taking place in the different stories. The four stories are, in various ways, entirely incompatible.
*. And it is precisely the problem of lying that the characters in the temple are most upset by. They don’t talk about people having false impressions or holding different points of view. They talk about people who are lying. This is the darkness that so shakes the priest and the man, not the idea that people can witness the same events and come to different conclusions.

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*. In his autobiography Kurosawa explained the movie’s theme fairly directly. He thought it was simple: “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings — the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering faleshood going beyond the grave — even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium.”
*. Now here is Roger Ebert interpreting this same passage, and (oh, the irony!) saying something quite different: “The genius of Rashomon is that all of the flashbacks are both true and false. True, in that they present an accurate portrait of what each witness thinks happened. False because as Kurosawa observes in his autobiography, ‘Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.'”
*. I think Ebert is wrong. The flashbacks are not true, accurate portraits of what each witness honestly believed happened. The woodcutter, for example, is caught out in a lie about the dagger at the very end, and he knows it. And we simply can’t believe that four people all present in the same place at the same time could not agree on the simple matter of who killed the samurai. They are lying, and what’s more lying without much reason to lie.
*. Ebert’s interpretation is standard. Here is Donald Richie on the Criterion DVD commentary: “One of the main points of the film is that they’re not lying, they’re really believing what they’re saying.” Again: I disagree. The main point of the film is that they are lying, and they aren’t going to stop lying even if they’re only lying to themselves.
*. Also contra Richie’s commentary, I quite like the use of Ravel’s “Bolero.”
*. What I did agree with in Richie’s commentary is his constant highlighting of the various dramatic conventions and poses in the film. And this is fitting because what we see are dramatizations of the events, not the events themselves. This also explains the sometimes hammy acting. Mentally, we exaggerate what people have actually said and done and tend to cast the actors into more conventional roles. Memory is writing in a form of shorthand.
*. Of course the forest photography is brilliant, the dappled shadows making the perfect objective correlative to the confusion among the different stories. That opening sequence with the woodcutter entering the forest deserves all the praise heaped on it. What better way to draw the viewer into the mystery of the story?
*. I dislike the ending. I understand the moral necessity for it Kurosawa felt, but it seems tacked on and false.
*. The first time I saw Mifune cutting the samurai’s bonds I thought it seemed awfully easy.  His sword barely touches the rope! Seeing him repeat the action in subsequent versions of the story the break in the rope is clearly evident.
*. All of the actors are good, but Machiko Kyo impresses me the most on repeated viewings. She also has the most work to do, as her character has to cover the most ground, not only between the different stories but within them. And finally she’s the hardest to read and the one I trust the least. Is that sexist?

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