Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Many Sides of Rashomon

My friends are well aware that right now my favorite movie has to be The Graduate. After all, my book on this marvelous 1967 comedy (Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation) came out in 2017. In the line of duty, I have watched The Graduate maybe 150 times, and have never failed to enjoy it. I’ve got loads of other favorites too. But for years I’ve had my own little pantheon of classics that I consider the best of the best. This triumvirate includes an American movie I’ve adored since childhood, as well as two foreign-language classics that never fail to awe me.

The American movie is Citizen Kane, a 1941 faux-biopic by twenty-six-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles, telling the story of a newspaper publisher’s rise and fall in a style that starts out rollicking and ends up poignant. One of the two foreign films on my short list is Federico Fellini’s mesmerizingly beautiful  La Strada (1954), anchored by Giulietta Masina’s haunting performance as a good-hearted waif in a traveling circus troupe. And the other comes from Japan.

Akira Kurosawa made Rashomon in 1950, not long after the end of World War II. Its budget was paltry and the film was not well liked in the country of its origin. But it developed a passionate following both in Europe (where it was the hit of the Venice Film Festival) and in the U.S., where it won an honorary Oscar that was a precursor to today’s Best Foreign-Language Film category. I’m writing about it now because I’ve just learned of the death, at age 95, of Machiko Kyo, the one woman in Rashomon’s tiny cast. She played the aristocratic wife in a strange and brutal triangle that’s at the film’s center. Her long career included Mizoguchi’s classic Ugetsu and the role of an Okinawan geisha opposite Glenn Ford’s American military captain in Teahouse of the August Moon (an east-meets-west comedy in which Marlon Brando donned yellow-face to play a local interpreter). But it’s Rashomon for which she’ll be remembered.

Rashomon, an artful blending of two stories by Japanese master Ryunosuke Akutagawa, is set back in the days of the samurai, Central characters include two travelers, a samurai and his lady, who in the course of their journey encounter an audacious bandit, played to the hilt by the young Toshiro Mifune. The dramatic juxtaposition of these three leads to the death of the samurai, the rape of his wife, and the disappearance of a valuable dagger. But what exactly has happened? Before a legal tribunal, the bandit narrates an account full of derring-do, in which he emerges triumphant from a duel with the samurai. The wife’s version of the tale emphasizes noble self-sacrifice, with herself as the central figure. Even the dead samurai is heard from. Via a medium, he aggrandizes his own heroic role. But wait! It turns out there’s been a silent witness to the whole episode, and his account turns upside down everything that’s gone before.

Today the so-called Rashomon effect is so well-known that many of those who reference it have never seen the movie. And Kuroaswa’s storytelling powers are such that others continue to crib from his work, especially for movies in the western genre. Hollywood quickly turned Kurosawa’s epic Seven Samurai (1954) into The Magnificent Seven (1961). And his Yojimbo, once again starring the dynamic Mifune, saw a second life as A Fistful of Dollars. Even Rashomon had a western incarnation, in 1964’s The Outrage, with Paul Newman as a bandido who doesn’t come close to filling Mifune’s shoes.

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