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Movie Review: RASHÔMON and Its Singular Cinematic Impact

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Chalk it up to a case of the “what-if’s”: what if author Reginald Rose was a big fan of Akira Kurosawa’s landmark drama Rashômon?  It’s not that big of a stretch, actually.  The Kurosawa classic took world cinema by storm after its release in 1950, propelling its director and leading man (the great Toshirô Mifune) to international success and winning both the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language at the 24th Academy Awards Ceremony, and it stands to reason that a cultured, literate writer such as Rose (he was a triple-threat in the 1950’s, writing for television, the stage, and the screen) would have made time to see the film.

But what if Rose really liked Rashômon?  What if he liked it so much that its ideas bled into his own work?  What if he remade Rashômon without even knowing it?

Here’s the thing: lots of people have remade Rashômon.  Kurosawa was certainly no stranger to having his ideas co-opted by others – Seven Samurai begat The Magnificent Seven, The Hidden Fortress begat Star Wars, and Yojimbo begat A Fistful of Dollars, and The Warrior and the Sorceress, and Last Man Standing, and Sukiyaki Western Django (that’s a long list, but it’s only fair, considering Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest begat Yojimbo) – and as early as 1964, we got an explicit Rashômon re-do (The Outrage, directed by Martin Ritt and featuring his Hud leading man Paul Newman in the Mifune role).  Since then, elements of Rashômon have popped up in The Usual Suspects, Basic, Vantage Point, and Courage Under Fire, all of which employ Rashômon‘s slippery ethical perspective, albeit to diminished results (though I confess that The Usual Suspects comes the closest to the real thing).  I bet if you cornered screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie or James Vanderbilt or Barry Levy or Patrick Sheane Duncan, they’d cop to the influence straight away.

And yet none of them tap into Rashômon‘s vitality quite as well as Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men does.

The other films certainly look more like Rashômon; I’ll give them that.  Of the many innovations that Kurosawa serves up (Mifune’s transcendently scuzzy/sympathetic performance; DP Kazuo Miyagawa’s earthy-yet-ethereal monochrome photography), the most obvious is a structural one – in recounting the aftermath of a brutal rape and murder, Kurosawa divides his film into four parts, with each part representing a different perspective on the crime.  It’s a sexy hook – you get four movies for the price of one, and the audience has to fill in the gaps – and the aforementioned non-12 Angry Men movies delight at the opportunity to mask tired material behind deliberately twisty narrative contortions.  But structure is all these movies borrow, leaving behind Rashômon‘s unsettling, unresolved moral ambiguity.

Not so with 12 Angry Men.  By comparison, the 1957 movie (or 1954 teleplay, if you so choose) is a paradigm of no-frills, unpretentious filmmaking.  The story of a jury arguing over an accused murderer’ fate, 12 Angry Men plays out in a perfectly linear fashion: Rose and director Sidney Lumet mostly confine the film to the jury room, letting the action play out in real time.  There are no flashbacks, no cutaways – just the deliberations of the jury members as they try to come to a final verdict.  It has none of Rashômon‘s oft-imitated narrative tricks, nor its profound sense of magic realism.

Instead, the two films share the same healthy distrust of the truth.  Kurosawa distorts and abstracts his different viewpoints because there is no one “right” version of the crime.  Whatever horrible events befell the woodcarver (Takashi Shimura) and his wife (Masayuki Mori) are over and done, and we don’t get the benefit of seeing them play out in real time.  All we get are four memories, and trauma, need, and the passing of time compromise each of them.  The structure isn’t a gimmick – it’s a bravura illustration of that old saying, “There are three sides to any story: your version, my version, and the truth.”

And Rose is right there with Kurosawa.  Like Rashômon, we come in after the fact; a young man is on trial for murdering his father, and our closest link to the incident is courtroom testimonies that we don’t even see.  It’s an additional layer of distance: it’d be tough enough assessing witness reports first-hand, but we get them filtered through twelve very fallible outside perspectives.  Those divided viewpoints actually let Rose pull off a neat trick; even though the narrative is 100% straightforward and uncomplicated, somehow 12 Angry Men feels just as complex as Rashômon because each member of the jury clouds our interpretation of the crime – Rose smuggles twelve different narratives into an otherwise traditional courtroom drama.  One of the great critical fallacies assumed about the film is that its sympathies lie with the accused killer.  Rose doesn’t buy that line – he provides ample arguments in favor of both guilty and not guilty throughout the film.  But that’s the point: we can’t know for sure, nor will we ever.

Only the endings seem to deviate tonally from one another.  Rashômon ends on a beat of perpetual uncertainty, while 12 Angry Men has its title characters come to a definite verdict.  Chalk the latter case up to Hollywood, I suppose, and Tinsel Town’s need for questions to have answers; the brilliance of Akira Kurosawa and Rashômon is that they trust the audience enough to acknowledge the unknown in all its complexities.  Still, the 12 Angry Men finale isn’t a complete cop-out – the film never lets you forget that just because it offers an answer doesn’t mean that answer is the right one.

Maybe Reginald Rose intended to remake Rashômon; maybe it’s just a coincidence.  But I can’t help but see similarities.  The two films might be illegitimate relatives, but they’re relatives just the same – you can practically see the resemblance in the eyes.

The Criterion Collection’s Rashômon Blu-ray is a thing of beauty – the Academy Film Archive, the National Film Center of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, and Kadokawa Pictures commissioned a glorious restoration of the film in 2008, and this Blu-ray replicates those results to spectacular effect.  Crisp and sharp, as is the LPCM monaural track.

Features are extensive.  We get a commentary with film critic Donald Richie; two documentaries (“The World of Kazuo Miyagawa” and “A Testimony as an Image”); interviews with actor Takashi Shimura and Academy Award-winning director/Rashômon-aficionado Robert Altman; the original trailer; and a booklet featuring material from film historian Stephen Prince and director Akira Kurosawa, as well as reprints of the two stories that inspired the film, Rashômon and In a Grove.

Rashômon endures because it is honest about the truth; maybe that’s why so many filmmakers respond to it.

Rashômon is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.  Hell, while you’re at it, click HERE for the online retailer’s 12 Angry Men page and tell me I’m wrong about the connection joining the two movies.