Directed By: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Machiko Kyô
Produced By: Daiei Motion Picture Company
Seen on: Hulu
Note: Subtitles (which is how it should be watched, dubbing Kurosawa is heresy)
This is not an easy movie to watch, but it is fascinating. It is set up like Chaucer’s Cantebury Tales, with different characters getting to recount different little vignettes that tell different versions of the same story. The film opens on a dilapidated building with two men, a priest and a woodcutter, taking refuge from the pouring rain. they are joined by a commoner who is also interested in getting out of the rain.The Priest and the Woodcutter are brooding over an experience they had at court, where they heard the story that narrates the whole film.
Priest: You’re right. War, earthquake, winds, fire, famine, the plague. Year after year, it’s been nothing but disasters. And bandits descend upon us every night. I’ve seen so many men getting killed like insects, but even I have never heard a story as horrible as this. Yes, so horrible. This time, I may finally lose my faith in the human soul. It’s worse than bandits, the plague, famine, fire, or war.
The story told revolves around a samurai husband and wife, travelling through the forest and what happens when they meet the vile bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), who lusts after the wife. This leads to murder and rape, and a series of uncomfortable scenes that deal with those themes and an generally unflattering treatment of women. It is hard to say if that is due to period correctness since the setting is feudal Japan and the brutal way women were treated as chattel, or misogynistic views of the ’50’s. Probably a little bit of both. But if you can
The cinematogaphy is nuanced and careful: since the primary story is set in a forest, the trees themselves are important elements to the movie. Kuroswawa uses the sunlight in the trees to highlight objects of focus. The court scenes are hygenic and bright, and so stark that. The sound of the husband’s dialogue late in the movie has great effect and helps achieve . The Kurosawa uses the musical score to very dramatic effect, and as a tool of the narrative.
Priest: I refuse to believe that man would be so sinful.
Commoner: Suit Yourself. But is there anyone who’s really good?
Commoner: Maybe goodness is just make-believe.
Priest: What a frightening-
Commoner: (laughs) Man just wants to forget the bad stuff and believe in the made-up good stuff. It’s easier that way.
I do not think this movie would be made today without some adjustment, especially to the Wife character; but it is without a doubt one of the best films I have seen in a long time. It builds, like a great film should, but more than that it speaks, you come away from the film with a feeling that you have seen something, that you now understand the world around you better, or at least you understand the lens with which Kurosawa wanted it to be viewed better. There are twists. There is symbolism. There are things that you have to watch critically to catch the subtlety of, things like what sounds you are hearing, and what those sounds represent, the characters as icons taking the form of man: the innocent priest, the timid woodcutter, the pragmatic commoner. There are some sword battle scenes (it’s not feudal japan unless the katanas come out), but the way they play out is dependent on who is telling the story. It seems to be a story about the nature of humans more than anything else, and the way it is explored is fantastic.
Priest: I don’t want to hear it. No more horror stories.
Commoner: They are common stories these days.
Commoner: I even heard that the demon living here in Rashomon fled in fear of the ferocity of man.