A man lies dead in a forest clearing, his wife has been assaulted, and a bandit has made off with their horse and possessions. This much is known, but everything else is called into question as the bandit, the wife, and the dead man (speaking through a medium) tell drastically different versions of how this came to be. And a story level beyond, three men discuss these testimonies as they take shelter from the pouring rain and, confronted with an apparent web of death and lies, ponder the nature of the human soul. Kurosawa Akira’s Rashomon (1950) was a major landmark in world cinema, breaking Japanese film into the global consciousness in a major way (and generally letting the West know that their was more than Europe and Hollywood out there). The film — which essentially tells the same story four times from radically different vantage points — is a remarkable deconstruction of narrative convention and calls into question the supposed impartiality of the camera’s gaze. Endlessly influential — the “Rashomon effect” has even entered standard legal parlance — the film calls into question the nature of truth and examines the urges and self-serving motives that obscure the pure core of our common humanity. (88 min.)
S. – This is a clever concept for a movie and in Kurosawa’s hands we not only get wonderful direction but are also invited to contemplate the way self-interest colours memories. The incident resulting in the death of a samurai is processed through the viewpoints of the key characters involved, with the entertainment value pushed very much to the front while still accomplishing a deeper probing of the complexity of human nature. The prospect of essentially being told the same story four times over may not sound particularly exciting, yet a lot of the enjoyment comes from thinking you know what will happen next. The performances of the bandit (Toshiro Mifune) and the young woman who is the object of his desire (Machiko Kyo) are outstanding, with each re-telling of the story they manage to bring an entirely different emotional undercurrent to their roles. The almost pantomime style of the recurring story may not be to everyone’s tastes, it is generally no favorite of mine, yet it is delivered with gusto and heart by Mifune and Kyo. The helpless husband (Masayuki Mori) suffers by comparison, although admittedly this may be due to the nature of his role more than a failing on his part.The other performance that really shone for me was that of the medium (Noriko Honma), the inclusion of this character was a weird and wonderful twist and her delivery of the slain husband’s account was awesome. How did you feel about the performances, J.?
J. – We touched a bit on this exaggerated performance style in our previous yammer of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. I personally love the heightened artificiality of the performances in the director’s samurai pictures. Mifune and Kyo, in particular, go so over the top and get so into the physicality of their performances that they are strongly reminiscent of silent films (see the top image of this post). Even with the competing versions of the stories, you could figure out what is going on in this film with the sound off. It works completely here, and I think there are a few big reasons why. First, the exaggerated performances fit with the costumes and the general tenor of older forms of Japanese theater, so there is something of the kabuki to what they are doing, which feels appropriate. Second, that sense of historical theater also helps sell that this is a very different time period, and by utilizing these exaggerated modes it takes the story back in time and separates the viewer from the expectations of modern modes of address and behavior. And third, and most importantly for this film, the grandiose performances serve to drive home the disparity between the different accounts of the story — the lack of subtlety in this regard sets the different narrators far apart from each other, and the performances, by being so unnatural, work to place doubt in the viewer’s mind as to veracity of any of the iterations. It will be interesting to see, S., how you respond to the final Kurosawa list film — Ikiru — as it is set in present day (1952) Japan and does not feature the theatrics of his samurai movies.
But let’s get into the meat of the story a bit. The story is based on a couple of short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, so the filmmakers can not be credited with the entire concept (although the original short story only goes into three iterations and does not have the fourth by the woodcutter). The most remarkable aspect of the story is that in all three iterations by the main players — the husband, the wife and the bandit — all of them claim to be the one that killed the husband. It’s a great subversion of the murder mystery, where the mystery is more about who didn’t kill the the victim. And once the woodcutter offers what appears to be an impartial account, we quickly learn that their may be reasons for him to be twisting the events to his own advantage as well. You mentioned in your first paragraph, S., that the story showcases self-interest clouding our memories, but is that what happened here? Were the three participants mistaken, or were they lying?
S. – I guess what I find most interesting is considering that each of the characters believes their own version of events. The bandit is keen to appear as a desirable man that was able to woo the samurai’s wife rather than force himself upon her. In the process of confessing to the crime he manages to paint himself the victim of her unreasonable demands who is bound to conduct himself with chivalry while inevitably defeating his opponent in a fair and highly-skilled fight. The woman in question tells a tale of two selfish men who put their own pride before her welfare, discarding her at a whim. In both of these versions I feel the narrative reflects a coping mechanism for each of the characters following the traumatic event that unfolded. I acknowledge that the framework for the repeated crime story doesn’t really support this interpretation though. The woodcutter, monk and drifter taking shelter from the driving rain are more focussed on unravelling the lies they have heard. I do like that the three characters outside the central story mirror those within it. The monk as rather overcome and inept, the drifter as cynical and wily as the bandit, and finally the woodcutter as utterly distraught at the events observed but possibly as duplicitous as the wife.
J. – I’m more inclined to think that the stories told by the husband, the wife and bandit are more lies than coping mechanisms. The differences are too stark for it to be a question of interpretation, particularly given that the killer is a different person in each version. I do not believe that the moral crisis for the monk and the woodcutter after witnessing the trial is due to the horror of a man being killed and a woman raped, nor is due to the apparent absence of truth in the proceedings. No, I think it is that all of them claim to be the killer; it is the pride on display in all of these testimonies — the bandit who wants to be seen as the biggest and baddest of all, the woman who’s honor has been besmirched and who was trying to cleanse it through death, and the man who would rather take claim for his own death than have the world think that anyone else overpowered him. It destroys the monk’s faith in humanity that everyone involved wants to be thought of as a murderer rather than as a victim or a disgrace.
I do like the idea of the woodcutter, the monk and the drifter mirroring the central trio in the grove — I’ve seen this movie many times and that never occurred to me. But it makes perfect sense, particularly as their reactions differ to news of the events and of course to finding the abandoned child at the very end. They serve as another microcosm of society — the lower class version of the struggle that took place in the grove — but in this case their struggle comes down to what is acceptable to do in the name of survival in hard times. And I think this is one of the great coups of the movie, because though the woodcutter and the monk are in the original short story, there is no fourth version of the tale. And it is this original fourth version that I think makes the film.
S. – Rashomon is a beautifully composed allegory, that balances entertainment value with a skillful investigation into human motives. I love the twist that each iteration is a murder confession, and the humour that is evoked out of the exaggerated interpretations. The only part I was less than satisfied with was the ending. The monk character was rather irritating all along, I can accept that as an obvious moral focal point his inability to comprehend the actions of all involved makes sense. But the whole find the baby, condemn the drifter, hand the baby off to the woodcutter sequence left me rather nonplussed. I mean there is a fair chance the woodcutter just killed a bound man to score a fancy dagger and then lied about his involvement in court. Perhaps being given the responsibility of a wailing child is suitable punishment for such as act, or more likely my own sense of ethics is skewed. Regardless, the film is incredible and one I imagine I will watch many times more.
J. – See, I never once thought that there was any implication that the woodcutter had actually killed the husband — that’s a very interesting idea. I always assumed that his version of the story — which at first appears to finally be the true version of events — is colored by the missing dagger. Which is to say, that the woodcutter stole the dagger and to cover up the theft he perhaps invented a version in which only swords played a role in the killing. I personally think that he is just a thief, not a killer (take a look at his reaction as the medium finishes her recounting of the story by saying that someone pulled the dagger from the dead man’s heart). Also, the woodcutter is played by the amazing Takashi Shimura, and he always saves the day!
But the woodcutter’s version of the story is also profoundly compelling, in part because everyone comes out of it looking truly awful. And I think that is one of the reasons that on first viewing it smacks so much of truth — well that and the fact that narrative convention leads the audience to believe that the crime will be solved. I love the fourth telling of the story. The wife just loses her shit in this version, and it is fantastic. And the confrontation between the two men is my favorite fight in a any movie — it is the most pathetic but simultaneously exciting swordfight in cinema history. I love the fact that the film really accepts the fact that it would be goddamn terrifying to fight to death with swords, and just runs with it to the nth degree. Kurosawa keeps the action lively throughout the film with his dynamic camerawork and motion-filled frames, and it all culminates in this awkward but adrenaline-fueled struggle.
As for the ending, I have always liked it. The woodcutter does reach out for redemption and ceases to try to justify his behavior. He breaks the cycle of lies, but only after the drifter — the most unsavory character in the film — calls him on his bullshit. I agree that it lacks the wallop of the conflict between the husband, wife and bandit, but it serves two important purposes: (1) it refuses any easy answers with regard to the central story of the killing — we are still in the dark as to what happened due to the suspect motives and likely fabrications of all involved; and (2) it offers a small ray of hope in a story that is otherwise bent on showing humanity apparently intent on making itself monstrous. This story could not just end with the “truth” about the death at the center of the film — that would ultimately be deeply unsatisfying, at best just another a twist ending. No, it ends instead with life — a new, pure life sustained by the only unselfish act in the entire film — and that shines out among the rain and ruins.