Movies

Truth, Lies & Samurai

An Akira Kurosawa double-feature screens at Stanford Theatre
THE PROTAGONIST: Toshiro Mifune stars in an Akira Kurosawa double-feature at the Stanford Theatre.

According to the Akira Kurosawa-scholar Donald Richie, when the legendary Japanese director was asked why his 1951 Rashomon was so popular, he'd reply, "Well, you see ... it's about this rape ..." In short, the ticket-selling shock-value qualities of this act of violence are self-explanatory.

We hear evidence, presented straight to the camera. The testifiers sit in the lotus position in the sandy courtyard of some royal authority, whom we neither see nor hear. The accused bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) has been captured. He's tied up and bored, squinting at the sky, looking for signs of rain.

The cloudburst this rapist and—maybe—murderer sees coming has already occurred when the movie begins. It drenches a party of ragged beggars and one priest who shelter under the ruined great gate of Rashomon, halfway collapsed and splintered. The wayfarers strip it for firewood as they wait for the sun.

They gossip, marvelling over the case. Did the samurai Takehiro (Masayuki Mori) commit suicide? Was he the victim of the bandit, who killed him in a duel of honor? Or was Takehiro forced into a swordfight with the rapacious bandit, a fight—fought with quivering swords and some begging and whimpering—neither man wanted? As for the wife, Masago (Machiko Kyo)—was she an innocent victim, the bored wife of a pompous noble who saw the outlaw's attack as a chance to get away ... or a harpy who laughed away Tajomaru's grovelling confession of love?

In the different versions, Mifune is always magnetic—cackling with stage laughter but serious as cancer. His sensational virility is unequalled in the cinema of the time.

Not one of these stories can be trusted.

"Human beings are unable to be honest about themselves with themselves," Kurosawa noted, in his memoirs.

Rashomon isn't about a rape, it's about a moral wilderness examined from the threshold of a ruined city. Ultimately, even the dead samurai gets his say, through the mouth of a deranged-looking medium, twirling and grinning in her gauzy robes. Rashomon's most terrifying implication is that even death wouldn't purge a human of the lies they clung to in life.

The film is double-billed with Stray Dog. It's a heatwave movie reminiscent of Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street. Kurosawa once again casts Mifune—this time as a rookie plainclothes cop who loses his weapon on a crowded streetcar; to redeem himself, he must track it down. One suspect is a waitress at a sushi shop who sidelines as a pickpocket; Mifune's partner (Reikichi Kawamura) tells her, "You're as slippery as the eels on the menu here."

Rashomon & Stray Dog
Feb 21-23
Stanford Theatre, Palo Alto
stanfordtheatre.org


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