Blu-ray Review – Rashomon
If you are a fan of The Criterion Collection, then chances are you already know the name Akira Kurosawa. He is one of the all-time great directors, and is a staple within the collection. Filmmakers today have been influenced by his work. It’s no surprise that he would have more than two dozen of his titles featured in the collection, each exhibiting a mastery of storytelling. One cannot call themselves a cineaste without knowing who he is. Recently, Criterion brought us the Blu-ray upgrade of one of his best and most popular works, Rashomon (1950/Spine #138). Featuring brand new cover art and illustrations, and stuffed with special features both on the disc and in the 44-page booklet, this is one of the must-have items for any movie collector.
The film’s story, on the surface, may seem simple. A brutal rape and murder have taken place deep in the forests of ancient Japan. However, as the trial commences, details of the crime begin to overlap one another. Testimonies contradict, and the truth becomes clouded in mystery. We hear the events told through the eyes of the criminal bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), the rape victim Masako (Machiko Kyo), and even from the murdered samurai Takehiro (Masayuki Mori), through the use of a medium. Each person—through their own sense of narcissism and self-importance—recalls the crime differently. Even the woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), who saw the whole thing take place, tells the story through his own prism.
This is what makes it such a compelling and lasting work. Kurosawa is not interested in telling a linear narrative. Instead, we have an examination of what the “truth” really means. We are each the sum of our own lives, and that affects how we view the world. Each of the characters describes the crime differently, but who is right? This is one of the first major films to employ the idea of an “unreliable narrator.” Not only does it have one, it has four. What does it mean to tell the truth, if our perspectives are shaped by our own histories? And if truth is subjective, then what is the meaning of “justice” if all there is to rely on are the contradictory statements of those involved? These are just a few of the questions Kurosawa poses, bringing audiences back decades later to peel through layers and find an answer.
The audio has been upgraded with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. It has been restored from a 1962 print. Not much can be said about the sound quality, other than it is consistently good throughout. There are no major drops in volume, while at the same time the sound never noticeably stands out. “Solid” would be the best term to use here.
Visually, the HD transfer is noticeably improved. Restored from the same 35 mm print from 1962, we get to see how good Kazuo Miyagawa’s cinematography actually was. A lot of dirt and scratches have been removed, while maintaining the original look of the film stock. This allows the use of space to be more apparent, highlighting the specific staging of scenes. Light and shadows have a stronger feel, seen mostly during the flashbacks set in the forest. Overall, I would say Criterion did an excellent job with the transfer.
This release is stuffed with supplements. It may take more time to go through them all than the movie itself.
Japanese-film historian Donald Richie provides the only audio commentary. While mostly insightful, I did feel that it became somewhat dry during certain stretches.
Two documentaries, A Testimony as an Image and The World of Kazuo Miyagawa, focus on the crew that helped make the film happen, from the writers to the assistants and camera operators. These are great behind-the-scenes accounts from the people who were actually there. They remind us that great film art cannot be made by one person alone.
Interviews with actor Takashi Shimura and director Robert Altman are included. It was nice to hear from Shimura—a constant Kurosawa collaborator—because archival interviews with him are few and far between. What I appreciate about the contribution of Altman (himself a great director) is that he had nothing to do with the film. He was simply an admirer who wanted to add his own appreciation. Great artists recognize great artists.
If the video features weren’t enough, the booklet contains an essay by historian Stephen Prince, an excerpt from Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography, and the short stories “Rashomon” and “In a Grove” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (which helped inspire the movie). These pieces really allow us to see the evolution of the story from the written page to the silver screen.
Rashomon introduced Japan as a major force in cinema. With this Blu-ray update, Criterion has shown once again why they are one of the best in video distribution. From the film transfer to the abundant extras and even the design of the cover, every aspect feels as though meticulous attention was put in. Seek this one out, now.
Overall Release Grade: A