film

Old School Review: Rashomon (1950)

Written by Shinobu Hashimoto and Akira Kurosawa, and directed by Kurosawa, “Rashomon” is a film about the complexities of human nature surrounding a murder with four contradictory eye-witness accounts. In the film three men find solace from a torrent of rain under Kyoto’s Rashomon gate. In the opening a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) are discussing and processing the differing accounts of an event recently taken place nearby. A commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) comes in from the storm and joins the conversation. He’s brought up to date on the situation at hand; a samurai (Masayuki Mori) has been murdered, his wife (Machiko Kyo) raped, and a local bandit (Toshiro Mifune) is the suspect. The woodcutter happened upon the crime scene and was the first to report the incident.

What follows is a series of revolutionary flashbacks to describe the tale as each character remembers it. All retellings of the same event differ, while remaining both true and false. True in that it is how they remember the events, but false in objective truth. The only scenes that are objectively true in what they show us are the ones taking place at Rashomon. Every flashback is an amalgamation of fractured memories, every scene in the forest broke new ground by showing the audience unreliable retellings of the past. This wasn’t a new idea that “Rashomon” originated, but rather a storytelling device that the film popularized. In fact the film is so connected to the idea of contradictory interpretations of past events that they became entwined with each other until ‘The Rashomon Effect’ became part of the cultural zeitgeist.

Each suspect questioned by an unknown official, which leads into each one’s version of the truth. The bandit gives his testimonial first, then the wife, and then the dead samurai- who speaks through a spirit medium, with the woodcutter’s tale kept until the end. All claim to be guilty to varying degrees, and all describe the situation with varying representations of themselves and the others involved. The three men under the Rashomon gate have differing reactions to the events and various recollections of those involved. The commoner is the most cynical of the three, at one point he posits, “Is there anyone who is truly good? Maybe goodness is just make-believe.” The woodcutter is visually distraught by these stories as he tries to reassemble the truth of the matter, while the priest seems to be placing the weight of his faith in humanity upon the outcome of the tale.

The film ends on a high note when the fog of ambiguity is lifted by the sounds of an abandoned child crying out. The woodcutter lifts his spirits and takes on the responsibility of this orphan, proving to the priest that humanity still has hope left in its spirit. The simple act of selflessness gives the film’s end a beacon to strive towards, even if humanity is muddled, complex, and not always truthful- we still strive to be better than our worst habits.

Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.“- Akira Kurosawa

Final Score: 1 samurai ghost, 1 over the top bandit, and 1 woodcutter

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film

Old School Review: I live in Fear (1955)

Caution: There will be spoilers..

Written and directed by Akira Kurosawa, “I Live in Fear” is the legendary filmmaker’s most direct attempt at fictionalizing the very real social anxieties sweeping Japan post World War Two. The film opens on an unfolding case being discussed in family court. Kiichi Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune) is a successful, elder, Japanese industrialist that has been taken to court by his family for the unreasonable use of his funds to secure land in Brazil, the only place on earth Mr. Nakajima believes to be safe from Nuclear Annihilation. He wishes to purchase a farm in the South American country and to bring his family with him- to which the whole family objects. Granted, most of the family doesn’t want to uproot their entire lives just to assuage the fears of Kiichi, but as the film progresses we get the impression that the family would have gone on without acknowledging the man’s paranoia and mental health IF he hadn’t begun to use his wealth, their inheritance, to fund several projects that he thought would protect his loved ones from an irradiated doom.

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After much deliberation the family court approves the family’s petition, that Mr. Nakajima’s actions and intentions deem him mentally unfit. Naturally he appeals the notion and as the court machinations move forward Mr. Nakajima only becomes more frenzied with each passing hour. As he unravels, he fails to understand why everyone around him can be so calm when the very fact that the H bomb exists at all should concern every living soul with grave danger. One of the more powerful scenes in the film, in my opinion, happens during a visit to one of his mistresses (the film doesn’t shy away from the fact that our lead isn’t perfect) as he mistakes lightning and thunder to be another bomb dropping- he dives for his youngest son and startles him awake, at which point the mistress snatches her child up and looks at Kiichi with fearful eyes. Eventually he is so distraught by a son-in-law’s suggestion that even Brazil wouldn’t be safe from the fallout of nuclear war, that Kiichi takes drastic measures and sets the family foundry ablaze. The foundry was the source of the family’s wealth- which Kiichi eventually only saw as a deterrent to moving to safety.

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Throughout the film Kurosawa wisely placed Takashi Shimura as the moral center, and therefore soul of the film, in Dr. Harada. In the role as a dentist that’s been accepted by the local community to be on the board of the family court, Dr. Harada is often the one individual to question the group’s assumptions and point out when Mr. Nakajima makes logical points of contention. After Shimura’s spellbinding performance in Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” in 1952, it was a cinematic pleasure seeing two of Kurosawa’s most lauded performers onscreen together. Granted, I’m watching Kurosawa’s films out of order, so this may not be as momentous as it felt to me at the time. The two actors play off of each other brilliantly, with Shimura’s reserved and quiet performance set against the rigidity and barely contained anger of Mifune’s Kiichi- it’s an excellent pairing of personalities.

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Kurosawa presents an argument in the film, which party is the sane one? Mr. Nakajima, who’s trying to save lives and avoid nuclear disintegration? Or the World around him that neglects his worries as trivial and misguided. Sirens wail in the background throughout the film and most of the characters have a sort of laissez-faire attitude about the whole idea of nuclear annihilation. Several even acknowledge that while Mr. Nakajima had gone too far- they couldn’t accurately articulate why he should be deemed mentally incompetent. The film’s final scene encapsulates this dichotomy visually with Mr. Nakajima institutionalized in a psychiatric ward. Dr. Harada leaves the institution, having just witnessed a man broken by paranoia, just as Nakajima’s daughter enters and both are anchored in a mourning and uneasiness as they each enter a world that harbors curious intent.

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In reading what others have said about this film I came across the perfect summary of where the film’s head-space lives. In an article from Slate in 2008, by Fred Kaplan, he extrapolates that if someone were to make a similar film on the American psyche post 9/11 “[they] might cover and somehow dramatize: the line between obsession and obliviousness, between whimpering terror and blithe denial; the undeterminable toll on our ‘unconscious minds’ from embracing either course; and the question of whether it’s possible to lead a fully conscious, sane life on some road in between“. All of which is crafted here exquisitely by Akira Kurosawa and his crew. This tragedy is worth a watch, if only to recognize how the outcomes of war can affect a society and it’s people.

 

Final Score: Two minutes, ’til midnight