Thursday, September 13, 2012

Monthly Retrospective: Rashomon

[This is the first entry in what will be a regular feature at the site, in which I offer reflections and considerations of movies that aren’t on the reviewing circuit of the past year.]

First-generation innovators rarely give us the best version of an idea or expression. Often they provide the groundwork for others to harness and perfect, which has certainly been the case with technology and also to a lesser degree in various artistic modes. In terms of movies, many of the most revolutionary entries (e.g. The Wizard of Oz, The Jazz Singer, Star Wars) are known primarily for how they changed the medium rather than how their advancements helped set a new standard of aesthetics or storytelling. Citizen Kane is one of the more famous examples of a film that offered both visual and narrative invention that few films have approached thereafter. Equally significant in this regard is Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The film is renowned for ascribing a dimension of reflexivity to cinema that had been mostly unexplored until that point. It asks elemental questions about vision and storytelling, specifically: How do the two enter into a relationship through cinema, and what are the roles of truth and perspective in that relationship?
Rashomon offers several different accounts of the same event, which is recounted by the different characters involved. Kurosawa frames this through a trial-like setting in which the characters look directly at you, the viewer, and gives their own description of what happened. But before I discuss Rashomon’s benchmark achievements, I want to point out just how rich it is purely from a visual standpoint, as this can be overlooked. For example, the interrogation scenes—with the witness in the foreground and lookers-on in the background—have a downright avant-garde sensibility that contrasts nicely with the sumptuous visuals that Kurosawa creates in the forest. For a film that notably oscillates between perspectives and points in time, Rashomon is fluid in its storytelling and presentation. In addition, the film’s focus on faces lends an expressive layer to its already complex inquiry into to human nature. Moreover, Kurosawa’s full use of the expressive influence of images and narrative to explore a deep range of emotion makes Rashomon one of cinema’s most significant entries, as well as one of its most poetic.
Rashomon deserves to be renowned for carving out the structural and visual methods that would eventually be incorporated in all types of movies and ingrained into our movie-going minds. But almost entirely apart from it’s pioneering of these techniques, Rashomon employs them as a means of exploring the full breadth of potential that visual storytelling enables. This is evident not only in the film’s groundbreaking techniques, but also in how it moves and feels. In the hands of Kurosawa, something as simple as beating rainfall is eloquent and moving.
To see Rashomon having internalized its DNA in so many other movies is to experience a potential and sense of newness about movies that precious few of them still cultivate. (Akira Kurosawa, 1950) ****

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