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Rashomon showcases complex storytelling

Brian Doxtader | Friday, February 16, 2007

A twisting narrative that retells the same story from several different perspectives, 1951’s “Rashômon” (“In the Woods”) was notable for its innovative storytelling style. The first of legendary director Akira Kurosawa’s major works, “Rashômon” was a huge international success and, essentially, put the filmmaker on the global map.

The film follows three men in 12th century Japan – a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), a bandit (Toshiro Mifune) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) – who take refuge during a rainstorm. As the men begin talking, they retell of a bizarre trial that involves a murdered man and a rape victim – and, as it turns out, the bandit is the accused. All three involved in the trial retell their version of the story (the murdered man through a psychic medium), each of which is equally plausible, though the truth seems to lie somewhere in between. The woodcutter, however, has secrets of his own, which are slowly revealed over the course of the film.

An intriguing rumination on human nature, “Rashômon” is a deeply philosophical piece, matched only by Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” in terms of elegant humanism. Kurosawa has a lot to say regarding the complexities of the human condition, especially in the wake of World War II, but he cloaks his ideas in the film’s plotting, which is fascinating and engaging throughout the work.

“Rashômon” is anchored by the performance of Kurosawa muse Toshiro Mifune, who remains the ultimate interpreter of the director’s narratives. Kurosawa’s energetic directorial style meshes synergistically with Mifune’s strong performance, lending to some truly powerful scenes.

The director’s style and sense of composition are both on full display here, and the story is among the most intriguing and humanistic in Kurosawa’s oeuvre. At a mere 83 minutes, “Rashômon” moves at a remarkably quick and energetic pace, especially when contrasted with some of the director’s later works, which tend to be much lengthier. Kurosawa’s famed “The Seven Samurai,” for example, runs 204 minutes. Kurosawa co-wrote, directed and edited the film himself, adapting it from a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa.

The influence of “Rashômon” is incalculable, with its long-lasting impact being felt in a wide gamut of films, from “The Usual Suspects” to “Hero.” Those two films in particular, for example, elect to use a similar twisting narrative style to that featured in “Rashômon.” As a director, Kurosawa’s influence is felt by almost every major figure in modern filmmaking, to the extent that Sergio Leone’s “For a Fistful of Dollars” is based on “Yojimbo” and George Lucas’ “Star Wars” is loosely based on “The Hidden Fortress.” His particular brand of swashbuckling swordplay and elegant philosophy, however, remain nearly unparalleled.

Kurosawa would go on to do bigger and arguably better things – among them the masterpieces “Ikiru” (1952), “The Seven Samurai” (1954), “Yojimbo” (1961) and “Ran” (1985) – but “Rashômon” was the director’s critical breakthrough. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, bringing a new global awareness to Japanese cinema. Along with Yasujiro Ozu, Kurosawa remains one of the great Japanese directors. His skills are in rare form throughout “Rashômon,” which is inarguably his first masterpiece.

“Rashômon” will be screened on Saturday at 3pm in the Browning Cinema of the DPAC as part of the PAC Classic 100.