A fact of my biography it occasionally surprises me to remember, is that I spent a good amount of my high school career doing my homework in front of reruns of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation on Spike TV (R.I.P.). Just the original Las Vegas version—the only time I touched another CSI property was the CSI: Miami backdoor pilot where Catherine and Warrick appeared in a cross-over special. My favorite thing I learned about while watching CSI was the hemoglobin deficiency known as porphyria. My favorite joke I saw on CSI was when Grissom casually established a metric of measurement at a crime scene based on units of Greg, the young lab tech recently graduated to field work, and a personal favorite of me and my best friend. And one of my favorite episodes of CSI was the jokey concept piece in Season 6 where four of the characters each recalled their investigation of a crime scene after Nick’s car was stolen with all the evidence in it.
The episode was called ‘Rashomama’, a reference to the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon, I would learn later, and I adored everything about it. The conceit of repeatedly revisiting the same scenario though different characters’ perspectives was like catnip for me. You not only learned something more about the case each time, you also learned more about that character through how they saw the scene and their role within it. There were marked differences in the scoring and color correction for each run-through, ranging from adjustments in the saturation and tint to one rendition in full film noir black & white (Greg, obviously). This ability to swap between whole different genres within one work, as part of the overall story you’re telling, their distinct aesthetics serving as the tools for how you are telling it, while also creating the opportunity for beaucoup ~comedy moments~, was one of the most artistically exciting concepts my baby mind had ever been presented with.
And that would be my primary reference for “Rashomon”-style storytelling for the next 14 years. And one of my last references for CSI, too—like most of my high school shows, I dropped it after the next season when I went off to college.
But this week, in the spring of 2020, I decided it was high time I finally watch the original Japanese film that had inspired that episode. And that it was also time to rewatch a bit of CSI for the first time in over a decade.
Rashomon (1950) is also the story of one crime told through four different perspectives. This is the first and most fundamental way in which that old episode of a CBS murder show turns out to have made a pretty solid creative choice. In the movie though, all of the characters were primary actors or witnesses to the event, which left a woman raped and her husband dead. The characters recount what happened to an unseen judge at an open-air court trial in 8th century Japan, each testimony interwoven with a new flashback of what happened in the grove three days before. Interestingly though, the larger framing device means that all of these stories are coming to us through just two of the witnesses, as they repeat what was said at the hearing to another man sheltering with them from a rainstorm. The last memory we see is that of the woodcutter, the primary witness, who is ultimately the only one to speak to us first-hand (the dead man’s story actually even coming to us from two steps removed, initially through the medium claiming to be channelling his spirit). Perhaps appropriately then, the woodcutter’s is the one version that is distinct in any significant formal way: unlike the first three, there is no musical score in his. This effect of sudden unadorned quietness absolutely works to make his tale seem more credible than the others, though the film is still deliberately constructed to keep us uncertain.
Overall, my response to Rashomon was similar to my response to recently watching The Seventh Seal for the first time. I see why this movie, which even 70 years later still does carry some of that air of novelty it had upon its release, was so influential on filmmaking to come, but unlike other black & white movies from the 1950s that I’ve super loved, I was just not that into either of these. Both have plenty that people can write serious essays about, given the films’ engagements with such big ticket topics as God and Truth, so maybe that’s partly why their legacies endure. I would hope it’s not for their poor treatment of women, which was once again a real drag to watch here!
The ‘Rashomama’ episode of CSI also features a number of unflattering female stereotypes, and a woman’s murder. Though she is confirmed by all who knew her to be a cruel and conniving piece of work, which is what allows this to be one of the show’s occasional lighthearted episodes only possible when the victim is a villain in their own right. Anyway, was rewatching this thing ever a full-body astral projection into the past. The number of times I discovered that the way an actor had delivered a line was still lodged in my brain somewhere was, frankly, more horrifying than any of the network-cleared gore. At the same time, boy I had forgotten a lot! The roster of guest stars in this episode was its own trip that I was entirely not expecting. Ray Wise is in this. He’s introduced lurking through a window with a creepy grin and I said aloud “SURELY NOT.” But oh yes, it was Leland Palmer, little as I would have known that back in 2006. Continuing in the Lynchverse, Amanda Seyfried’s appearance a scene or two later I actually accepted quickly, as I think one of my first memories of her was an appearance on House, another of my high school faves.
But the guest actor that really threw me, the one I believe no one anticipated transforming into the outright jump scare it is today, was when, into a faintly fishbowl close-up shot, Chris Hardwick’s face suddenly swung into view. My blood fully ran cold for a moment as my brain’s gears screeched in shock and dismay. Truly chillingly, he’s even playing a “Nice Guy.” Wow no thank you, The Past!
Besides that part though, this episode was still the somewhat ghoulish but fun-having romp that I remembered (it’s CSI, it’s always kinda ghoulish). The CSIs are given time to just joke around with each other with that comfortable, broken-in familiarity you get from actors in a long-running program. The gradual reveal of the [spoilers] ad hoc nature of the crime diffuses homicidal responsibility among a number of people, with the added bonus of lending the story a dash of that getting-the-team-together collaborative spirit of a heist movie. And of course, there’s that distinct Rashomon story structure lighting the whole thing up.
In writer Sarah Goldfinger’s version for CSI, the different perspectives we see don’t fundamentally contradict one another as they do in Kurosawa’s, where the manner of the death and the person left holding the weapon changes from tale to tale. Interestingly, Goldfinger’s is deployed with the opposite intent: where in the original Rashomon each character’s version of events further confounds what happened, in ‘Rashomama’ each telling actually brings us closer to the truth. Meanwhile, the stylistic differences between the memories has been greatly amplified from the movie’s more subtle framing, even moving fully into genre by the time we hit the noir, which is a direction for this four-part recollection format that I support with my whole heart. Like, every single one of the investigators remembers the flowers of the archway differently, and that is that kind of surreal thrill of a detail that I love.
So at the end of the day, CSI may be still be a simple, schlocky little episodic slice of murder sensationalism, but its sixth season Rashomon episode really did do some great things with the concept.