Rashomon (11/7/12)

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In Rashomon, after the murder of a traveling samurai and the rape of his female companion, multiple versions of the story are told to find the truth.

A woodcutter and a priest are sitting under the gate at Rashomon during a storm and after are joined by a commoner, they tell him of the story of a murdered samurai and rape of his wife the woodcutter found three days prior. The story is told through flashbacks as testimonies in court from the point of view of the confessed murderer and rapist bandit, Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), the wife, the murdered samurai through a spirit medium, and the woodcutter. Each version of the story has slightly differing details offering insight to what really happened to the samurai and his wife.

Rashomon is the film that introduced the west to the great Akira Kurosawa and Japanese filmmaking in general. The style of storytelling used in Rashomon has been emulated many times since its release in 1950 but the original still has not been diminished with age. Though the multiple sides of the same story are a bit confusing since you are never quite sure what is really happening, the mystery of the actual events keep you guessing and involved in the film until the very end.

While the woodcutter seemingly has the least reason to alter the truth about the events, it’s still debatable if his retelling of the story is the “right” one. There’s a saying that I feel is used a lot in cop dramas (or maybe just on the TV show “Cops”) that there’s always three sides to every story; the victim’s, the accuser’s, and the truth. In Rashomon, we get extra sets of eyes and still are never sure if we are seeing the truth but the truth may not be what we are really seeking to find out, either.

The Criterion Collection recently released a new version of Rashomon aside from the amazingly beautiful new cover art (pictured), the set has some great special features included. Aside from the spectacular picture and soundtrack, my favorite feature is the included interview with famed director Robert Altman about the film.

It could be easily argued that Rashomon is Kurosawa’s masterpiece, but with a catalog as wide and diverse as his, choosing just one film is daunting. Rashomon is certainly one of Kurosawa’s finest films, though, and is still riveting today.

I give it 5 bandit testimonies out of 5.

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Ikiru (10/13/12)

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A bureaucrat finds out he has terminal cancer and reevaluates his life, looking for meaning before dying in Ikiru.

After working as bureaucrat for over 30 years, Kenji Watanbe (Takashi Shimura) finds out he has inoperable stomach cancer and less than a year to live. He tries various ways of “living” like partying at night clubs, but gets no satisfaction from it. Finally, he is inspired by a young woman and decides to help people. He helps turn an small pool that residents have been complaining about into a nice playground. After Watanabe’s death, the film continues at his wake with his colleagues deciding to follow Watanabe’s lead and change their own lives, but have difficulty doing so.

When people think of Akira Kurosawa’s films, they likely think of samurai films starring Toshiro Mifune. Ikiru is a drastic departure from that, but still a wonderful little film. I was concerned that Ikiru (which means “To Live”) would be kind of a downer, but it was more comparable to It’s a Wonderful Life than anything droll and too serious. There’s a nice mix of comedy to lighten the mood and the takeaway of the film is entirely positive. The ending of the film was not sad, per se, I found it uplifting.

The film presentation of Ikiru is actually not that great for a Criterion Collection release, which is kind of surprising. There are lots of scratches and noise throughout most of the scenes and the soundtrack had a soft buzzing constantly. I’m assuming these are inherited from the best master available, which is a shame. It would be fantastic to have pristine master that a film that is so beautiful would look beautiful to match. I’m not deriding the Criterion release, Ikiru probably hasn’t looked better, but it’s still a bit disappointing.

I struggle having more to say about Ikiru without going in depth about the meaning of life and how one best lives. The film is about life but it’s also about doing what makes you happy and if helping others in that process works for you, all the better. Ikiru is a touching story and it’s the type of film that seems straightforward but each viewer may have slightly different reactions to the story. For that, I recommend Ikiru, especially for people that think Kurosawa only made samurai films.

I give it 4 Gondola No Utas out of 5.

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