What Ingmar Bergman is to Swedish film, Akira Kurosawa is to the Japanese cinema — an icon, a cult figure, a director whose oeuvres have become paradigms for film making.
Rashomon, now over half a century in age, still holds up remarkably well and unhesitatingly merits the high regard in which it has been held for several generations. I see this one as an ‘idea’ film. It is hardly a western, certainly neither a musical nor a thriller, possibly a kind of detective story, but primarily about an idea. And that idea is the idea of stories.
Rashomon is a story about story-telling and credibility. My familiarity with Japanese literature is shamefully inadequate; but this general notion is central to Western traditions of story-telling. Homer’s Odyssey is as much about poetics and the transformations of narrative as it is about the metamorphosis of humans and journeys.
Perhaps central to the technique of Rashomon is point of view: whom, if anyone, can you believe when they relate the same event in which they have been participants? how about observers of the same event? how about the audience? In a sense, it is a movie about epistemology: what do we know and how do we know that we know? Herein it shares something perhaps with a film that is about as different as one could imagine: Crimson Tide (check out my take on that one here).
These ‘narratological’ concerns seem very trendy questions in today’s academic atmosphere of post-deconstruction and elaborations on reader-response theory, but they were less so in 1950, not to mention three thousand years ago. But the questions are nonetheless perennial and as agonizing today as ever.
The structure of the narrative in this film is a straightforward ring composition:
version (partial) of the woodcutter
version of the bandit
version of the wife
version of the husband
version (full) of the woodcutter
The temple is frame, lashing rain at the start, emergence of the sun at the end; at the center is the woman’s tale, which, finally, is no more credible — or lacking in credibility — than that by any other teller of tales.
This event, the rape of the woman, is the focus of differing accounts. Everybody seems to agree that a rape took place and that the husband was killed, but beyond that the stories differ. A classic triangle, here consisting of husband, bandit, and wife, is rotated as it were in the transforming kaleidoscope of individual perceptions — or lies about perceptions — of what actually happened.
It is inappropriate for me to outline the shifting tales. We, like the listeners at the temple, are left confused and without understanding. What does seem clear — but can we really be sure? — is that each narrator’s account, though sharing a certain basic typology, as it were, cannot collectively be true. All may be lying, all may be telling partial truths, all are certainly shaping tales that, under the circumstances, put as laudatory a construction as possible on the teller’s actions.
Further problematizing the search for certainty is the medium — literally — for the dead husband’s presentation of his side. A whirling dervish of a Pythia is mouthpiece for the husband’s ghost, and the issue of (as the lawyers say) ‘hearsay’ evidence is immediately injected into the proceedings. How can we possibly believe what she is saying? The woodcutter, who appears the least tendentious of the witnesses has, as it turns out, his own reasons to come under a certain suspicion regarding veracity.
Where are we, then, at the end of it all? Back at the temple, where, suddenly, the crying of an infant child is heard from a back corner! It is unclear how the baby got there. Initially one wants to connect the baby with the rape, an unholy fruit of violence. But the chronology would seem to be impossible (does that matter in this film?). Its appearance is enigmatic, and as pure symbol the only thing it would seem capable of representing is the future, perhaps a hopefulness about human nature. Do the storm’s end and the light of the sun, or the woodcutter’s opening failure to understand now replaced by a satisfied smile, suggest a serene clarity emerging out of stormy darkness?
For human nature is on serious trial in this film. I don’t believe that contemporary outrage over violence against women in general and rape in particular was high on any nation’s societal agenda in 1950, and the rather cavalier way in which it is treated here is, in effect, merely a necessary narrative assumption. It is human nature as deceitful, purposefully or not, that achieves salience in Rashomon, human nature as self-delusional, as liar to self and others.
It is always risky to inject contemporary anxieties in an ahistorical fashion onto art from the past, but the skeptic’s repeated scorn at the temple for the ‘mere’ stories people make up has a contemporary ring to it. At one point he notes that “we all want to forget something … so we create stories.” This sentiment is apropos all the story-tellers in Rashomon, and it is also applicable to Japan’s view of itself in action in the Second World War. I would not wish necessarily to impute this impulse to Kurosawa in 1950, a few short years after the conclusion of that human horror, but art is seldom if ever an artifact produced in a social vacuum. This idea that we all — individuals as well as nations — ‘tell stories’ certainly does not have applicability to Japan alone, for we all of us have many stories, ever shifting, suiting a mood or a moment, seamlessly joined to the many other narratives that constitute our personal and national histories, masking unpleasant truths and telescoping fantasies.
It is in its exploration of this human darkness – fallible and fabricating human memory, self-serving and expedient exculpation, all so seemingly innocent — that Rashomon remains timeless, as timeless as are the cognate explorations in the Odyssey.