March 13, 2003

Cornell Cinema

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Although we all aspire to the truth, it is not always easily attained or defined. The moral and self-righteous among us try to reach a clear consensus on the truth, denying any hint of blurring or gray areas. But, as Akira Kurosawa knew, the truth is not such an easily captured phenomenon. His film Rashomon is a breathtaking, suspenseful examination of the truth, morality, and the cruelty of humans. Kurosawa’s genius, throughout his career, was to couch introspective subtleties and moral messages within exciting, vibrant narratives filled with violence, drama, and overblown imagery. Rashomon is certainly no exception.

The story begins with a murdered man (Masayuki Mori), his distraught wife (Machiko Kyo), and the half-insane bandit who caused this whole mess (Toshiro Mifune). The twist is that there is no clear path from the story’s beginnings to this point: with one man dead, one woman inconsolable, and the murderer sent to prison. It seems straightforward, until more and more alternate versions of the tale begin unfolding, all told through a complex web of flashbacks. It’s an incredibly inventive device, and one that steadily builds up the suspense as each new retelling of the story only confounds matters further.

Equally accomplished is Kurosawa’s grasp of cinematography — every shot seems to be filled with tension, even when nothing of note is happening. In one early scene, Kurosawa shoots an ordinary walk through the woods as if it’s a chase scene, and the effect is a steady heightening of fear and apprehension that finally bursts open when the expected moment of discovery comes. This sense of dynamism and excitement infuses the movie, giving weight to all of the deeper moral issues at stake within this narrative. Kurosawa’s probing mind is as capable of creating a gorgeously choreographed swordfight as he is of creating poignant, realistic emotional breakdowns.

Of course, all of this would be useless if it weren’t for the actors’ incredible performances. Mifune in particular is brilliant, giving depth and complexity to what could have easily been a completely unsympathetic character. His blustery, wildly manic bandit eats up the screen whenever he’s on, filling his role with nervous twitches, sinister cackles, and a surprisingly nuanced emotional tenor.

As the film progresses, the pace accelerates, and so does the pace of the truth-bending. As the bandit, the wife, and the murdered husband (delivering his tale through a medium in an incredibly intense scene) each weave their own version of what happened, it becomes clear that perhaps the truth will never be known due to the vagaries of human nature. In the surprising climax, the various story threads all come together explosively, ending with a rumination on humanity, violence and betrayal that is both strangely uplifting and very appropriate. It’s clear that — despite indications to the contrary — Kurosawa retains a somewhat optimistic view of his fellow people, but in order for us to reach that conclusion along with him, we’ll have to follow the director on this trip into the mind and the heart. Ultimately, it’s a trip worth taking, filled with striking images and great stories.

For the rest of the year, you can catch samples from Kurosawa’s career-long collaboration with Mifune at Cornell Cinema. Other classics that will be playing are The Seven Samurai, Stray Dog, Yojimbo, and its sequel Sanjuro. Don’t miss these important (and very enjoyable) cinematic works.

Archived article by Ed Howard