• Rashômon

    Released by: BFI
    Released on: September 21st, 2015.
    Director: Akira Kurosawa
    Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori
    Year: 1950

    The Movie:

    Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashômon is widely, and rightfully, regarded as a masterpiece. A period mystery set in feudal Japan, the central plot revolves around a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) who finds the body of a murdered samurai (Masayuki Mori). Three days later during a torrential downpour he takes shelter inside a rundown gatehouse called Rashômon. Here he meets a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and another man (Kichijirô Ueda) who are discussing the details of the murdered samurai, the same one whose body the woodcutter discovered.

    It seems that both of these men were asked to testify at the trial as they had recently interacted with the victim. It turns out that the priest encountered the victim and his wife (Machiko Kyo) as they made their way through the forest shortly before he was killed. Also appearing at the trial were three other people who all claim to be the only witness to the murder: a bandit named Tajômaru (Toshirô Mifune) who some believe not only murdered the samurai but who also raped his wife; the wife of the samurai herself; and then murdered samurai himself who is able to provide his testimony through a medium.

    All three accounts of the killing have much in common and agree that Tajômaru did abduct the samurai so that he could rape the wife, however, there are important differences and contradictions at play that will make it difficult to find out what actually happened beyond that.

    A film whose importance and influence cannot be overstated, Rashômon remains a remarkably fascinating and gripping picture. Noteworthy as the film that really went a long way towards exposing the talents of Kurosawa and Mifune to an audience outside of Japan, it’s also an early example of a filmmaker experimenting with the objectivity/subjectivity of what the camera shows the audience. The way that the story weaves through the three different confessions shows off some remarkable editing skills and once the finale comes around and we see what the wood cutter saw, our expectations have not only been toyed with, but they’ve been pulled out from under us (though the very fact that the movie opens with the woodcutter expressing the fact that he doesn’t understand should clue us in that we might not either!). Yet the film never feels gimmicky and the twist never feels cheap or contrived because Rashômon builds towards this with a very natural flow. It is, like human nature and human memory, subject to a specific point of view and we see, as the testimonies are reenacted, that no one is capable of being completely honest here.

    As far as the performances go, if you consider that Kurosawa was influenced by silent films, they make perfect sense. Long stretches of the film play out with little or no dialogue and so our principals tend to use body language and facial expressions in place of dialogue. Mifune is the perfect example here, he scowls or he grunts or he runs around like a madman, really going a bit over the top but working really well in the context of what Kurosawa was going for her (it wasn’t realism but rather an attempt to create a feeling or depict emotion). We get similar performances from Machiko Kyo and Masayuki Mori as well in the flashback scenes, with the three men taking shelter from the storm and the testimony sequences offering up all the dialogue we need.

    Featuring some stunning cinematography from Kazuo Miyagawa and a rousing score courtesy of Fumio Hayasaka, the film delivers in terms of production value as well. Every camera setup here is perfect and the film rewards those who pay attention to the way that certain shots are set up – be it the positioning of characters sitting quietly behind a certain testifier in the court scenes or the way that the medium’s veil flutters in a breeze that seems to affect nothing else around her. There are interesting details here that make this one well worth repeat viewings. There are also some remarkable shots here that use the bright sun and the shadowy forest to create start contrast, an obvious but effective foreshadowing of how things will play out as the movie progresses.


    The BFI presents Rashômon in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed in its proper aspect ratio of 1.33.1. The transfer here looks pretty close to the one that Criterion used on their domestic Blu-ray release a few years ago, but that’s not a bad thing. There are definitely spots where the movie shows its age and where you can tell that the elements, even restored as they are here, were in rough shape but the detail is there as is the texture. There’s a reasonable amount of depth here and the contrast that the black and white picture demonstrates is very strong. This also arrives on Blu-ray with a good bit rate, so there are no obvious compression artifacts to note, nor are there any problems with obvious overzealous edge enhancement or noise reduction smoothing. The print damage that would seem to have been impossible to eliminate still shows up, but by and large this is quite a nice picture.

    The Japanese language LPCM Mono track, which comes with optional English subtitles, is about on par with the video presentation in that it isn’t perfect but under the circumstances it is quite good. The balance is strong, and there’s some surprisingly impressive depth during the scenes that use a lot of rain. The subtitles are clean, clear and easy to read and free of any typographical errors.

    Extras for this release start off with a new audio commentary by Kurosawa expert Stuart Galbraith IV, the man who wrote The Emperor And The Wolf: The Lives And Films Of Akira Kurosawa And Toshiro Mifune. Galbraith offers a very detailed history of this particular film and his intricate knowledge of its director and leading man ensure that he covers a lot of ground here. We get some explanations as to the cultural ramifications of the storyline, some interesting insight into where Kurosawa was at during this period in his career and some great stories about Mifune’s work, but we also get a lot of interesting facts and trivia about the locations, the costumes, the way in which the story unfolds and a lot more.

    The disc also includes a featurette called Rashômon At 65 that runs roughly thirty four minutes. This featurette, which is hosted by Galbraith, shows off some of the primary locations that were used in Rashômon and also features some interviews with former staff from Daiei-Kyoto Studios. They share some of their own experiences and talk about what it was like being involved in the making of this picture. Rounding out the extras is a six minute piece called John Boorman On Rashômon where the director expresses his admiration for what Mifune and Kurosawa accomplished here, a 2010 BFI theatrical reissue trailer, menus and chapter selection. The disc also comes packaged with an insert booklet that includes full credits for the feature and the disc as well as an essay from Gailbraith on the film.

    The Final Word:

    Rashômon is, in no uncertain terms, a masterpiece. It’s a riveting watch, a masterfully directed picture that benefits from one of Mifune’s finest turns in front of the camera. The BFI’s Blu-ray release treats the film with great respect, presenting it in the best possible shape, with solid audio and a strong collection of supplemental material. All in all, a great release of a great movie.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!