Rashomon ★★★

Toward the end of my college days I took a course on modern Japanese literature and chose to write my final paper on Ryūnosuke Akutagawa's brilliant short story, "In a Bamboo Grove" (藪の中, 1922). Out of the countless papers I wrote as a college student, this is the only one I recall being a joy to research and write. And yet, somehow, I didn't even think to reference, let alone watch, Kurosawa's famed adaptation of that story, Rashomon (羅生門, 1950), in my paper. I rectified that tonight. Well, not the paper—the watching.

Given its reputation and my love of the original story, which has stuck with me all these years since writing that paper, I wanted to love this more than I did. From a technical standpoint, it's unimpeachable. As an adaptation, it's impeccable (with one glaring exception, which I'll get to). And as an intellectual exercise, it provides a wealth of interesting ideas to contemplate w/r/t subjectivity, truth, and the selfish deceptiveness of man.

And yet, I was left unmoved. While I felt a cerebral connection, nothing about the film stirred my heart.

Akutagawa's short is a joy to read, and a mere ten pages. Kurosawa's adaptation, by comparison, feels unnecessarily long-winded, even at 90 minutes. In Akutagawa's original, not a line feels wasted, whereas Kurosawa's version plods along at a meandering pace. This is probably my primary gripe with the film: it's not really a pleasure to watch. I appreciate it from a distance, but my heart is uninvested.

I also take issue with the choice of using a frame narrative, which is absent in Akutagawa's original. I thought it worked well until the very end, in which the "baby ex machina," as I have seen it called in some reviews, is forcibly inserted. Akutagawa's original leaves you unsettled and disoriented, providing seven short testimonies of the central event and nothing more to help you in the interpretive journey. But Kurosawa's frame narrative, and the baby ex machina in particular, softens the effect. It essentially decides the takeaway of the story for you: that even though men have shown themselves to be duplicitous and self-serving, we should "keep our faith in man"—because the horrifying alternative, as the priest suggests, is that "if men don't trust each other, this earth might as well be hell."

I would have preferred the freedom to come to that interpretation myself based on the available evidence. The Japanese are generally masters of ambiguity, so it is surprising that Kurosawa chose the moralistically didactic route here.

So that's where I'm at with this right now: I respect it for its technical craft, but wish it were as intellectually and emotionally satisfying as the original short story.