Monday, April 02, 2007

Movie Review: Rashomon

Great movies mean different things to different people. Of all the classics, if there can be a movie that has maximum variance in reviews, it is Rashomon. Why do I like this movie so much? I like Rashomon because it explores my favorite discussion topic. A topic that I debate often with my friends. I have this tendency to remember arbitrary details about locations, things, and events way back in the past. Later, when I visited those places (or) saw them in video after a month, a year or a decade, things weren't exactly how I remembered them to be. It happens to many people. People got all the basic details and facts correct but the subtle things that made the event special/horrible, were not always accurate. This error was more pronounced if I witnessed the events just once. Among the readers of this blog, those who know me personally, will recollect the strong bets I place on certain cricketing shots, past events and locations and (sometimes, not always) be awfully wrong about it. The perception was that I exaggerated and embellished the incident deliberately. However, to me, the epiphany was a complete surprise. I would be so sure and then I would be so surprised. My theory is that our brain approximates things and stores events in memory incorrectly. The error factor increases over time (possible memory corruption). While you might believe that you were honestly recollecting things, you might be inadvertently lying. Things become horrible when you subconscious cheats you to remember an incident the way you like to remember it and not the way it played out. If this is taken in the context of perjury things become very interesting. Rashomon, explores this very concept. As Robert Altman, so eloquently put it, books allow you the latitude to imagine the events narrated in the book. Two people who read the same book, may not necessarily imagine the characters and events the same way. But in a movie these things are concrete. Movies usually cast the events and characters in stone. It is an art form, which presents events as facts and there is no interpretation possible in this space (for example if it shows a guy taking a wallet - you can't come out and argue that the guy never took the wallet). Rashomon breaks this paradigm. This is its greatest achievement. After you have seen this movie, you are not sure what was shown to you is indeed a fact. Two people might have completely two different inferences about the facts of this movie. To me, it laughs mockingly at the system of using human testimony as evidence in a court. It is experimental movie making at its peak and it is incredible that such a movie could be made in 1950s, when movies as an art form was quite nascent.

Rashomon is a story where several people narrate an incident, as part of a testimony, in a court house. The 15-20 minute incident is quite simple, a husband and wife are travelling across the woods. A bandit has sex with the wife and then kills the husband. This is pretty much the only thing you can say for certain. These are the facts of the case. Everything else is open to interpretation. To begin with the aesthetics, rain is used very effectively in this movie. It sets the mood of the movie. And its not just a drizzle. When the movie opens, rain pours in torrents as we are shown two people (a wood cutter and a priest) who are sitting and staring at the rain. They are confused and shocked beyond belief. We want to know why and there is a character introduced on behalf of us, to speak and interpret for us to ask them why. The movie then moves on to a splendid sequence of the wood cutter walking through the woods. There are many firsts in this scene. For the first time in cinema history, the camera focuses directly on the sun. Another first, and this happens throughtout the movie, is the use of mirrors to reflect sun-light on an actors face so that it becomes visble in the darker part of the woods. As the cinematographer later explains, this scene of the wood cutter walking was taken in a single long shot. The trail of the camera is like a S-shaped rail. The wood cutter walks in a straight line from the top-right-most point of the letter 'S' to the bottom left most point. The camera moves along the 'S' shaped trail while continuously focusing on the woodcutter. The beauty is you don't even realize this until somebody explains it to you. This wood cutter, who provides the first testimony, claims that as he was walking, he saw (a) the hat of a woman, (b) a rope - and upon walking a few more yards - (c) the dead body of the husband. A priest is called upon to provide the second testimony. This priest adds nothing more except for the fact that he saw the husband and wife (on a horse top) walk by him.

The movie picks up speed, when the bandit, who is captured, narrates his part of this story. This is the first time you are told what happened in those woods that day. You are told why and exactly how the sex and the murder took place. After the bandit, himself, confesses to this gory crime and owns responsibility for both crimes. You are left wondering, what else remains. He is guilty. And then the wife shows up for her testimony. The way her story contradicts the bandit's story is intriguing and very interesting. However, at the end of her narration, I was left wondering if she would have said what she said, if she had heard the bandit's testimony. In any case after her narration, you know that both the bandit and this lady might probably be lying. But there were just 3 people who saw the incident. The wife and the bandit have already the narrated their versions and the husband is dead. So how do you know for sure what really happened. Kurosawa, the rascal that he is, springs a surprise by letting the dead spirit of the husband narrate the story through a sorcerer. This is an unexpected and a very interesting narration. Of course it contradicts both the bandit's and the wife's story. It contradicts those stories in a way that leaves you suspicious of both the bandit and the wife. So much so that I as a reiewer cant confidently use the word 'rape' and instead choose to replace it with 'sex'. However, at this point you don't really doubt the version of the dead man. After all what does a dead man have to gain by lying? This version has to be the truth.
But as the movie moves towards its end and as we become ready to formulate our analysis on what really happened, we suddenly find out that the wood cutter has more to share than what he initially did. He did not arrive at the scene after the fact but arrived while the sex/murder was happening. His narration of the same event ( the rape and murder enacted and shown for the fourth time) tells you for the first time, which you sort of knew before. That each narrator had their own motives. Even the dead guy had his motives for lying. You aren't sure they lied. But they could have. They could have subconsciously remembered those events, they way they wanted to remember it. But this only covers the parts where they honestly lie. Then they could have further adulterated those events to show themselves in a good light. While this is obvious, when expanded to a larger scale you can conclude that no testimony could be free of factual bias. You need a God's point of view to know what really happened. But would God, a bird, or in this case a neutral observer such as the wood cutter give you the real deal? Maybe not. This is re-enforced further when you get to know that even the allegedly 'neutral' wood cutter has something to hide. At that point you don't trust anybody. Not the bandit, wife, husband, wood cutter, priest or even yourself. I just loved that moment, where everything is unreal. For a movie to achieve this, can only be credited to the genius of Kurosawa.
Note: Tamil viewers would really be able to appreciate the brilliance of Kamal Hasan's Virumandi after seeing this movie. It is easy to be a fan and get inspired by Kurosawa. But if a genius like Kamal Hasan becomes the fan, how does he replicate Rashomon and still justify his intelligence? In Rashomon the four full narrations of the single event has been separately shot. The actors have re-enacted the scene four different times. Kurosawa actually makes four different, disjoint, separate scenes on a single event. Their positions, emotions, dialogs are different, every time they show the event. In Virumaandi, when a dissonance between narrators is introduced the scene does not change completely. In fact it does not change at all. It appears that the scenes havent been re-shot. The perspective of the camera shifts. For example during narration1, if a scene is shown from the right-hand side of a person in the second narration it is shown from the left. The resulting new detail explains the difference in perception of that event by the narrators. This opens up a possibility of setting up cameras on both sides of the actors and the possibility of narrating two different stories even if the actors play out the sequence just once. Just brilliant. Mouth-wateringly brilliant. Thats Kamal Hasan.


Mathi said...

i have been wanting to see this movie for a long time.. how did u get hold of it?
btw - your theory does better if you are describing a computer. it is not abt storage, time or corruption.. human mind throws more complex stuff than that. google/wiki for false memory, choice blindness, confabulation and the likes.

Anush said...

Our mind is pretty good at remembering only the end points of an event and filling in with details based on one's experiences, present context, etc when you are trying to recollect it from memory. One such example is that, when you read something, your eyes read only the first and the last letters of each word and your brain fills in the rest of the word for you based on context and your past experience. I wish I had the link to the website that has an example of this.

You might be very interested in reading this book "Stumbling on happiness" by Daniel Gilbert. He describes precisely the topic at hand. He claims that you can't rely on your brain at all to recollect past events or to visualize future events, and hence we often feel miserable in a situation in which we're supposed to feel happy based on our supposedly accurate past imagination of the future/present.

So, the climax of a movie pretty much determines how & how long the movie will be remembered ;) democratic election is highly influenced by this phenomenon too!
You're more likely to accept a lunch proposal for tomorrow if you are hungry now than if you just had a heavy meal.

Anyways, more in the book. Read it if you haven't. the knowledge gained from the book made me more miserable, actually.

Anonymous said...

Great post ! As a Kurosawa fan who has seen most of his movies I would recommend Ikiru !


Arvind said...

"A bandit has sex with the wife and then kills the husband. This is pretty much the only thing you can say for certain."

does he really kill the husband? why is it certain? there are versions told later in the movie but still you mention the bandit killing the husband as a certainty. probably that is because it is the first version narrated in the movie and the subconscious mind wants to believe that that is the right version. In that sense i can see the Rashamon effect manifest in your review.

yeah!! Kurasawa loves to use rain in all his movies. An anecdote: John Ford, whom Kurasawa admired greatly, once when they met says to him 'you use a lot of rain in your movies' for which Kurasawa with happiness replies 'so you watch my movies' or something to that effect.

as for the rain itself, it is really very efectively used in the movie, isn't it? in this particular movie specially, the rain separates the present from the past/flashbacks.

i remember the rain effected scenes in other Kurasawa movies and they definitely add a lot to the mood of the movie everytime.

sreekrishnanv said...

Hey where did you get this movie ... im trying to get this, i dont even find it online !!

also - virumandi is a stunner !! .. esp the second narration -

Nilu said...

Seriously, what's with people who write about movies? I tend to agree with Krish. I can't understand why people who are not 13 will ever write about a movie they watched.

anush said...

you can get it from blockbuster online program. I haven't checked netflix..but I'm pretty sure it will be available from there too.

Bala said...

You ought to watch "Andha Naal" ( starring sivaji ganesan. Especially if you like virumandi (with all those sandiyar embellishing, heroine smooching, crowd pleasing antics of kamal),you will love it.

Thilak pratap selva kumar said...


Great review. As you said, the beauty lies in the unpredicability and truth never comes out. Cinematography is top-notch. Wonderful shots of rain pouring. You forgot to mention about the ending, the woodcutter takes the baby, (the other guy steals from that infant), Rain stops, Priest believes that there is some hope in the selfish world, A positive ending! A true Classic.

Virumandi - tremendous film with such a terrible climax. But yeah, KH shows his brilliance as a scriptwriter-director more than as an actor.

Song Lady said...

Happened to come across your blog, while blog-surfing a while ago...enjoyed reading quite a lot of yours posts! very pointblank and well-written...and now there's going to be yet another regular visitor to your blog!

Anu said...

Waiting for your next post :-)
Graduation eppo?
Un friend inge kaal odachindu okkandirukkan!