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Kurosawa: “The truth? You can’t handle the truth!” or, What You See is Not Always What You Get.

The “Rashomon Effect” is the effect of the subjectivity of perception on recollection, by which observers of the same event are able to produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it.  It is named for Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (1950), in which a crime witnessed by four individuals is described in four mutually contradictory ways.  The film is based on two short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “Rashōmon” (for the setting) and “Yabu no naka,” otherwise known as “In a Grove” (for the story line).  Later films and TV users of the “Rashomon effect” focus on revealing “the truth” in a now conventional technique that presents the final version of a story as the truth, an approach that only approaches Kurosawa’s film.  Here are some examples of the half-ass Rashomon Effect employed in western programing:

  • All in the Family            “Everybody Tells the Truth.”     Archie Bunker and Mike Stivic give conflicting accounts of an incident involving a refrigerator repairman and a black apprentice repairman.
  • CSI: Crime Scene Investigation “Rashomama.”  The episode required the CSIs, deprived of any of the usual forensic evidence, to rely on the eyewitness accounts of guests at a wedding to solve the case.
  • Fame (the TV series)    Under a theater marquee, two characters wait out a rainstorm.  Only after the entire story has unfolded in flashback does the camera divulge that the theater marquee announces “A Kurosawa Festival.”
  • The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air      “Will Goes a Courtin.”  When Will defies his uncle’s orders by having his friends over by the pool after he refuses to pay his rent to his Uncle Philip unless Philip repairs the air conditioner in Will’s guesthouse, Phil sues the two stubborn men and they plead their cases in court before Judge Reynolds.  Uncle Phil, and Will and Carlton respectively, paint very different pictures before the judge of the same incident.
  • Grey’s Anatomy           “I Saw What I Saw.” A patient dies because of a mistake and Chief Webber interviews Owen, Cristina, Bailey, Alex, Lexie, Jackson, Reed and April and gets all differing versions of what transpired that night to determine who made the mistake.
  • Happy Days     “Fonzie Gets Shot.”      Fonzie is shot on a weekend camping lodge trip with Potsie, Chachi, and Roger.  At the hospital, they all offer different versions of how the Fonz was shot, each of which is transformed to make the speaker look more heroic.

The Film

Kurosawa’s film is based on two short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “Rashōmon” (for the setting) and “Yabu no naka”, otherwise known as “In a Grove” (for the story line).  Rashomon is the film that introduced Kurosawa and the cinema of Japan to Western audiences, albeit to a small number of theatres, and is one of his masterpieces.  The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and received an Academy Honorary Award at the 24th Academy Awards.

Now the Show

The film opens on a woodcutter and a priest sitting beneath the Rashōmon gate to stay dry in a downpour.  A commoner joins them and they tell him that they’ve witnessed a disturbing story, and begin recounting it to him.  The woodcutter claims he found the body of a murdered samurai three days earlier while looking for wood in the forest; upon discovering the body, he says, he fled in a panic to notify the authorities.  The priest says that he saw the samurai and the woman traveling the same day the murder happened.  Both men were then summoned to testify in court, where they met the captured bandit Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune), who claimed responsibility for the rape and murder.

The Bandit’s Version

Tajōmaru, a notorious outlaw, claims that he tricked the samurai to step off the mountain trail with him and look at a cache of ancient swords he discovered.  In the grove, he tied the samurai to a tree, then brought his wife there.  She initially tried to defend herself with a dagger, but was eventually “seduced” by the bandit.  The woman, filled with shame, then begged him to duel to the death with her husband, to save her from the guilt and shame of having two men know her dishonor.  Tajōmaru honorably set the samurai free and dueled with him.  In Tajōmaru’s version, they each fought skillfully and fiercely, but in the end Tajōmaru was the victor and the woman ran away.  At the end of the story to the court, he is asked about an expensive dagger owned by the samurai’s wife: he says that, in the confusion, he forgot all about it, and that it was foolish of him to leave behind such a valuable object.

The Wife

The samurai’s wife tells a different story to the court.  She says that Tajōmaru left after raping her.  She begged her husband to forgive her, but he simply looked at her coldly.  She then freed him and begged him to kill her so that she would be at peace.  He continued to stare at her with a look of loathing.  His expression disturbed her so much that she fainted with dagger in hand.  She awoke to find her husband dead with the dagger in his chest.  She attempted to kill herself, but failed in all her efforts.

The Samurai’s Story

The court then hears the story of the deceased samurai, told through a spiritual medium.  The samurai claims that Tajōmaru, after raping his wife, asked her to travel with him.  She accepted and asked Tajōmaru to kill her husband so that she would not feel the guilt of belonging to two men.  Tajōmaru, shocked by this request, grabbed her, and gave the samurai a choice of letting the woman go or killing her.  “For these words alone,” the dead samurai recounted, “I was ready to pardon his crime.”  The woman fled, and Tajōmaru, after attempting to recapture her, gave up and set the samurai free.  The samurai then killed himself with his own dagger; later, somebody removed the dagger from his chest.

The Woodcutter’s Story

Back at Rashōmon gate (after the trial), the woodcutter explains to the commoner that the samurai’s story was a lie.  The woodcutter had actually witnessed the rape and murder, he says, but just did not want to get too involved at the trial.  According to the woodcutter’s new story, Tajōmaru begged the samurai’s wife to marry him, but the woman instead freed her husband.  The husband was initially unwilling to fight Tajōmaru, saying he would not risk his life for a spoiled woman, but the woman then criticized both him and Tajōmaru, saying they were not real men and that a real man would fight for a woman’s love.  She spurred the men to fight one another, but then hid her face in fear once they raise swords; the men, too, were visibly fearful as they begin fighting. They began a duel that was much more pathetic than Tajōmaru’s account, and Tajōmaru ultimately won through a blind stroke of luck.  After some hesitation, he killed the samurai, and the woman fled in horror.  Tajōmaru could not catch her, but took the samurai’s sword and left the scene limping.

Climax

At the temple, the woodcutter, priest, and commoner are interrupted from their discussion of the woodcutter’s account by the sound of a crying baby.  They find the baby abandoned in a basket, and the commoner takes a kimono and an amulet that have been left for the baby.  The woodcutter reproaches the commoner for stealing from the abandoned baby, but the commoner chastises him.  Having deduced that the woodcutter in fact stole the dagger from the scene of the murder, the commoner mocks him, “a bandit calling another a bandit.”  The commoner leaves Rashōmon, claiming that all men are motivated only by self-interest.

These deceptions and lies shake the priest to his very worldview of humanity.  He returns to his senses when the woodcutter reaches for the baby in the priest’s arms.  The priest is suspicious at first, but the woodcutter explains that he intends to take care of the baby along with his own children, of whom he already has six.  The simple revelation recasts the woodcutter’s story and the subsequent theft of the dagger in a whole new light. The priest gives the baby to the woodcutter, saying that the woodcutter has given him reason to continue having hope in humanity.  The film closes on the woodcutter, walking home with the baby.  The rain has stopped and the clouds have opened revealing the sun in contrast to the beginning where it was overcast.

These stories are mutually contradictory and not even the final version can be seen as unmotivated by factors of ego and the Asian tradition of face.  Apparently even the actors kept approaching Kurosawa wanting to know the truth, which he claimed was not the point of the film as he intended it to be an exploration of multiple realities rather than an exposition of a particular truth.  Due to its emphasis on the subjectivity of truth and the uncertainty of factual accuracy, Rashomon has been read by some as an allegory of the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II.  A little too much of a stretch for my taste but we need to keep professors employed now don’t we?

What can you say about a film when its title has become synonymous with a story-film technique used to this day and not even nearly at the level Rashomon does?  For some this movie may seem a little boring, but for the real viewer it will show the origins of a method we have seen numerous times but probably without knowing its nomenclature or origins.  Rashomon needed to be reviewed after Vantage Point because I didn’t want JPFmovies readers thinking that Vantage Point employed the use of the Rashomon Effect nearly as fittingly as seen in the Kurosawa source.  If you are into films, this is one to see since Kurosawa realized an innovative technique that no one has really been able to duplicate to date.

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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Vantage Point (2008) is no Kurosawa’s Rashomon, (1950)—but in all fairness what is?

Vantage Point is a 2008 political thriller by first time director Pete Travis that focuses on one 23-minute segment in time covering an assassination attempt on the President of the United States.  The film begins without development behind its characters; rather, action takes off in the first few minutes.  The premise is straightforward: view a Presidential assassination from eight character angles, each having a different take on the ensuing events.  Once a character sees what he or she was supposed to see, the film rewinds, and plays the same situation over with another character, theoretically revealing additional details of the 23 minute attack.

The 23 minutes is seen through the eyes of eight unrelated parties.  Dennis Quaid and Matthew Fox as Secret Services Agents, Forest Whitaker as a video taking tourist, William Hurt as the President and Sigourney Weaver as a producer of multinational news organization all star in principal roles.  These five actors/actresses are not exactly second rate talent. Weaver and Quaid put in the best performances without a doubt.

Because of the film’s technique using different characters that view the same 23 minutes and showing the audience what they perceive, Vantage Point is often compared, unfavorably, to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), which was the first movie to use this technique to tell the story of a rape/murder in order to question the possibility of “truth.”  Rashomon was also the film that introduced Kurosawa to the west.  Unlike the “Rashomon Effect,” which tries to piece together the different perspectives and viewpoints in order to reveal a justly “truthful” account of what happened, Vantage Point instead opts to cut and paste plot and dialogue in between special effects, kidnapping, assassination and terrorism scenes.  While Vantage Point does reveal the assassination attempt from various points of view, in Rashomon those views are shown as flashbacks.  However, in Vantage Point each point of view is not a flashback, instead it merely provides a certain view of the story, while the story (supposedly) moves forward.

In Vantage Point, U.S. President Henry Ashton (William Hurt) attends a political gala in Salamanca, Spain peddling an international anti-terrorism treaty—I am sure one that will infringe on our civil liberties even more.  The assassination attempt on the President occurs over a time span of 23 minutes.  Whenever the 23 minutes have run their course with the relevant character, the events start from the next vantage point.  Each segment reveals additional details that complete the superficial story behind the assassination.  There are eight segments; out of mercy I will only describe three.

Viewpoint number one: GNN producer Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver) is in charge of the media personnel there to cover the event from a mobile television studio.  The Mayor (Jose Carlos Rodriguez) delivers a short introduction for the President, but the President is shot twice as he approaches the podium.  An explosion outside the plaza soon follows.  Moments later, the podium itself is destroyed by a larger secondary explosion, killing and injuring numerous people.  As the smoke clears, GNN reporter Angie Jones (Zoe Saldana) is seen lying dead in the rubble.Vantage Point [2008] The TV Studio. 

The second perspective follows Secret Service agents Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid) and Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox).  While on post, Barnes notices a curtain fluttering in the window of a nearby building that was allegedly vacated.  He also observes American tourist Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker) filming the audience.  After the President is shot, Barnes tackles a man rushing to the podium named Enrique (Eduardo Noriega).  Taylor pursues a lead to a potential assassin.  Following the second explosion, Barnes barges into the GNN mobile studio and asks to view their footage.  He calls Taylor, who reports the direction of the suspected assassin’s escape route.  Barnes then views an image on one of the camera’s live feeds that startles him and prompts him to run out without saying a word.

By the sixth vantage point, we have been introduced to terrorist Suarez, who shoots Ashton’s body double using a remote-controlled automatic rifle placed in an adjacent window next to the one with the fluttering curtain that had drawn Barnes’ attention earlier.  The rifle is retrieved by Taylor, whom Barnes sees leaving the scene wearing a Spanish policeman’s uniform on one of the GNN live feeds, even though he tells Barnes that he’s in pursuit of the assassin over the phone.  Barnes realizes Taylor is actually part of the terror plot.  The man Enrique saw embracing Veronica (who we meet in one of the earlier vantage points) is revealed to be sharpshooter Javier (Edgar Ramirez), whose brother is being held hostage to ensure Javier’s cooperation with the terrorists.  Javier kills the guards and aides within the hotel, and kidnaps the President.  Ashton is later placed in an ambulance with Suarez and Veronica disguised as medics.  At the overpass, Enrique, who did not die in the blast at the podium as intended, confronts Javier and Taylor.  Enraged, Javier shoots Enrique, mistakenly believing he had knowledge of his kidnapped brother’s whereabouts.  Javier is then shot and killed by Taylor when he demands to be brought to his brother, who had been killed earlier by Suarez.  Enrique dies of his wounds as Barnes reaches the scene on foot firing several rounds at Taylor, who attempts to flee.  After crashing his car, a critically injured Taylor is dragged out by Barnes.  He orders Taylor to reveal where the President has been taken, but Taylor dies.  Barnes runs to an ambulance where he sees Veronica lying dead.  He shoots Suarez dead and rescues the President—tying everything up nice and neat in less than 2 hours.

In the end this film all winds up—or trickles down—to yet another chase through crowded streets in commandeered cars, with an ending meant to be ironic but that simply provides a crowning howler to all the nonsense.  Unlike Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashomon, which is structured around multiple retellings of the same event, in Vantage Point nothing is gained from all the stopping and restarting.  Aside from the meager changing-perspectives device, the film has nothing going on and there doesn’t seem to be any reason for adopting this strategy which gets really old after about the fourth time. Vantage Point, like several other movies we have reviewed here at JPFmovies, is yet another example of Hollywood making an action-adventure movie that is short on plot intricacies but long on gimmicks and explosives. No amount of ripening time would make this artificial and ultimately harebrained movie anything more than crude, nerve-grinding and finally as un-salvageable as the car accidents it keeps inflicting on its characters.

Clearly, this is not a movie to take its audience’s intelligence for granted.

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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Yes only 6-8 months late we finally get the Hero review written by none other than Bonnie! Savor this review we had to file suit to get this review done.

Hero is a movie so rich in content that I almost can’t bear to watch it.  In my opinion, nobody should sit down and watch Hero from beginning to end in one sitting.  What you should do is get the DVD of Hero and watch a section at a time.  Better yet, watch each section several times.  This isn’t the kind of movie in which the plot slowly unfolds.  Though yes, it is one of those movies where the plot line is gradually revealed to be radically different than the way in which it was previously presented, even that isn’t the point of Hero.  What is the point?  Visual art painted in motion, the artful juxtaposition of cinematography with not only martial art but also the art of etiquette, ritual and ceremony.

Here is the story.

As the movie opens, we meet Nameless, a Prefect (the lowest rank in the kingdom of Qin).  He has come to let the Qin Emperor know that he has defeated, and killed, the emperor’s three legendary assassins, Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow.  The Emperor, naturally, wants to know how Nameless managed to defeat such peerless warriors.  As Nameless tells the story, we see it unfold — first his telling, then the version told by the Emperor, who is shrewd enough to read between the lines, and then Nameless’ correction of the details overlooked by the Emperor.  The question is, did Nameless truly defeat Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow — or did he conspire with them, convincing them to lay down their lives in order to give him the opportunity to get close enough to the Emperor to have a chance at slaying him?  Or was there a conspiracy, but one in which there was dissension in the ranks?

The answer to all these questions, the real crux of the matter, lies in the question of whether or not it was possible for Sky and Flying Snow to throw their matches with Nameless so skillfully that the Emperor’s own troops could be made eyewitnesses to testify on Nameless’ behalf.  Likewise, was Nameless skillful enough to defeat Sky and Flying Snow by apparently, but not actually, killing them — with a sword stroke so precise that it appears to kill, but allows one’s opponent, later, to be revived?

I’m not going to tell you the rest of the plot, because it is so convoluted that, frankly, you should just watch the movie and see it unfold for yourself.  Let’s move on to the actors, who are incredibly awesome.  This is a star-studded cast.  We have Jet Li (five time Wushu gold medalist) as Nameless.  Donnie Yen, who often stars in films with Jet Li, plays Sky – and these two incomparable martial artists deliver what I consider to be the best scene in the film, the duel between Nameless and Sky.  Broken Sword is played by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, who you should recognize if you have seen Red Cliff, in which he played Zhou.  (If you have not seen Red Cliff, you are excused from the rest of this review – please take four hours RIGHT NOW to go watch Red Cliff.)  Maggie Cheung, an actress who from the age of 18 has been handed role after role in Hong Kong films without even having to audition, plays Flying Snow.  Because Hero unfolds several different plots for your consideration (and the Qin Emperor’s), each of these actors essentially played at least three different roles.

I can’t speak in any kind of an educated way about the cinematography of this film – I’m not an artist – but I have to bring it up, because it literally makes the film.  Hero’s director, Yimou Zhang, should join the ranks of Kurosawa in film history.  Each scene is Hero is up to Kurosawa’s standards – and that is saying a lot.  These scenes also bring to mind the duel between Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu in Kill Bill (another Quentin Tarantino film, though I am puzzled about Tarantino’s role in Hero – the credits mention him somewhat ambiguously).

Each scene has a color theme, and the actors wear different colors depending on the plot variation that is being acted out.  The use of color in Hero can only be described as exquisite, and it is something that you almost never see in American films.  (Or rather, I have almost never seen it – but I don’t watch as many movies as the rest of you JPFMovies fans.)

And then there are the truly sweet parts of the film.  Nameless and Sky stopping their fight to give coins to the blind Biwa player, asking him to play on as they duel.  The calligraphy teacher telling his students to keep practicing even as arrows rain down through the school’s roof and walls.  Broken Sword’s decision not to block Snow’s fatal sword thrust, just because he needs to make a point.  The lesson being taught again and again here – let’s not miss it, please – is that it’s not about WHETHER you live or die.  It’s about HOW you live or die.  That’s the point of all the etiquette.  It’s not some cute cultural reference or cinematic device – not ultimately – what it’s about, is dignity.  

Some movies are all plot. Some are all about the character development – and/or the cast. Some movies focus purely on cinematography.  Some movies push a strong moral. This movie does it all.

Finally, I know JPFmovies has been waiting a long time (probably more than six months) for this review.  But now do you see why?  Any sort of proper consideration of this movie takes a person in a million different directions.  How can it even fit in a blog post?  In 800 words or so all I have done is to sketch the outlines of Hero for you.  Can you blame me for taking so long to write this?  (JPFmovies can!)

Go forth and watch this rose of a movie, but just a little at a time, as if you were eating a box of chocolates – I know it’s Christmas, but that’s no reason to stuff yourself.

 
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Posted by on December 25, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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Dangerous paid tribute on her site to Japan in light of the natural disasters. So I hereby interrupt this Burt Reynolds tribute to do the same. Ichikawa Raizo stars in the Japanese classic “The Third Shadow” (1963)—you had better turn on the lights.

The Third Shadow (1963) is set circa 1567 in the mountain regions of Hida and stars Ichikawa Raizo as a peasant’s son named “Kyonosuke” who dreams of becoming a samurai.  Kyonosuke gets his wish not because of his abilities or character, but because he looks almost exactly like their lord Yasutaka, allowing Raizo to play one of the Lord’s doubles.  Well, actually triples in this case, as Raizo is the third of three “shadow men,” but is the one who by far looks the most like Lord Yasutaka.

Sure, as a shadow you get to sleep with the Lord’s beautiful concubines and receive numerous other perks, however the job has its drawbacks too.  In order to be convincing as doubles, the shadows must not only act like the Lord, but also maintain their physical resemblance as well (like limping from a sprained ankle).  Also during the constant civil wars that plagued Japan in the 15th and 16th centuries lords went into plenty of battles.  As part of their bravado, Lords often lead troops into savage conflicts resulting in serious wounds.  As a shadow, if the Lord gets a wound, so do you.  When the Lord loses his left eye during a battle, one of the shadows flees, knowing full well what is in store for them, but when he fails to escape he is brutally killed.  The two remaining shadows (including Raizo) are blinded in their left eyes with a burning poker in order to remain good doubles for their Leader.

When the Lord loses an arm in another battle, only Kyonosuke (Raizo) is in a position to help him.  He now understands this will mean one of his own arms will be chopped off, so he decides to kill the Lord and get out of Dodge to continue his pursuit of a samurai career elsewhere.  Unfortunately Kyonosuke (Raizo) doesn’t get far and must replace the Lord so that no one finds out he (the Lord) is missing or dead.  No one other than Kyonosuke (Raizo) himself knows that he, the Lord’s shadow, killed the missing Lord.
The movie so far has been excellent for its adventure and action.  The film takes an interesting turn and develops into an eerie fight for personal identity, similar to Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980), when the lord’s imposter (Tatsuya Nakadai) feels he is dying as armies are wiped out before his eyes, even though in fact he has no real connection with those armies.  Raizo wants out but no one believes Kyonosuke’s raving insistence that he is merely a peasant, not the Lord, and he ends up locked up as a madman for the rest of his life, the Lord’s insanity becoming the clan’s most closely guarded secret.  His dream to be a samurai leads to ironic tragedy in this example of the genre roughly translated as “cruel historicals” or zankoku jidai-geki.

The Third Shadow is a nearly unknown masterpiece with amazing use of shadows and darkness as part of its scenes.  Add a plot that is worthy of the cruelties and identity conflicts of Kafka transposed to the samurai era and you have an powerful film.

If you like Asian cinema like I do and can get your hands on the film make sure to see it.  If you can’t get your hands on the film but have a sincere desire to watch it, let me know and we’ll see what we can do for you.

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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