Blu-ray review: Rashomon

Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Michiko Kyo
Director: Akira Kurosawa

rashomon 1Although it was the film that launched him in the west, in retrospect Rashomon stands slightly apart from Kurosawa’s other work. Not just because of its famously complex structure, in which the violent death of a wealthy man and apparent rape of his young wife are examined and re-examined from the viewpoints of different witnesses and participants. What really makes Rashomon unique among the director’s costume dramas is its tight focus on a small group of characters and the psycho-sexual tensions between them.

As the stories diverge and contradict each other, the film’s message seems to be that people rarely tell the truth where their sexual pride is at state. And it’s a hang-up that lingers on after death: when, late in proceedings, the spirit of the slain man gives his testimony via a medium, there’s a kind of masochistic fervour to his account of his humiliation and demise that makes it hard to completely trust.

Fittingly, this is perhaps the most purely sensual film Kurosawa ever made, thanks to black-and-white cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa which brilliantly evokes the torrid, stifling, sun-dappled atmosphere in the forest where the crime takes place. As the braggart bandit who waylays the couple, Toshiro Mifune gives a trademark turn, showy and feral yet capable of disarming charm, but the standout performance comes from Machiko Kyo as the wife – considering that (unlike Mifune, who wears little more than a loincloth) she spends the entire film swathed in voluminous robes, the sexual heat she gives out is truly remarkable.

All of which is to say that, even if you’re left cold by the great thumping epics of Kurosawa’s later career, the small but perfectly formed early masterpiece still has the power to disturb and excite. 9/10

TRANSFER
A scattering of grain and occasional softness, but generally a very nice transfer from therashomon 2 2008 restoration. The opening two-shot of the priest and woodcutter has an etched sharpness and impressive range of skin tones, rather like an old silver nitrate print. Some of the close-ups of Mifune are quite something, all bristling hair and glistening sweat, and the forest scenes are all packed with crisp detail. 8/10

EXTRAS
5-min interview with John Boorman, who talks about meeting Kurosaws at a dinner (David Lean was there too!). ~ A 34-min documentary which returns to the location of the original Rashomon gate in Kyoto and the forest of Mount Wakasuka where the exteriors were shot. Not exactly thrilling, but nice for those interested in modern Japan, and some details to do with shooting with live sound and other technical matters eventually emerge. ~ A thorough, knowledgeable audio commentary with Stuart Galbraith, with info about the source material, the shooting schedule, actor bios and Kurosawa tricks such as the way he added black ink to the rain to make it stand out better on screen. 7/10

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