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4 August, 2005

Review: 'Rashômon' (1950)

I don't get it.  This was the first Japanese film to reach European film festival audiences, and apparently had a tremendous impact.  Presumably the novelty value contributed to the acclaim, but 55 years later, having seen numerous Japanese films, including three others directed by Akira Kurosawa, I really didn't see anything extraordinary in it.  It's good, but not Kurosawa's best, as has been suggested.  This was Toshirô Mifune's breakthrough film, in which he was said to display 'extraordinary vitality'; I thought his continual manic laughter was just annoying.

That was my first impression, anyway, written within an hour of watching 'Rashômon'. Fourteen hours later, my respect for it has increased a little. There were some excellent, innovative uses of camera/lighting effects, and on a purely technical level, the film must have astonished contemporary audiences.
Perhaps I was under-impressed because it's been so heavily imitated. When I first saw 'Alien' in the mid-Nineties, at least 15 years after it was released, I didn't think it was anything special, as I'd seen it all before in numerous other films copying the exact same formula – it's too easy to forget that 'Alien' and 'Rashômon' defined the formulae.

At the time, I didn't especially rate the narrative style, either; so many other productions have adopted the 'one story from multiple, conflicting viewpoints' approach that it's no longer inherently novel – perhaps it was in 1950.
The fact that the true version is never revealed felt a little unsatisfying at the time, but I now think was an advantage, leaving the audience to consider the nature, or even importance, of subjective/objective truth.

I often like to read a film's entry at the IMDb, often after writing my own review. I see that Kurosawa famously said that "'Rashômon' is a reflection of life, and life does not always have clear meanings". I think this hints at the source of my initial misunderstanding: I hadn't expected a philosophical discussion on human nature, and failed to engage with it on those terms.

Just an observation, not in any way a criticism: I could imagine this being a successful stage play. The narrative structure, small cast, limited number of enclosed scenes and stylised, slightly OTT acting gave the film a theatrical feel, in any case.

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