Philosophically profound as well as thematically challenging, Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 Rashomon touches not only on cinematic history and the confluence of Eastern and Western traditions, but also on the age-old and important matter of the nature of truth and its elusiveness.
Forget for a moment that this film revealed to the world one of the greatest masters of cinema, or that its title became a common term to describe contradictory interpretations of a single event. For now, just give a passing thought about truth, its nature and how elusive it really is. Kurosawa’s choice to tell lies reinforced by images that suggest the truth already elevates the movie to a different level of philosophical depth. Rashomon [Rashômon] is indeed a true masterpiece.
In 11th Century Japan, under torrential rain, three men gather beneath the Rajōmon City Gate, on the outskirts of Heian-kyō (modern-day Kyoto), to hear a story one of them has witnessed. Few days earlier, the Woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) tells the Priest (Minoru Chiaki) and the Commoner (Kichijirô Ueda), as he found the corpse of a murdered samurai in the forest where he went to collect some wood, he fled and went to alert the authorities. The Priest then tells them that he saw the samurai and his wife travelling before the murder took place. In court, the Bandit Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune) confesses to have tied the Samurai, seduced his wife, and after a sword fight (encouraged by the Wife) killed him. ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo Woodcutter ooo Bandit ooo oo Wife o o oo Samurai oo oo Priest
The Wife (Machiko Kyō) tells a different story though. She says that after raping her, the Bandit left and then she begged her husband for forgiveness. Because the Samurai showed her no understanding she fainted. When she came to her senses she saw that he had killed himself with her dagger. She tried to kill herself but could not succeed. Then, speaking through a medium, the Samurai (Masayuki Mori) gives his version of the ‘truth.’ After raping his wife, the Bandit asked her to leave with him. She accepted and asked him to kill her husband. When hearing such request the Bandit, shocked, offered the Samurai the choice of killing his wife, who escaped. After the Bandit left, the Samurai committed suicide.
After the trial, back at the Rajōmon City Gate, the Woodcutter claims all three stories to be false, as he admits to having witnessed the crime. He says that after tying the Samurai, the Bandit asked the Wife to marry him. She, instead, frees her husband, who reluctantly fights the Bandit. They both behave cowardly, and she too is undignified. In a stroke of luck, the Bandit kills the Samurai, who begs for his life. After the Wife flees in horror, the Bandit steals the Samurai’s sword. Here, a crying baby is heard by them. The Commoner steals some items that belong to the baby and the Woodcutter reproaches him. The Commoner retorts that the only reason the Woodcutter did not speak at the trial was that he stole the dagger. At the end, the Woodcutter leaves with the baby, intending to take care of it.
..Rashomon Trailer © Janus Films.
How does one determine the truth when dealing with multiple versions of the same event? I presume, it is best to start from the premise that people will lie in order to project a favourable image of themselves. It is thus logical to deduce that when Truth does not impact on someone’s image they will have no reason to deny it. In other words, if one is not affected (negatively or otherwise) by the knowledge of certain events then one has an inclination to describe them as close to the reality as possible. Well, people might in fact lie for different reasons, and not only to invent a new ‘truth.’ There’s the matter of perception and interpretation – people are not always well equipped to choose the best signifiers to represent reality as it is.
We might still try to deduce the truth from fragmentary facts. There we go… After the Bandit rapes the Wife – or according to his own version, have sex with her after an act of seduction – the four accounts differ. The first piece of the puzzle to be established is that the Bandit interceded the couple not to rob them, but to rape the Wife. I would therefore state with a degree of certainty that the trigger for the crime is the Bandit’s lust for the glamorous and beautiful woman. This is a fact that he is reluctant to admit himself, for he seems to think that as such this would be a sign of weakness. Provoked by the other man he fights bravely and kills the Samurai honorably. The Wife (who herself seems to be concealing her contempt for her husband) claims he simply leaves. But both accounts from the Samurai and the Woodcutter place the Bandit as spellbound by the beautiful woman.
The Wife has an altogether different agenda. As three of the four accounts (apart from the one by the Bandit, for obvious reasons) claim that the Wife has been raped, it seems reasonable to accept these as fact. The Bandit’s version is easily understood as self-delusion masquerading his own inadequacy. Although the Wife shows signs of contempt towards her husband, she endures real suffering. It is her behaviour after the crime though that reveals the unpleasant parts of her personality. Personally, I have suspicions about the self-serving versions from the Wife (she begs for forgiveness) and the Samurai (she accepts the Bandit’s request to leave with him), which are diametrically opposed. I rather believe that the truth lies with the Woodcutter’s version: she frees her husband, who fights the Bandit.
Concerning the killing of the Samurai we have two versions of the event: 1) The Bandit kills the Samurai in a sword fight; the only difference between the Bandit’s and the Woodcutter’s accounts is simply if it’s been a noble fight or not. The Bandit claims they fought courageously and the Woodcutter says they were like frightened creatures. 2) Both the Samurai and the Wife claim that he committed suicide out of shame. It is interesting that for distinct reasons both husband and wife seem to wish that’s how things happened. The Samurai refuses to admit that he was killed by a cowardly bandit who had luck; and the Wife rightly believes that his suicide frees her in a legitimate way. I think the truth comes from the Woodcutter’s mouth. Not the whole truth but a great part of it.
..Watch Mojo – Top 10 Akira Kurosawa Films.
Perhaps it is now possible to join these different fragments of the truth and get them to form a larger picture: The Priest sees the Samurai and his Wife (a couple who though physically close, seem distant towards each other) travelling into the forest but do not interact with them – At some point, the Bandit sees them, tricks the Samurai away from his wife, ties him up, before proceeding to rape the Wife – Afraid and ashamed, the Wife manages to free the Samurai, who reluctantly fights the Bandit in a pathetic sword duel – As the Bandit kills the Samurai, almost involuntarily, and flees the place with his sword, the Wife, now confused and distressed, does not notice when the Woodcutter sneaks out of some bush and grabs her dagger.
Or maybe none of this really happened the way we are trying to deduce here. Single details might be different, making the whole story a totally disparate matter. Who knows? Not even the ones involved might actually grasp the ‘whole’ truth, for their perspective is necessarily individualized and fragmented. The maximum they can wish for is to understand their individual point of view in an impartial way. Perhaps even this limited reality is too much for most people, for as we carry prejudices and pre-conceptions with us at all times, our vision of things is necessarily clouded and obscured. Now, for you that abandoned God and embraced science and reason long ago, the irony is that only an omniscient being would know the whole truth for sure. Woodcutter ooo Bandit ooo oo Wife o o oo Samurai oo oo Priest
Perhaps the bigger truth, the truly relevant point made by the film is that we, human beings, are really small – or, our ambitions are way too big for our intellectual abilities. Indulge me for just a moment here. Try and imagine the human brain as a dense and thick forest of tall trees and high grass, thick foliage and impenetrable pathways. And then watch the tracking shot Kurosawa creates for the Woodcutter entering the forest where the crime has occurred. There you have the truth about what happened between the Samurai, his Wife and the Bandit. It resides deep inside the human psyche. The truth is not only elusive because generally we, human beings care more for different things rather than the truth, but also because the very nature of the concept is surely beyond our own capacity to grasp.
More pertinent than to understand that an ultimate truth does not exist though, is to realise that such understanding does not really matter. From birth (since the very beginning) we cruise through existence trying to grasp the meaning of life and end up missing large chunks of it. And though such truism represents a great wisdom that we all should grasp at some point, the ironic truth is that we might not be able to help ourselves. Basically, it does not matter if we get to know the truth of the story or not. What it matters, what makes us grow as human beings is in the exercise of trying to uncover the truth. After all, as Ralph Waldo Emerson has said ‘life is a journey, not a destination.’
As Kurosawa is bold enough and dares to point his camera straight at the sun, he is not only being innovative and visionary but he is also giving a clue about the mystery of this horrible crime. It is like he is saying none of the people involved in the story really know the whole story. In fact, not even us, who stand outside of the narrative know it either. Perhaps, not even God knows it, for in those violent times He might not even be there. The only one that really knows what happened between the Samurai, the Wife and the Bandit is the one that has been there since the very beginning. And that is the Sun…