“It’s all a lie. Tajomaru’s story and the woman’s. […] [The samurai’s] story was also lies.” These words are spoken by a liar. So it goes in Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa’s postwar howl at the ancient and abiding evils of humanity. This breakthrough film was responsible for introducing the Western world to Japanese cinema and has held a lofty spot in the canon ever since, even joining the lexicon for its portrayal of competing unreliable narratives. It’s practically a de rigueur entry point for world cinema, combining a brisk, entertaining story with weighty philosophical themes. Even the locations are easy to analyze — the sun-dappled woods, where characters (naturally) lose their way in a moral sense; Kyoto’s Rashomon gate during a pounding rainstorm, where characters are left isolated and beleaguered; and the outdoor court of white gravel, a place of order and purity but not necessarily of life.
When I first saw and fell in love with Rashomon, I’d only seen a handful of foreign titles, so it was an open question how I would respond to it all these years later. While I experienced a familiar listlessness this time, I also found some much-needed clarity. It’s important to recognize what this movie is not as well as what it is. For starters, the story isn’t quite the Gordian knot that its reputation would suggest. The four witnesses to the film’s central events all tell contradictory stories, but as Jonathan Rosenbaum alludes in a capsule review, Kurosawa takes the less challenging route by suggesting that they’re all lying rather than telling the truth as each sees it. From a jurisprudence angle, in an age (the 11th century) before fingerprints and DNA testing, these contradictions make justice unattainable, but the film is more about the effect the events have on the three men at the gate. Rashomon doesn’t do itself any favors there, opening with grandiose claims that the story it’s about to tell is more horrible than plague, famine, or war. One of the three men, a priest (Minoru Chiaki), has a crisis of faith — not so much because a man was killed and a woman raped, but because the accused and the surviving victim couldn’t agree about what exactly happened. His faith, as he explains, is in humanity — traditionally, a bad bet.
Four interpretations, as I said, of a bandit’s fateful encounter in the woods with a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyō). The bandit, named Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), testifies first. In his account, after having his way with the wife, he bested the samurai in a sword fight and then fled the scene, the woman having also disappeared. The wife testifies next, claiming that no duel took place. After the rape, her husband looked on her with such contempt that she was driven to take a dagger to him herself. As these stories create an impasse, the movie takes a fascinating turn. A medium (Noriko Honma) is summoned to the trial so that the dead man can also testify. Through the woman’s mouth, the samurai says that his wife offered to leave her husband for the bandit. She even asked the bandit to kill her husband so that she wouldn’t have to live with his disapproval of her infidelity. The bandit refused, and they departed separately. Crushed, the samurai committed suicide. The fourth narrative belongs to a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), one of the men at the Rashomon gate, who had earlier denied witnessing the murder itself. He echoes the bandit’s testimony as to who did what but exposes the murderer’s braggadocio. Instead of a cool, confident marauder, he becomes a romantic fool, and the sword fight is portrayed as a panicked scrum. The woodcutter doesn’t make these statements in court. Perhaps he felt his word wouldn’t count for much after supernatural assistance seemed to exonerate the bandit. In any case, from the audience’s perspective, the broad agreement between the first and last tellings should sew up the matter. All that’s left in doubt is the precise shading of wickedness on display.
What first stands out about these competing testimonies is that each main player in the drama claims to be the killer. Both the samurai and his wife have incentive to claim some power over a situation in which all the power had been taken from them — some small, complicated sense of dignity. Then, of course, there’s the problem of archaic patriarchal attitudes toward rape. In the last three tellings, the idea of the wife being “ruined” or even culpable is the hinge of the story. Her relationship with the samurai is broken. As the woodcutter recounts it, she then goads the two men into fighting for her. Whether the woodcutter himself has a more negative view of the woman after her assault is left ambiguous. His interpretation is easiest to believe because in it, no one looks good.
So, as a matter of fact, there still is some mileage to be gotten out of the more bookish aspects of Rashomon. However, operating under the principle that a film is more interesting for its methods and techniques than its stated aims, it’s time to look at Kurosawa’s filmmaking. The most obvious formative element is the flashback structure, in which events that might not have actually happened are recounted visually rather than only verbally. This was a radical subversion of visual expression in 1950. Even today, a director will typically need to insert clear signals that an event portrayed onscreen shouldn’t be taken at face value. There are no signals in Rashomon. Viewers are simply left to judge the matter for ourselves. Crucially, this participation is not linked to the courtroom drama itself. For those brief, straight-on medium shots in which the characters testify, their eyes are often directed somewhere just above the camera. The judges, never seen or heard, are implied to be seated on a raised platform behind the camera. (Our point-of-view, then, is perhaps that of the stenographer.) Since the results of the trial are so thoroughly inconclusive, it’s almost as if there’s no one on that platform at all.
Each of the film’s three elemental settings is beautifully photographed, a richly variegated world. Most scenes also involve three characters. Kurosawa employs a blistering array of compositions and angles for these triangular dramas. Occasionally, the camera will arc from one close-up to another without a cut. Much more often, the editing tells the story of each character’s reaction to the unfolding tragedy. There are elisions, as well. The rape, in particular, is only shown once, and not graphically. In a way, this hampers Kurosawa’s attempt to show conflicting responses to the assault. Certainly, it wouldn’t be fair to expect a movie made anywhere in the world in 1950 to show, in detail, how one character might view a sexual encounter as consensual, while another sees it as a nightmare. But there’s still an imbalance on this point that most other aspects of the film are careful to avoid.
Rashomon is a skillfully made film that isn’t quite as profound as I may have thought as a student. I don’t think I ever saw it as a rejection of objective truth, just an interrogation of human beings’ access to it. Every person, regardless of class or gender, is capable of selfishness and mendacity. That statement isn’t exactly a life-changing epiphany, though it’s enough for the priest in the film to despair of his prior beliefs. Kurosawa doesn’t leave him in limbo, however. The ending of Rashomon is one of those controversial instances in film history where the director steps in at the conclusion to make a statement — a la Chaplin in The Great Dictator or Kiarostami in Taste of Cherry — to the effect that, despite what has just happened, life goes on and we mustn’t lose heart. The three men at the Rashomon gate discover a baby, who had presumably been there the whole time. The woodcutter takes charge of the foundling, and we are left with every parent’s hope that the next generation will be better than the current one. This extraordinarily convenient resolution moves me a bit less each time I watch the film, but I still understand it. Moral victory, for Kurosawa, isn’t a matter of who gets the last derisive laugh, but who can stare down evil and suffering with unquenchable reserves of compassion. There is a way out from under the clouds, even when the world appears to be crumbling.