“Rashomon” - Akira Kurosawa (1950)

Akira Kurowawa first came to widespread world attention with Rashomon (1950), which went on to win the Golden Lyon at the Venice Film Festival and a US Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Though Japanese critics seemed to believe that the film’s overseas popularity was due to Western fascination with Eastern exoticism, I think the real reason was quite the reverse. By raising universal issues concerning the narrative nature of truth in a mythic setting, Rashomon was able to appeal to a worldwide audience.

Kurosawa and co-screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto based the story of Rashomon on two short stories, “In a Grove” (1922) and “Rashoumon” (1915), by the renowned early 20th-century modernist author, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa [1,2].  In particular, it was “In a Grove” that contained the famous plot twist, where several characters who witnessed a murder give conflicting accounts of what happened. 

The setting for Rashomon is 11th century Japan, when the land was beset with natural disasters, plague, famine, and lawlessness [3]. It was natural for religious thinkers of the time (in this case Buddhist) to wonder whether the world was heading towards total annihilation.  It seemed to be reduced to a dog-eat-dog struggle for survival, with no trace of grace among the human inhabitants.

Kurosawa’s production of this story is fascinating, because it seems to be a combination of an atmospheric and situationally immersive cinematic environment combined with theatrical staging and histrionics.  There are only eight characters that appear in the film, and there are just three scene locations.

At the outset, we are at one of the locations, Rashomon, the ruined outer city gate of old Kyoto, where there is a heavy downpour (a gloomy atmospheric effect that Kurosawa would later use very effectively in Seven Samurai, 1954). The appearance and aura around this city gate look utterly desolate, as if it signifies the dark recesses of human degeneration.  Two figures, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a Buddhist priest (Minoru Chiaki), have huddled there from the rain and seem to be utterly baffled by something they have witnessed earlier that day.  They are joined by a rough-and-ready commoner (Kichijirô Ueda) who wants to know what so mystifies the other two.  Kurosawa draws out the tension here by taking his time to reveal just what it is that is so mysterious.  Eventually the Woodcutter is induced to tell his story.
1.  The Woodcutter’s Account
In flashback, the setting moves to the thickly foliated forest where the woodcutter had gone earlier that day to cut wood.  To get us into the setting which will be the key scene of the film’s action, Kurosawa spends two minutes of screen time tracking the woodcutter as he walks through the heavy undergrowth.  This evocation of a dense forest symbolizes the occluded nature of our lifeworld (or, similarly, Martin Heidegger’s “Being-in-the-world”).  As Heidegger pointed out, we are always engaged in finding “pathways through the woods” of murky existence.  Each trail is unique.  Of course we imagine that it is possible to build from these various pathways a common, objective map of the world that is independent of the individual point of view.  But all that we have in front of us, individually, are our own clouded and indeterminate perspectives in connection with our experiences.  From these we imaginatively construct our own dubitable narratives about the world and who we are.

Eventually, the woodcutter is surprised to come across several odd items at various locations along the way: a woman’s hat, a samurai’s cap, some pieces of rope, and an amulet on the ground.  Finally, he is shocked to see a corpse on the ground, and he runs back to report what he has seen to the authorities.

Still in flashback, we now move to the third setting, the magistrate’s courtyard where testimony is taken from summoned witnesses For this setting, we only see the people facing straight into the camera and giving their testimonies; we never see the authorities.  Thus the viewer is placed in the position of a judge faced with the task of assessing what is true.

The woodcutter gives his testimony, and then the Buddhist priest tells how he encountered the dead man, a samurai (Masayuki Mori) who was escorting his wife (Machiko Kyô), earlier that day on the road.  Additional testimony is taken from a bounty hunter (Daisuke Katô) who has captured the notorious bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) in possession of the dead man’s horse and weapons.  Tajomaru (like the others witnesses, facing the camera) then gives his account of what happened when he encountered the dead man and his wife.

2.  The Bandit’s Story
The famous brigand, Tajomaru, is a swaggering ruffian who sees himself as a proud warrior. (Unfortunately, Mifune’s braggadocio performance here is, as it was with a similar portrayal of his in Seven Samurai, so over-the-top that it becomes ludicrous and off-putting.) Tajomaru straightforwardly confesses that he robbed the man, tied him up, and then forcefully seduced his wife, who succumbed to his masculine charms.  Unable to bear the shame of having sexually given in to the bandit, the wife then says that one of the two men must die.  So the two of them engage in a lengthy (three minutes of screen time) sword fight, and Tajomaru boastfully relates how he killed the man.  During their battle, the wife ran away into the woods and disappeared.
So at this point, the crime appears to have been solved.  A man has confessed to the crime and explained his motives.  When we return to the “present” at the Rashomon gate, though, and see the woodcutter’s continued consternation, it is clear that there are still unresolved aspects to this tale. 

3.  The Wife’s Story
It turns out that the slain samurai’s wife was found, and she gave her own version of what happened, as told here by the priest.  In her flashback account, she was raped, not seduced, by Tajomaru while her tied-up husband looked on. Tajomaru then departs without killing the husband.  Afterwards the wife goes to cut the ropes tying up her husband with her dagger and beg his forgiveness, but his cold look of rejection horrifies her.  The unbearable feeling of guilt causes her to faint.  When she wakes up she sees that her husband has been stabbed in the heart, and we are given to believe that she killed him.  Afterwards she tried to commit suicide in various ways to erase her guilt before she was found by the authorities.
But there is still another account to be told.

4.  The Samurai’s Story
Even though the samurai husband is dead, his testimony for the magistrate is obtained through a medium (memorably played by Noriko Honma). In this tale, the wife is easily seduced by the bandit, after which she urges Tajomaru to kill her husband. Tajomaru is appalled by her selfishly ruthless attitude and rejects her. The wife manages to run away from Tajomaru, who returns to the samurai and unties him before departing. The only honorable recourse left for the samurai is to commit suicide, which he does.  Before losing consciousness, however, he reports that “then someone silently approached me. . . that person gently withdrew the dagger from my heart.”
Back to the present at the Rashomon gate, the commoner wonders how the woodcutter could have known certain things (in particular that the samurai was killed with the wife’s dagger rather than with Tajomaru’s sword) that he supposedly had not witnessed.  The woodcutter confesses that he in fact did witness the murderous encounter in the forest, but had avoided mentioning it in his testimony in order to avoid further involvement in the affair.  He then gives his account.

5.  The Woodcutter’s 2nd Story
In the woodcutter’s new version of what happened, Tajomaru is much more gentle to the wife and after their sexual coupling begs her to be his wife. But the wife scornfully dismisses the manliness of both her husband and the bandit, and she tells them they must fight it out to the death to see who is man enough to take her. The two men then timidly engage in a long clumsy scuffle (five-and-a-half minutes of screen time). By the time Tajomaru has almost accidentally killed the samurai, the wife has run away, and Tajomaru is too exhausted even to run after her.

Back to the present at the Rashomon gate, the three men ruminate over the three tales.  They all wonder if the world is only filled with people who perpetually lie to advance their own selfish desires. The commoner, who represents the voice of cynicism, says that the only time a person doesn’t lie is when he says he is going to lie.  Is there no innate decency embedded in the human soul?

They then encounter an abandoned baby wrapped in kimono with an amulet to ward off evil spirits that has been left at the gate.  The commoner wants to steal the kimono and amulet, but the other two men admonish him. When the woodcutter offers to take the baby to his home and care for him, the priest says that the act has restored his faith in human decency.  With that the woodcutter heads home carrying the baby and with a renewed faith in the world, as the film ends.


The way Kurosawa tells the entire story cinematicaly has some interesting elements in its own right. Each of the three scene locations has its signature visual stamp:
  • The Rashomon city gate setting is drenched in a heavy downpour, giving one a feeling of enclosure and helplessness in the face of powerful external forces.
  • The forest setting, with its heavy foliage, conveys a sense of entanglement and confusion, where each tale is a unique and obscure path through the woods.  Kurosawa’s editing further emphasizes confusion by repeatedly breaking the camera axis on successive editorial cuts.
  • The magistrate’s court, with its fixed camera location, gives one a feeling of openness, as if a light is shining down and attempting to expose the truth.
In contrast to this atmospheric environmental mise-en-scene, the acting is relatively stagy, particularly the overwrought theatrics of Toshiro Mifune, as the bandit, and Machiko Kyô, as the wife. In addition the background music of Fumio Hayasaka is noisy, intrusive, and does not harmonize well with the narrative.

But it is that narrative structure that most fascinates.  The three tales told by the bandit, the wife, and the samurai are all self-serving and all contradict each other. All three tales depict the narrator as principled and more or less heroic, whereas the woodcutter’s final tale depicts all three of the principals as weak and flawed.  So most people presume that the woodcutter’s tale represents the objective truth and corrects the earlier flawed stories. 

But is this true?  Actually the woodcutter’s tale is an addition of Kurosawa’s; Akutagawa’s original story, “In a Grove”, only had the earlier three accounts, none of which was clearly the truth.  But why should we accept the woodcutter’s final story as the objective truth?  After all, he is the only person in the story who has clearly lied to the magistrate (by saying he did not witness the crime).  And why would the dead samurai, speaking through the medium, have a reason to lie?  Shouldn’t his tale be true? 

One thing that is common to all the stories, and so is likely to be true, is that the wife wanted her husband to die.  Another truth we might conclude from the evidence is that the woodcutter stole the wife’s dagger from the scene of the crime and then concealed his theft (which casts further doubt on the veracity of his account).  When the woodcutter exclaimed that the samurai had not been killed by a sword (as was claimed in the bandit’s story and the woodcutter’s own second account), the commoner inferred that the woodcutter must have been present at the scene and had subsequently stolen the wife’s jewel-handled dagger. And according to the samurai’s account, he felt someone approach and gently withdraw the dagger from his body as he was losing consciousness.  All of this suggests that the woodcutter has his own selfish motives and that his second account is not entirely accurate.

The larger question posed by Rashomon is whether it is possible to find the truth at all? Akutagawa’s original story suggests no, but Kurosawa’s relatively uplifting add-on ending suggests yes. The cynical commoner doesn’t think so, but the idealistic priest resists letting go of his belief that there are some innate and inviolable values inside the human breast – and a commitment to the truth is one of them. 

Another issue, perhaps one even more important for the participants than truth, is that of honor.  Each storyteller is obsessed with honor, and tells a story that emphasizes his or her honor. 
  • For the bandit, Tajomaru, everyone in his story is heroic, and he sees himself as the greatest hero.  Painting a picture of himself surrounded by quasi-heroic figures enhances his own honor when he overcomes them.
  • For the wife, the issue is shame.  She feels so humiliated that she doesn’t want to live (or her husband to live).  She cannot bear to live in a world where people have contempt for her.
  • For the samurai, the emphasis is on personal honor and who has it.  He sees his wife as utterly dishonorable, in contrast to whom Tajomaru, the bandit/rapist, is depicted as having a certain degree of honor.
In 1950 for Japan, and for the rest of the world, too, not long after the devastations of world war, perhaps there was still too much of an obsession with honor and uncovering objective guilt.  Is honor an objective attribute or merely a social perception? Indeed the ultimately fruitless search for honor cannot be dissociated from the search for objective truth. So today we have a relentlessly advancing surveillance state that is attempting to scoop up all narrative information and build a “big data” knowledge base of objective truth in order to uncover objective guilt.  But this massive surveillance will only diminish the world in which we live and interfere with the authenticity of our personal interactions.

In fact the quest for both objective truth and honor are attempts to derive, from the individual narratives that we construct from our experiences, an ultimate and objective judgement that warrants our lives. But what really warrants our lives is love, which has virtually nothing to do with “objective” truth and honor. In loving encounters, it is a matter of our authentic interactions and how we make them true to ourselves and to our loved ones in those personal narratives, not to the outside world and its objective glare.
★★★½

Notes:
  1. Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “In a Grove”, (1922), translated by Takashi Kojima, feedbooks, http://www.feedbooks.com/book/4205.pdf.
  2. Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “Rashoumon” (1915), translated by René Malenfant, feedbooks, http://www.feedbooks.com/book/4254.pdf.
  3. Akira Kurosawa, “Akira Kurosawa on Rashomon”, The Criterion Collection, Novebmer 6, 2012, http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/196-akira-kurosawa-on-rashomon.

1 comment:

Stuart said...

The immeasurable war losses get direct reference in this good piece and indirect recognition in the description of the Gate setting and downpour representing forces of history. I confess I think it makes the silly narratives profound, the honor and glory of war, nobility, heroism, protecting our women's honor--and the reason the woodcutter's story is true the way All Quiet is true, the way Catch 22 is true, the way Ted Reynolds's little poem is true:
How can I believe
This soft rain that I so love--
Radioactive?