Akira Kurosawa, “Rashomon” (1950)
For this film, director Kurosawa used a blend of two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, “Rashomon” and “In a Grove”, the latter of the two providing the actual plot and characters. The film is an investigation in the nature of truth as interpreted by fallible and unreliable eyewitnesses and the extent to which faith in human nature depends on people’s ability or wish to report objective truth. While sheltering from heavy rain in Rashomon temple, a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) tell a peasant (Kichijiro Ueda) about a disturbing murder they came across on their travels separately. The priest and woodcutter mention having to attend the murder trial where they hear three different versions of how the murder occurred from the murderer himself, the bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), the murder victim’s wife (Machiko Kyo) and the murder victim himself (Masayuki Mori) through a medium. After the trial, the woodcutter tells his version of what he saw of Tajomaru’s rape of the victim’s wife and the subsequent fight between the bandit and the victim.
Each version of the incident highlights the selfishness of the teller: Tajomaru relays the fight between himself and the victim as more noble than the woodcutter’s version in which the two men scrabble in the dirt and Tajomaru manages to kill the other man through luck more than skill; the wife plays pitiful and pathetic while she recounts her version in which she was spurned by her husband as a result of being raped against her will; the husband paints his wife as being wilful and demanding that Tajomaru kill her husband after raping her. The woodcutter’s version of the story undercuts all three versions: the wife is portrayed as manipulative, forcing two spineless men to fight over her.
The priest’s faith in the goodness of humans is shattered, especially after an incident at Rashomon temple in which the woodcutter and peasant find an abandoned baby wrapped in a kimono with an amulet attached. The woodcutter chastises the peasant for stealing the kimono and the amulet from the baby and the peasant accuses the woodcutter of stealing a dagger at the murder scene to sell later. The woodcutter falls silent – this suggests that the peasant is correct – and the other man leaves Rashomon temple, saying that all humans are motivated purely by selfishness and looking out for number one.
It’s not important as to which version of the story is correct: most reviews take for granted that the woodcutter’s version is the correct version despite the fact that he stole the dagger (and so messed with the crime scene) and failed to testify at the trial out of fear for his own life (so he was selfish, just as the peasant deduced). Even his story about having six children to feed may be a well-rehearsed lie to get the naive priest to believe him. What’s most important is how slippery eyewitnesses’ accounts of an incident may be, how these depend on the narrators’ characters and what they hope to gain out of telling their stories the way they do, and what is revealed about human psychology as a result. Self-interest and bolstering one’s reputation or identity are paramount whenever people tell their version of something in which they had some involvement. In the end, no-one emerges with any credit, least of all the priest whose faith in the goodness of people, cut down by several lies, is restored paradoxically by a tale that may yet be another lie. This might hint that objective truth is not always a desirable state; for human life to progress to a more morally enlightened level, some lies are necessary to maintain faith and goodwill.
Acting performances by Mifune and Kyo are excellent: in each version of the rape / murder incident, they become completely different characters. Mifune displays a raw animalistic exuberance as Tajomaru, alternately a clown, a coward, a man with some notion of honour, a suitor. Kyo has an even greater range of characterisation as the wife: she may appear demure in one scene, sexually ravenous in another; weak and pleading in one retelling, sly and scheming in another.
Kurosawa’s direction is another asset of the film: quick editing and jumping from the woodcutter to Tajomaru and back before the plot settles into Tajomaru’s version proper establishes that getting the definitive version of the truth will be very difficult and slippery. The weather plays an important role in the film: for most of the film’s running time while the priest, woodcutter and passer-by are discussing the incident and trial, rain is belting down on the temple; it’s only near the end that rain stops and the sun begins to shine as the woodcutter leaves the temple with the baby. This would seem to give the director’s stamp of approval on the woodcutter’s version of the story though the expression on the man’s face is ambiguous enough as to suggest that he has duped the priest. The wooded setting where the rape and swordfight play out hides as much as it reveals and is an important participant in the events that occur: in a couple of retellings, the wife runs off and Tajomaru can’t find her among the bushes and trees so he gives up the chase. In this way the forest can be said to play an active role in the various narratvies and it’s possible that if some narrators were standing or moving in different parts of the forest, their stories would have been different again.
The straightforward presentation of “Rashomon” masks a highly complex psychological study of fallible human beings and their desire to be seen in a good light by others, and how this affects the search for truth. Film techniques, settings and acting performances all combine to create a highly self-contained universe that questions the nature of truth and with it notions of honour and reputation. After 60 years the message is still relevant to a contemporary audience.