Friday, March 13, 2009


I just finished watching Rashomon on my Archos during exercise times. I was mostly watching it because of its importance in the history of film and fiction, of which I was reminded because of my plans to write a play (for Lusternia) which uses the technique that Rashomon pioneered (showing the same story from multiple perspectives).

Films which are important primarily for their place in storytelling history are sometimes hard to appreciate. The advances they brought are now taken for granted, so all that still shows is the flaws and the things that don't suit modern tastes. Perhaps in overreaction to this, a lot of film fans tend to be heavily deprecatory of modern techniques and speak of the old classics as if nothing ever improves with the passage of time; it's very trendy to knock the effects, the quick edits, the faster pace, the world-weariness of modern films. There's some truth to some of those comments: some of the changes aren't always for the better, and some modern films trade a chance to be really great on a chance to be more in-the-moment entertaining. Then again, sometimes I want to be in-the-moment entertained, and there's room in film for all sorts. Each change has to be judged on its own merit for how it fits into each specific act of storytelling.

Rashomon in particular rankled me in the pacing, and while I'm not saying that the frenetic pace of today's movies is always better, or that long, slow pans have no place, I saw a lot of times in Rashomon where these long pauses didn't seem to be adding suspense, or establishing tone, or adding anything more than time.

Some of the acting also felt feeble, in particular the female role. Admittedly, she was several different roles in different versions of the story, but none of them felt well-acted, convincing, or compelling. In the actress's defense, most of her lines were "Masako blubbers." But even that she didn't seem to pull off.

The fight scenes were sometimes inexplicable. In different versions of the story, the bandit and samurai fight in different circumstances. Sometimes competently, but in the last telling, they were beyond slapstick. Half the fight was them standing ten paces apart repeatedly slipping on the forest floor's minimal leaf cover and falling on their faces. The other half was one of them scrambling for a dropped weapon (and then scrambling away when they got close to getting it) while the other one missed sure-thing chances to stab someone who was fallen and unable to dodge... over and over and over. I have to assume this is intentional, that it speaks either to how inaccurate that particular telling was, or how inaccurate the others were, but it just didn't seem to go anywhere to justify how long it went on.

On the other hand, the cinematography was fantastic. Quite often the simple act of camera framing caught me by surprise. Maybe it's not good that I noticed it so much, but I don't think so. Usually I would notice it because I'd think I was seeing one thing and then suddenly I was seeing something else. Generally speaking, the production was impeccable. (I'll have to take someone's word for the costuming being appropriate.)

The film's best strengths of course are its storytelling and in particular its inventive technique, though now familiar. That's why it's hard to give it the credit it's owed. When nothing like this had been done, doing this was alone justification for the film to have a place in the pantheon of great films. But once you take away the excitement of being exposed to the technique for the first time and the relevant revelation, what's left is a flawed but good film, but nothing spectactular. I'm better for having seen it, though I doubt it'll really help me with the play after all.

I did find myself amused at the idea of a spin-off, CSI: Rashomon. Wouldn't be too hard for modern forensics to get to the bottom of what really happened! (Though to be fair, I suppose it would have to be a Cold Case instead.)

1 comment:

litlfrog said...

Hmm, I don't remember the fight scenes that way, but it's been a long time since I saw the movie. I agree wholeheartedly about the female lead's acting. It always felt to me like Kurosawa was trying to get something very unique and specific out of her role that never quite pans out. I think the pacing of Rashomon has more to do with Japanese film style than it does with the era--outside of children's fare, Japanese filmmakers generally preferred longer scenes, longer takes, and longer pauses.

I'm always happy to see innovative films even when some aspects haven't aged well. I come from a pretty conservative, early 20th-century New Criticism literary tradition that requires a constant re-examination of canon in light of new developments. As new art is created, it changes the way we see older art. In most important ways, Rashomon is a different film today than it was when it was released--other films and television shows that have used its techniques inform our current understanding of the original.