Reviews

The Western World's Introduction to Japanese Cinema: 'Rashomon'

Akira Kurosawa displays such mastery of the fundamental elements of film in Rashomon that it’s worth repeated viewings, and rewards the attentive viewer with the equivalent of a master class in film aesthetics.


Rashomon

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki
Distributor: Criterion
Studio: Daiei Motion Picture Company
Release Date: 2012-11

Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is such an important film historically—it introduced Japanese cinema to the Western world, and its title has entered our common vocabulary to describe a situation where conflicting eyewitness accounts make it difficult or impossible to determine the truth—that the sheer artistic excellence of the film itself sometimes gets overlooked. Philosophical riddles aside, Kurosawa displays such mastery of the fundamental elements of film in Rashomon that it’s worth repeated viewings, and rewards the attentive viewer with the equivalent of a master class in film aesthetics.

The story, set in 12th century Japan, opens in a pouring rainstorm. A woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) have taken shelter in the ruins of the Rashomon Gate, the southern gate to the city of Kyoto. Like everything else in this film, the setting (besides being in ruins, it’s a hideout for criminals and a place where unwanted babies are dumped) and the weather are both meaningful. The first words of dialogue set the tone for the film, as the woodcutter says, several times, “I just don’t understand.”

The main story of Rashomon is given in a series of flashbacks, as we are presented four different versions of events that took place in the nearby woods: the rape of a woman (Machiko Kyo), the murder of her samurai husband (Masayuki Mori), and the disappearance of a valuable dagger. Sometimes these events are described as the witnesses give testimony in court, sometimes they are told visually to the accompaniment of Fumio Hayasaka’s evocative score, and sometimes the verbal and visual methods of storytelling overlap. In between each version of events, the film returns to the group gathered at the Rashomon gate, who add their own commentary and interpretations and draw various conclusions about what it all means in the larger scheme of things.

First comes the tale told by the bandit, the self-dramatizing Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune, in the most memorable performance of the film). To hear him tell it, after seeing a veiled woman passing in the forest, he was simply compelled to have her (“I thought I saw a goddess,” he says by way of explanation), even after she tries to defend herself with a dagger. However, he claims that he’s not a murderer—he did kill the samurai, but only in self-defense, after the woman insisted that the two men fight a duel (and a very dramatic duel at that, which Tajomaru won by dint of his superior skill).

The woman speaks next, and presents herself as a pitiful figure rather than the fierce fighter described by Tajomaru. She agrees that Tajomaru raped her, but claims that he ran off and left her alone to face her husband’s merciless stare. Temporarily mad with grief, she passed out, and awoke to find her husband dead. The deceased samurai gives his version of events next, speaking through a medium (Fumiko Honma, in a fierce and vivid performance). He claims that, after being raped by Tajomaru, his wife agreed to go with the bandit, and asked him to kill her husband. Tajomaru refused, and the samurai killed himself.

The woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) tells his story last, and only to the little group huddled in the shelter of the Rashomon gate. He claims that following the woman’s rape, she shamed both men and goaded them into a reluctant and exceeding unspectacular duel, which Tajomaru won through a stroke of luck.

The ruling aesthetic of Rashomon is the opposite of the “invisible” style of storytelling perfected by Hollywood by the '50s. Instead of telling a story so seamlessly that it seems to be real, Rashomon draws attention to the fact that it is constructed from elements that lead to no obvious resolution. Unlike some more recent films that tease you with multiple versions of a story only to resolve the mystery before the final credits roll (Edward Zwick’s 1996 Courage Under Fire comes to mind), Kurosawa embraces ambiguity and suggests in the film’s final scene that the quest for absolute truth in human affairs may not only be futile, but also beside the point.

This DVD of Rashomon was created from a beautifully restored version of the film that allows you to appreciate Kazuo Miyagawa’s cinematography without having to look past the wear and tear evident in earlier prints. As is usual with Criterion releases, this DVD comes packed with extras, including a feature commentary track by the American film scholar Donald Ritchie. Other extras include a brief interview with Robert Altman, excerpts from a film about cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, a documentary featuring members of the film crew, an audio interview with actor Takashi Shimura, and the original and Criterion Collection trailers.

As the original trailer is not restored, it gives you an idea of what Rashomon looked like before restoration, and should help you appreciate this version even more. Finally, the DVD comes with a booklet including the two source stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (“Rashomon” and “In a Grove”), an essay by film scholar Stephen Prince, an excerpt from Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography, and notes on the restoration and transfer.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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