Combustible Celluloid
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With: Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura
Written by: Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa, based on stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 88
Date: 08/25/1950

Rashomon (1950)

4 Stars (out of 4)

In a Grove...

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Japanese have been making films for nearly as long as we have, yet the first time a Japanese movie was released -- and taken seriously -- in America was as late as 1950, taking into account, of course, that they were our enemies during WWII. But just imagine never getting to see any films made from 1915 to 1949, such as The Birth of a Nation, City Lights, Stagecoach or Citizen Kane.

That movie that finally broke through was Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), and it was the first Japanese movie that most people had seen.

Oddly enough, it was also the first Japanese movie I ever saw, back in the 1980s when I was about 18. A former high school English teacher loaned me a VHS tape from his private collection, and it blew my mind.

I suspect that most people who come to Japanese cinema first enter it through Kurosawa, either by Rashomon or Seven Samurai. But once you start discovering it -- and falling in love with it -- the Japanese cinema can take a lifetime to explore.

Rashomon received an honorary Oscar for foreign language film, before the category became competitive. It combined two Ryunosuke Akutagawa tales, "In a Grove," which gave the film its major characters, and the title story Rashomon. The idea is simple: a crime is committed in the woods involving a woodcutter, a bandit, a swordsman and his wife. Each tells his or her version of the tale, and all four versions come out differently, leaving the truth completely unattainable.

Rashomon made a star of Toshiro Mifune, who played the outlandish, animated bandit, and worked with Kurosawa in sixteen films.

Criterion's 2002 DVD provides the finest transfer of the film I've ever seen -- the rainy scenes that surround the four stories have never been more beautiful -- plus a fascinating commentary track by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie, an introduction by Robert Altman, and print versions of the two stories, plus other extras.

In 2012, the Criterion Collection released a great Blu-ray edition, which includes an uncompressed monaural soundtrack and makes the presentation look and feel like an actual film print. The DVD extras are all here, as well as interviews and trailers.

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