Ed note: For the next several weeks, composer and film aficionado Lewis Saul has agreed to supply us with in-depth commentary about the films of Akira Kurosawa, now showing in an extended festival at the Film Forum. Even if you're unable to stop by the Forum, we think Lew's insights will deepen your appreciation of these important movies.Rashômon (In the Woods) 
PLAYING on January 28th at The Film Forum
This is Kurosawa's 11th film.
You lucky New Yorkers will see a brand new 35mm restored print! How I envy you! Go see this film today!
This précis is probably unnecessary, so universally known is this story -- but I include it here so as to make the actors who play these memorable characters more familiar to you:
In the 11th century, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura -- 21 roles for Kurosawa in his 30 films!*) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) wait out a heavy rainstorm under the collapsing Rashômon gate. A commoner (Kichijirô Ueda) joins them and the woodcutter tells his story about a samurai (Masayuki Mori), his wife (Machiko Kyô, her only AK role) and a bandit (Mifune). They all testified in court, and in addition, a medium (Noriko [Fumiko] Homma) testified on behalf of the dead samurai. Throw an abandoned newborn infant into the mix at the finish, as Kurosawa appends a sharp moral uplift.
The profound influence that this film had on future cinema is impossible to overstate. In 1950, no one had ever seen anything like it! Galbraith points out three films which later attempted to mimic the structure of Kurosawa's masterpiece: Kubrick's The Killing ; Alain Resnais' L'année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad) ; and Mario Bava's Quante volte ... quella notte (Four Times that Night)  [p. 129].
It is difficult for an audience today to imagine the shock that this film produced upon the 1950 audience!
- The Criterion DVD:
- New (2002) high-definition digital transfer, with restored image and sound;
- Commentary by Japanese-film historian Donald Richie -- [DR], below;
- Video introduction by director Robert Altman;
- Excerpts from The World of Kazuo Miyagawa, a documentary film about Rashômon's cinematographer;
- Reprints of the Rashômon film source stories, Ryunosuke Akutagawa's "In a Grove" and "Rashômon";
- Akira Kurosawa on Rashômon: a reprinted excerpt from his book Something Like an Autobiography;
- Optional English-dubbed soundtrack (boo);
- Theatrical trailer;
- New and improved English subtitle translation;
- Optimal image quality: RSDL dual-layer edition
- Criterion seems to have neglected Stephen Prince (a nice essay) in the above credits ...
- Princes uses an interesting word to describe Kurosawa's style: kinesthetic.
- Galbraith's title for this chapter: "Gate to the World." Appropriate, and even better is the cute little quote with which he opens the chapter:
- MARGE SIMPSON: (Trying to get her husband to see a subtitled film): C'mon, Homer, you liked Rashômon ...
- HOMER SIMPSON: That's not the way I remember it!
- -- from the television series The Simpsons [p. 127] ...
- Rashômon cost $140,000 to make -- about twice the usual budget of a Japanese film at that time.
- Careful preproduction work kept the shoot to only a few weeks.
- Galbraith hints that perhaps Kurosawa worked quickly for a reason: " ... while on location in the Nara mountains, the cast and crew were besieged by mountain leeches, which were so prevalent that they would drop from the trees above" [p. 132].
- The story of Rashômon's international recognition is worth telling. The 12th annual Venice International Film Festival had formally invited the Japanese to submit a film for the next festival. It was only because of the tenacity of an Italian woman named Giulliana Stramigioli that Daiei and Rashômon's producer, Masaichi Nagata, had an Italian-subtitled print delivered to Venice. Nagata had disowned the film, going so far as to have his name removed from the credits. Later, when the film became such a huge hit, he insisted to anyone who would listen that it was because of him that this film came to be! Kurosawa would fume about this for the rest of his life.
- August 24, 1951 was the showing in Venice. On September 10th, the first Japanese film ever entered won the Grand Prize. Kurosawa beat out 28 competing films from 14 countries, including Renoir's The River; Bresson's Journal d'un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest); Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire and Wilder's Ace in the Hole.
- This film is still officially an "Occupation" film ... Japanese directors had to submit their scripts for approval and the prohibition against showing any type of feudalism and/or chambara (sword-fighting) or jidai-geki (historical dramas) was still in effect! I believe they probably made an exception for this because the two chambara scenes are as ridiculous as possible and are in effect parodies of the old genre. Look how silly Mori and Mifune look as they cross swords -- this is not your grandfather's chambara!
- Kurosawa's love of silent films is obvious throughout.
- There are 407 cuts in this film [DR].
- Thirty of these cuts occur in the three-minute montage of the woodcutter's trip through the woods. Without detailing all 30, a few are worth mentioning:
- The first cut (six seconds) has the camera peering up at the sun through the trees. Many many people like to say that this is the first example of this ever, etc. It's not the case. Kurosawa himself did it in Nora inu (Stray Dog) , with a different cinematographer ...
- The 6th cut (six seconds) which is shot low, under a log as Shimura crosses over ...
- The 11th cut (15 seconds) -- a tour-de-force shot which might have happened on Miyagawa's first day of the shoot, in which he might have been trying to impress AK (a remark on the Miyagawa special from the DVD suggests this) ... the camera starts on a slow rightward dolly, as Shimura moves towards the camera. By the time the camera has arrived at the end of the dolly track Shimura is directly in front of the camera. Then, he turns frame left and keeps walking, as the camera moves with him and tracks him from behind. Nothing unusual today -- but back then!
- The 15th cut (one second!) ... the previous 14th cut is a shot of Shimura's head from behind. Without knowing if Miyagawa had seen Hitchcock's Rope (1948), this very quick shot might be influenced by a technical development in that film, which I'm sure most people are familiar with -- the covering up of the frame with some black image as a transition to the next cut without actually cutting! Here, the leaves cover the entire frame before we see the back of Shimura's head again ... however, in this 15th cut he has moved in closer to the back of the head than in the previous cut. Very very subtle ...
- The 24th cut (two seconds) ... an axial cut on the case with the red lining; and finally
- The 30th and last cut. As Shimura runs to the right, one of the five wipes in this film pushes him quickly off the frame! Extremely effective!
- Richie agrees with me that Kurosawa damages his own films with decisions like this one -- forcing his composer to imitate Ravel's Bolero. It is obscene, frankly -- particularly because Fumio Hayasaka was a genius who was perfectly capable of writing fine film music (he does so in other sections of this film, for example!) [DR]
- I particularly like this phrase which Richie says in the commentary: "COMPOSITION CAN FORWARD MEANING." [DR]
- Notice the musical cue over the woman's hat -- it is a celeste, the same instrument which will deliver a closely-related cue when Tajomaru is resting under the tree and breeze blows by. He tells the judge: "if it hadn't been for that wind, I wouldn't have killed him!"
- Watch the woodcutter as the medium describes someone pulling out the dagger. His discomfort is obvious. An excellent but subtle visual clue ...
- There are five wipes in this film, all horizontal (1l/4r).
- Sugata sanshiro (Judo Saga)  -- Hansuke Murai, Sayo's father;
- Ichiban utsukushiku (The Most Beautiful)  -- Chief Goro Ishida;
- Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi (The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail)  -- Kataoka;
- Waga seishun ni kuinashi (No Regrets for Our Youth)  -- Police Commissioner 'Poison Strawberry' Dokuichigo;
- Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel)  -- Sanada;
- Shizukanaru ketto (The Quiet Duel)  -- Dr. Konosuke Fujisaki;
- Nora inu (Stray Dog)  -- Detective Sato;
- Shubun (Scandal)  -- Attorney Hiruta;
- [this film] -- Woodcutter;
- Hakuchi (The Idiot)  -- Ono, Ayako's father;
- Ikiru (To Live)  -- Kanji Watanabe;
- Shichinin no samurai (The Seven Samurai)  -- Kanbê Shimada;
- Ikimono no kiroku (I Live in Fear/Record of a Living Being)  -- Domestic Court Counselor Dr. Harada;
- Kumonosu-ju (Throne of Blood)  -- Noriyasu Odagura;
- Kakushi-toride no san-akunin (The Hidden Fortress)  -- The Old General, Izumi Nagakura;
- Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (The Bad Sleep Well)  -- Administrative Officer Moriyama;
- Yojimbo  -- Tokuemon, sake brewer;
- Tsubaki Sanjûrô  -- Kurofuji;
- Tengoku to jigoku (High and Low)  -- Chief of Investigation Section;
- Akahige (Red Beard)  -- Tokubei Izumiya;
- Kagemusha (The Double/Shadow Warrior)  -- Gyobu Taguchi