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Criterion’s DVD of Rashomon has plenty of extras. And why not? Rashomon is a film that just begs to be discussed at length by film historians and interested audiences.

The Movie

Criterion clarifies Kurosawa's classic of ambiguityRashomon is the story of a rape and a murder, although what it’s really about is the nature of reality.

Kurosawa wrote in Something Like an Autobiography “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.” This idea that first-hand accounts are unreliable means that we can never objectively know the truth of any situation we did not witness ourselves. Rashomon illustrates that conclusion.

Some travelers take refuge in the ruins of Rashomon Gate. One, a woodcutter, is despondent and another, a commoner, asks him why. The woodcutter recounts what has happened, and the film flashes back.

The woodcutter took part in a trial during which four witnesses of the rape and murder recounted the events as they saw them. Kurosawa shows in flashback the story of each of the eyewitnesses. At this point, these stories are three layers deep. They are events recalled by eyewitnesses, as recalled by the woodcutter sitting under Rashomon Gate.

Although the basic facts of the case are largely the same, the interpretation of motive and guilt couldn’t be more different. For example, when the bandit tells his confession, the woman is a slut and her husband is a coward. In the woman’s tale, her husband is ashamed and disgusted by the rape, and the bandit is crazed and unrepentant. Even the dead husband gets to tell his tale through a medium.

When the film comes back to the confused woodcutter in Rashomon Gate at the end, it is clear to the commoner that the woodcutter himself has told a story with important holes in it. A dagger that featured in all the stories was notably absent from the trial, and we suspect the woodcutter himself is guilty of theft.

The movie is often shown in film history classes, and rightfully so. It is dense with meaning open to discussion and interpretation. But that doesn’t mean it’s purely academic. On the contrary, Rashomon is a great piece of entertainment. The fact that it engages your brain as well as your emotions only makes it better.

Picture and Sound

Aside from its fame as a comment on the nature of reality, Rashomon is often praised for its cinematography.

The visual texture of the film was created with hard sunlight casting sharp, dappled shadows on the forest floor. The effect was achieved with mirrors and tree branches placed just out of frame, because the trees were too far away to achieve the effect. Artifice in the service of impressionistic reality. Kurosawa is also the first director to shoot directly into the sun, which until Rashomon was considered a mistake.

There is a sequence early in the film that shows our woodcutter marching into the woods. The camera moves fluidly around the subject, immersing us in the densely textured surroundings. This sequence, and others, are often praised as being some of the most cinematic shots since the advent of talkies.

Criterion’s transfer to video (from a 35mm fine-grain positive) is excellent. The rich textures of the forest, running the full tonal range, are preserved from this fifty-year old classic. Criterion also cleaned up the picture and sound, although some blemishes remain.

The soundtrack is monaural. As a non-Japanese speaker, it’s hard to evaluate just how well preserved the dialogue is, although if the music — which adds rhythm and motion to this cinematic masterpiece — is any indication, the soundtrack is well mastered.

DVD Extras

The best extra feature on this DVD is a segment from Japanese TV featuring interviews with both Kurosawa and cinematographer Miyagawa. The segment is short but sweet. It is good to see both of these men, who admired each other, reflect on their days together in the forests outside of Kyoto. Both men are now dead, so we are very fortunate to have captured them in these interviews.

Rashomon comes with liner notes, something nobody does better than Criterion. The 28-page booklet includes both short stories on which film is based, a relevant section of Kurosawa’s autobiography, and an essay by film historian Stephen Prince.

There is also a video introduction by director Robert Altman. It’s a good intro for those who really don’t know anything about the film, but otherwise it’s not very informative.

The DVD has an audio commentary track from Kurosawa expert Donald Richie. The commentary sounds smart and confident, but too often Richie merely describes what’s happening on screen. Contrast him to Bruce Eder, who has recorded some of the most informative and insightful essays for Criterion.

Conclusion

Rashomon is an excellent movie. The Criterion DVD is a very good edition, particularly in terms of looks. Some of the extra features are excellent, while some are “just” above-average. In any case, Rashomon is worth watching, either as a long rental (you’ll want to play some of the extras, if not the audio commentary), or as a permanent addition to your collection.