My Labor Day Weekend movie marathon began yesterday with Rashomon, which I had never seen and had begun to feel like I was avoiding.  After all, I had been told over and over how good it is, how it’s not one of the great films of Akira Kurosawa (this was my first Kurosawa film) and a masterpiece of film perspectives and really one of the best films of all time.  And it had been sitting for months on Netflix Instant Queue (with a suggested 4 1/2 stars).   But I finally watched it.  No more boo-hooing me, intellectual elite. And it was a very, very good film.

[Spoilers follow–Ed.] For those of you who aren’t familiar with the film, or just need a refresher, it follows the perspective of four people who were witnessed or were part of one event–the rape of a woman and the subsequent reaction of her husband, the rapist and the woman herself, and ultimately, the husband’s death.  All three people (rapist, woman, husband) provide their own perspective on the event during the court hearing for the husband’s death.  (The husband’s perspective is provided by a medium.)  The fourth and final version of the events comes from a woodcutter (also the film’s central narrator), who we find out towards the film’s end, was also a witness to the rape and murder.  All four perspectives vary widely, with all providing glimpses into how each character would like to be perceived by its audience.

When the film became most interesting to me was the story from the perspective of the woodcutter (the final perspective):

Unlike the other narrations of the event, in this perspective, all the characters act and react in unflattering ways to the events that are taking place.  The men are shaking, exhausted and awkward during their fight.  There’s stumbling and heavy panting and obvious fear.  The woman actually stands up for herself and argues with the men when they both reject her after her rape, but then she cowers in fear during the fight that she directly causes and is ultimately revolted by its result.  When the bandit/rapist actually kills the husband it more out of luck and he appears to do it with self-disgust.  This scene offers moments of realism that take the movie to a different level–we have no clear winner or hero. It’s hard to sympathize with any of the characters, but in their faulty humanity they are at their most sympathetic because they most resemble ourselves.

Overall, it’s a short but dense film.  The imagery of rain, light, vegetation vs. sand all adds meaning to the themes of human selfishness, violence, Japanese culture, personal faith, trust, truth, perspective, gender issues.  I know it’s a well-studied film and with reason.  This is a film that has books worth of potential explication waiting for the eager cinephile.

Although, it was a very satisfying and interesting film, I didn’t find myself as moved as I have been with other films (although an emotional reaction is not always a sign that a movie is actually good), but I think that’s by design.  In general an emotional response comes from watching some personal development within a character with whom we have become emotionally connected.  With Rashomon we can’t really invest ourselves into the characters because they change from perspective to perspective.  We stick most closely to the narrator, and his arc of understanding most closely resembles ours.  But even his reliability and moral integrity is called into question when we find out [spoiler] that he steals from the site of the rape/murder.  It’s hard to want things to happen for the characters, but for a movie about whether people can be trusted, I guess that’s sort of the point.  Perhaps the narrator is ultimately redeemed when, in the end, he offers to take care of an abandoned child.  Perhaps that is our redemption, too.

I should add, that the film is also beautifully shot.  Perhaps the best moment was the  windy wildness of the medium as she tells the dead husband’s story.  It begins around the eight minute mark of this clip:

During this segment, it’s as if we’ve entered a whole new world of spiritual heroism–only to have that world taken apart when, minutes later, the woodcutter/narrator tells his perspective and reveals that everyone’s a bunch of lying, terrified buffoons.

For anyone interested in more yammerings on Akira Kurosawa, I plan more subsequent entries.  The local university is showing several of his films this semester and it’s a good excuse for me to learn more about such an admired director.  Stay tuned.