Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Dir. Akira Kurosawa

In the real world nothing is ever dichotomous. Good and evil; nature and nurture; honor and cowardice; samurai and bandit, the purity of these polarities don't really exist. Some people go to great lengths to model themselves after archetypes of either pole but ultimately find frustration in their inability to transcend existence and become a moral paradigm. Eventually they discover that if they can fool themselves they can fool most everyone else as well. Image and reality begin to intermingle until the wall between the two becomes permeable, with lies and truth passing easily between. Many a filmmaker has tried to capture the natural contradiction of how people want to be seen and how they are seen but none have ever gone quite as far as Akira Kurosawa did in Rashomon. Kurosawa is known for probing the depths of the psyche but in Rashomon he takes this tendency to it's natural extreme, exhibiting not a singular point of view (Ikiru) or that of a naïve and hopeful body of people thinking as a whole (Seven Samurai) but several contradictory vantage points that challenge the notion of polarized morality.

Rashomon is a story within a story, a highly progressive dual-layered plot that spawned a form of critical theory known as the “Rashomon Effect” which hypothesizes on the subjectivity of memory and perception. The film begins with a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) who relate to a cynical commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) the scene they witnessed that day in a local court. Here the first 'flashback' begins. In court it is revealed that a bandit, Tajumaru (Toshiro Mifune) has robbed and murdered a man (Masayuki Mori) and raped his wife (Machiko Kyo). This is the basic story. What follows is the re-telling of the story from four different positions: Tajumaru, the man, his wife, and the woodcutter who, it is later revealed, was hiding out of sight, watching, while the scene unfolded. In each telling and re-telling the complexity of the characters builds and grows. Tajumaru admits to the killing and the raping, in order to keep up appearances as a fearless, Machiavellian bandit. Curiously though he sketches the wife not as a defenseless woman but as a fierce warrior, the likes of which he has never seen before. He claims to have fallen deeply in love with her and sworn himself to her, only to have her run off while he is murdering her husband. The wife's story is next. She shows no signs of the fierceness in Tajumaru's version of the events, and she writhes on the ground as she proclaims her weakness. She reveals that after Tajumaru raped her he ran off leaving both her and her husband alive. She begs her husband to kill her but he only stares at her coldly. In a state of deepening madness she plunges her dagger into his chest. The next variant is the most terrifying. The deceased husband communicates to the judges his story through a medium. The scene is haunting and disturbing as the medium shudders and convulses to the agony of the dead husband. He claims that his wife, after willingly giving herself to Tajumaru, demands that Tajumaru kill her husband so that she might be free from his oppressive lifelessness. Tajumaru refuses, on the grounds of her being a woman. He gives the husband a choice: “Do you want me to kill her or let her go?” The husband does not answer. The woman frees herself and Tajumaru gives chase, leaving the husband by himself. He, in an effort to convey his dignity, tells the judges that he killed himself so as not to be further shamed in this life.

The final interpretation is given not in the court, but back at the weather-worn temple Rashomon by the woodcutter to the priest and the commoner. His account is the most utterly devastating of them all. He illustrates the depravity of all three, with the bandit Tajumaru begging the woman to marry him, the husband refusing to re-accept his wife after she has been with another man, and the woman manipulating both of them by appealing to their macho vanity and purist pride, respectively. The visual retelling of his version does not retain any of the glory or exaggeration of the three before it, but confirms the profound lack of certainty in the entire tragedy. The philosophical camera pans back to reveal skepticism on the part of the commoner and the consummate depression the priest has fallen into. In a pivotal moment the commoner says to the priest and the woodcutter, after hearing all four versions of the story “In the end you cannot understand the things men do”. It is in this moment and especially in the revealing scene that follows it (in which a baby is found) when the woodcutter is revealed to be a thief, and the priest has his faith in humanity restored, that Kurosawa's intent becomes clear, like the sky in his perfectly designed closing shot.

Simply put: it is not about trying to be a certain way but being the way you are. The novelist Graham Greene once wrote “God save us from the innocent, at least the guilty know what they are about”. We are all guilty. At one time or another we have all been gutless liars. Whether it is to save face, to cover our weaknesses, or to try to impress someone, the motive is never as clear as the result. In Rashomon Kurosawa asks us to be the judge in this criminal morality case. It is our job to ascertain who, if anyone, is telling the truth. But truth, like the dichotomies above, is just another impossible standard of measurement; an essential part of the paradox of guilt and innocence. Pure guilt and pure innocence don't exist. These are relative understandings of unattainably huge ideals. Rashomon is a deeply investigative and revealing film about moral relativism and the manifold complexities of the human spirit.

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