This week's video review: Rashomon on laserdisc

Laserdisc. Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijiro Ueda, Fumiko Homma. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Aspect ratio 4:3. 87 minutes. 1950. CLV. The Voyager Company Criterion Collection CC1149L. Not rated. $49.95.

In 1950, Kurosawa put himself and Toshiro Mifune on the international film landscape with this story of rape and murder told from four different points of view. A wealthy samurai and his wife are attacked by a famous bandit. The woman is raped, the samurai is dead---but how did this come about? The robber (Mifune) paints himself as a daring figure who takes the woman he wants and kills only when forced to. The woman (Kyo) is wronged by the bandit, but feels even more wronged by her husband's contempt, and claims to have killed her husband in bitter resentment. The husband (Mori) poses as a tragic figure committing suicide to expunge his shame. A passing woodcutter sees two cowards reluctantly taking up the gauntlet when goaded by the scorn of a shrew. Who is telling the truth?

A great deal of ink has been spilled on attempts to apply some analogy to Rashomon, in order to deal with what are said to be the film's confusing aspects. Some hold it to be a parable of post-war Japan, with the switch at the end from western to traditional Japanese musical forms an assertion of the cultural validity of the old Japanese ways. But how confusing is the film, really? People do tell lies. Hai, hontoo---yes, it is true.

The more interesting aspect of the lying in this case is that the really serious embroideries are undertaken by those concerned with how their actions are viewed socially. The more sympathetic woodcutter just picks up a discarded dagger to peddle for extra cash to feed his six children and conceals the fact from the police. People acting to preserve their self-images are capable of telling more bizarre lies, and committing more horrible deeds, than someone simply trying to snag a few extra dollars while free of delusions of grandeur.

Parts of the print are not as clean as one might wish. This is especially surprising, as near-contemporary classics (e.g., High Noon) from Criterion are usually outstanding. The soundtrack is reasonably good for a film of this vintage. This edition also features a dubbed soundtrack on an analog track. When well done, dubbing can be a blessing to the foreign viewer, and some recent examples of dubbing, like that heard in Das Boot, come off quite well. Unfortunately, while the sound quality on the dub track is not bad per se, it suffers from the stigmata of poor lip-synch and unnatural vocal mannerisms that so often made dubs of foreign films unintentionally comic to earlier generations of college students. The wise viewer will stick to the Japanese soundtrack.