Machiko Kyo

Rashomon (1950, Kurosawa Akira)

Where to start with Rashomon? Starting at the beginning means talking about the bookends–three strangers stranded in the rain, two telling the third different versions of the same story, each ostensibly true. The rain pours down around them, drowning out their voices. Rashomon is a film without a protagonist; it eschews the very idea of one. That pounding rain contrasts with the rest of the film, which has two further layers of narrative.

The two men telling stories–Shimura Takashi’s woodcutter and Chiaki Minoru’s priest–just gave testimony in a murder trial. One of Rashomon’s mysteries, I just realized, is the resolution of that trial. It’s immaterial. They’re now telling Ueda Kichijirô about the testimony they gave and the testimony they heard. So the trial is the second layer. It’s very quiet, with director Kurosawa using exquisite, precise framing. I forgot–it also has Shirmura and Chiaki promising Ueda their tale of base humanity is the worst he’ll ever here. Kurosawa sets the viewer’s expectations high.

The third layer is the testimony itself, involving Mifune Toshirô’s bandit attacking a traveling married couple. Mifune confesses. The wife, Kyô Machiko, gives conflicting testimony. The husband, Mori Masayuki–arguably in the film’s most difficult performance–gives another. Rashomon isn’t a courtroom picture set in feudal Japan, Kurosawa’s not interested in the truth. He’s interested in the concept of it, something plaguing poor Chiaki, whose performance as the priest is quietly devastating. A lot of Rashomon is people silently reacting to events around them. When action is necessary, no matter how much action, it’s momentous.

That third layer, set in a forest, is usually the quietest. Kurosawa and co-screenwriter Hashimoto Shinobu don’t play narrative tricks; Rashomon is straightforward in how the viewer’s supposed to navigate all the layers. Kurosawa isn’t interested in making the story opaque. He wants the viewer to understand. When Shimura tells his story, he walks the film (and the viewer) into the flashback, into the forest. It’s a visually striking sequence, beautiful photography from Miyagawa Kazuo and Kurosawa’s editing almost appears to be based on the length of breaths. The editing is very important in Rashomon. It practically suffocates the flashbacks, creating tension with the promise of truth and revelation in the silent forest.

Great acting from Mori, Kyô and Mifune, who all have to play the same parts three to five different ways. Sometimes Kyô is best, sometimes Mifune, but Mori’s gives the essential performance. He’s got to convey the forest’s silence, usually with nothing more than an expression or body language. Not to discount the Kyô and Mifune, of course, they’re amazing. Mifune shows exceptional range in what should be the same part.

Technically, the film’s impeccable. There’s a sword fight near the end, mostly in single takes, and Kurosawa gets phenomenal action performances from his actors. It’s exhausting, but so is Rashomon itself; at less than ninety minutes, Kurosawa runs the characters–and the viewer–through a ringer. Because he doesn’t just want to ask questions about truth, he wants to talk about their answers as well, making Shimura, Chiaki and Ueda just as important to the film as the three leads.

Great music from Hayasaka Fumio.

Rashomon has a cast of ten. The closest it comes to comic relief is Katô Daisuke’s mildly dimwitted policeman who testifies against Mifune, but it’s not funny, Katô’s just sort of funnier than anything else. Its present action is short, regardless of layer–I suppose the runtime could correspond to Shimura, Chiaki and Ueda being stuck in the rain, though the rain is already pouring down as the film starts. It’s not a big picture. There’s nothing Kurosawa could do better, could do different. Rashomon’s perfect, devastating.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Kurosawa Akira; screenplay by Kurosawa and Hashimoto Shinobu, based on a story by Akutagawa Ryûnosuke; director of photography, Miyagawa Kazuo; music by Hayasaka Fumio; production designer, Matsuyama Takashi; produced by Jingo Minoru; released by Daiei Motion Picture Company.

Starring Mifune Toshirô (Bandit), Kyô Machiko (Wife), Mori Masayuki (Husband), Shimura Takashi (Woodcutter), Chiaki Minoru (Priest), Ueda Kichijirô (Commoner), Honma Noriko (Medium) and Katô Daisuke (Policeman).


The Face of Another (1966, Teshigahara Hiroshi)

Novelists make interesting screenwriters (though maybe not as much any more). When they adapt their own work, however, it might not be the best idea. The adaptation allows them to package their interpretation of themselves, as opposed to actually adapting a work from one medium to the next. The Face of Another, adapted by Abe Kôbô from his own novel, is a good example of how not to adapt a novel into a film. Besides including some decidedly bad visuals–not everything can be visualized for film and work in the context of a film, after all–he also made some really bad pacing decisions. The first hour of the film, about a man whose face is horribly scarred in an accident, drags along. It opens well with a scene between the man and his wife and the marriage scenes do play well in the film and should have been it’s secondary focus. However, most of the first hour is spent with the man (who is in bandages for that first hour, until he gets a life-like mask in the second) and his psychiatrist. The psychiatrist somehow becomes the film’s focus, which doesn’t fit….

What does fit the film is the rather novelistic juxtaposition between the man and a pretty young girl with a radiation burn (from Nagasaki) on her face. She appears in the second half and the film switches focus a few times. While he’s desperately trying to fix his psychical appearance amid people who really don’t care (except his wife), she’s kind and good and trying to help people even though child point and scream. In her scenes, there’s a real sense of the post-war condition. His scenes aren’t just missing that setting, they’re missing any subtext. The psychiatrist’s mad dreams of lost identity are a poor substitute for anything going on with the man below the surface. Even the relationship with the wife, which disappears for a good forty minutes only to come back with some promise, fizzles in the end. The end really fizzles as the film gets visually theatrical and Abe keeps novelistic elements film is incapable of presenting.

The acting is excellent, which makes the film’s faults all the more glaring. If this cast couldn’t iron them out, they must be bad. The scarred girl, Irie Miki, never appeared in any other films. The lead, Nakadai Tatsuya, has an impressive emotional range given the first the bandages, then the mask, which stays static, and the character is too shallow. As the film’s configured, the suffering wife (Kyō Machiko) should have been the protagonist, but obviously she isn’t. Only the psychiatrist, Hira Mikijiro, gives a less than stellar performance in one of the main roles, but since his character changes so much from scene to scene, it’s not really his fault.

When I started Face of Another, I was expecting something great, but as it drug on and on–and particularly when it failed to stay on the good course it found in the second hour–I really wondered whether or not a novelist should be adapting his own work. Especially Abe (though I’ve only read one of his novels), who seems to have a good setup then a poor resolution.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Teshigahara Hiroshi; written by Abe Kôbô, based on his novel; director of photography, Segewa Hiroshi; edited by Shuzui Fusako; music by Takemitsu Toru; production designer, Awazu Kiyoshi; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Nakadai Tatsuya (Okuyama), Hira Mikijiro (Doctor), Kishida Kyoko (Nurse), Kyo Machiko (Mrs. Okuyama), Okada Eiji (Director) and Irie Miki (Girl).


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