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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
He Said, She Said
by Donald Levit

Shown three consecutive weekday afternoons at the Museum of Modern Art, Rashomon (“In a Bush”) is indeed of historical significance. Entered at Venice against the wishes of Daiei Studios, it won the 1951 Golden Lion followed by a Foreign Language Oscar -- honorary, since that category was not to exist for another five years -- opened Western eyes to Japan’s long, rich cinema tradition, and made international stars of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune.

Sixty years down the line the “Bolero” score is heavy-handed and the acting stagey, arguably to indicate popular existentialism, in which each person acts out his or her own story, creating individual situational reality. The three takes related to an unseen magistrate which is the camera eye plus a fourth later to companions, are mutually contradictory while also debunking male heroism and female purity. No sides are favored, though psychologically a last speaker enjoys the greatest acceptance, with all versions suspended as possible or self-servingly untrue.

A baby found abandoned and then adopted at the conclusion hints at hope for goodness, but these final saccharine frames ring false in the Heian era (794-1194) anecdote meant to reflect a contemporary postwar mid-century. The mystery is not solved, the answer not furnished--if, indeed, there is one. Bathed in the “virtual reality” created for them and outside any individual, today’s generation takes a pass on such fine points of what is real, leaving the Celeste Bartos Theater audience elderly.

The director-editor co-adapted the tale combining a story for plot and a novel for setting, both by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. With fast tracking shots, b&w chiaroscuro camerawork (Kazuo Miyagawa) and a pessimistic intimation that whodunit or what exactly was done is not essential, the result hit the bull’s-eye with foreign filmgoers and critics. Even if four years later some were to champion as the better film Kenji Mizoguchi’s Silver Lion Sansho the Bailiff, it is Kurosawa’s that remains the benchmark, the title itself (a “castle gate”) become a byword for conflicting versions. Inferior remakes by Martin Ritt and, for TV, Sidney Lumet have not dimmed Rashomon’s reputation.

The film is more arresting in its symmetrical eighty-eight-minute realization than the mere plot warrants. Three men seek refuge in a ruined Kyoto City gatehouse from torrential rain -- final sunshine too patly signifies humanity and continuance. In that time of lawlessness and despair, the Firewood Cutter (Takashi Shimura, with Mifune the director’s preferred actor) details to a priest and doubting commoner (Minoru Chiaki and Kichijiro Ueda) that it was he who discovered the lady’s and man’s hats and the aftermath of an alleged rape and murder that have absorbed the war-torn land.

Through flashbacks, his and others’ versions are visualized, each from a different point of view, all plausible but none validated by the impassive observing film. A horseback beauty in white (Machiko Kyo) is led by her nobleman husband (Masayuki Mori). The couple are spotted by Bandit Tajomaru (Mifune), who is smitten with the lady. What then happens, or how and why it happens, varies according to the teller and his/her flashback.

Tied up before the magistrate, the outlaw scoffs at the idea he fell off a horse and vaunts his many killings. He admits to ravishing the prize but insists on his having untied the man and honorably run him through in chivalric swordplay. The woman’s tearful tale is that neither was at all manly and that the cowardly husband neither defended her honor nor heeded her plea that he kill her, at which refusal she fainted. A medium (Fumiko Homma) calls up the icy murdered man’s gravelly-voiced spirit, which claims that he killed himself in disgrace after the faithless wife enjoyed sex with the intruder and tried to accompany him in flight.

In a return to the framing story at the gate, the unwilling woodcutter is encouraged to reveal yet another view of the matter, which he spied on with his own eyes. Four sides are left dangling with no definable center. In an autobiography decades later, the director felt that “human beings are unable to be honest with themselves. Even the character who dies cannot give up his lies. Egotism is a sin [and] the human heart itself is impossible to understand.”

(Released by Janus Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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