To coincide with a complete retrospective of his work at London's National Film Theatre, the British Film Institute have released a batch of DVD's by master Japanese film-maker, Akira Kurosawa. Rashomon (1950) and Throne of Blood (1957) follow the successful release of Seven Samurai (1954), offering three key films from one of the director's most creatively fruitful periods.
Rashomon not only won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951; it drew attention to a country previously overlooked in the cannon of world cinema. The film also elevated Kurosawa to the front rank of innovative directors and made an international star of Toshirô Mifune, whose performance displays an intensity that became a trademark of his collaborations with the director over the next ten years.
Using the now familiar dramatic device of a multi-perspective narrative, the film prowls through a dense forest uncovering the mystery behind a rape and murder. Seen from the point of view of the accused, the wife, the dead husband and a woodcutter, the murder creates a puzzle that explores themes that fascinated Kurosawa throughout his career. With each character's version of the events, Kurosawa's interest lies in exposing the characters' dishonesty and egoism and challenging the notion of the existence of one universal truth.
Opening on the rain-soaked porch of a dilapidated house-cum-stage, the film's narrators introduce each character's stories. With each flashback the central protagonists are seen in a different light, from innocent victims to scheming manipulators. And an initially straightforward case of jealousy on the part of the bandit, becomes a more ambiguous case of the avarice of all concerned.
Along with The Drunken Angel (1948), Rashomon, saw a maturing in Kurosawa's direction. The acclaimed tracking shot of the woodcutter's walk in the forest displayed Kurosawa's control of fluid camera movement, whilst the breakneck editing (the 86 minute film contains over 400 shots) showed his masterly control of pace. True, the film's ending veers precariously towards sentimentality, or what Robin Wood has generously referred to as Kurosawa's 'bitter humanism'. And the links between the past and present are occasionally crude. However, the film remains key amongst Kurosawa's extensive body of work.
Throne of Blood (1957) remains one of the finest cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare. Macbeth as a visual poem, the film exists in a dream world where forests and mists come to life and chaos rules over a land bereft of moral order. Drawing as much from Noh drama as he does Shakespeare's text, Kurosawa created a moral fable that once again explored his character's capacity for greed and corruption.
Though another Jidai-geki (period drama), Throne of Blood differs in style to both Rashomon and Seven Samurai. Whereas the earlier films employed a realist aesthetic, Throne of Blood is very much a fantasy set, like Shakespeare's own play, at an unspecified time. Throughout the film, Kurosawa employs various tricks to conjure up a fantastical world of witches and warlords. Most memorable is the fall of Mifune's Washizu. Alone in his castle, with his enemies surrounding him, camouflaged by the local fauna, Washizu's mental state deteriorates as he watches the forest come to life and move below him. Such ethereal beauty is shattered by his grotesque death; his body pieced by dozens of arrows.
The film also differs in tone from Rashomon. Lacking the warmth of much of his work, Kurosawa populates this drama with a host of unsympathetic characters. Most unappealing is Washizu. A cold and cruel character, he elicits our emotions only in death, when, faced with his own mortality, he wails like a wounded animal. One of his finest performances for Kurosawa, Mifune developed the untrammelled hysteria of his earlier films, losing none of his ferocity, but replacing his humour with a cold cruelty.
More formal than much of his earlier work, preferring static, distanced shots to close ups (although some tracking shots remain, in particular, bravura horse riding sequences through the densely populated forest), the film's lack of emotion is more than compensated for by the sheer vision of Kurosawa's enterprise. Together with Ran (1985), his later adaptation of King Lear, Kurosawa not only proved himself rare among cinema directors in his innate understanding of Shakespeare, but evinced the universality of Shakespeare's themes.
The DVD's come furnished with background text on Kurosawa and his main actors, as well as scene selection, a poster image of each film and the original trailer.
Reviewed by Ian Haydn Smith
Reader comments about Rashomon
Apus (Email address withheld) writes:
Throne of Blood:
The fog is unbelievable, it really takes the film to the next level, not that it wasn't pretty high up anyway. The sound and the images and the pacing just all works really well together. Watched it 3 days in a row.
Ghost (Email address withheld) writes:
Visually incredible. This film is visually so atmospheric and authentic, it's like its unreal. If you could appreciate Apocalypse Now for its vision ,then I hugely recommend this. I've seen two of Kurosawa's films - The Seven Samurai and Rashoman, this film is far superior to them both.
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