Directed by Akira Kurosawa
So Rashoman is one of Akira Kurosawa’s most famous films, maybe his second after Seven Samurai. Screened at the Venice Film Festival, it was the first of Kurosawa’s to be seen widely by western audiences. It won best foreign film at the 1951 Academy Awards and like later Kurosawa films (Yojimbo and Seven Samurai) it was eventually remade in America (The Outrage with Paul Newman). The film was so influential it gave rise to the “Rashomon effect,” a way of describing the way people may misremember the same event.
The story is told through multiple layers of subjectivity and unreliable narrators. A priest and a woodcutter wait out the rain in a damaged temple. They are visited by a commoner, and soon the two men begin telling the commoner about the horrible story they just bore witness to.
They recount the story of a murder and a rape, both from their own points of view as well as the perspectives of the people involved, including the murderer/rapist and even the supposed spirit of the dead man.
We hear from everyone involved in the crime as well as the two witnesses through whom the entire narrative is conveyed. Using that logic you’d think we could construct a clear picture of what happened, but the point of the story is to show that there is no single truth. Each character has their own memory of what happened, and even if their memory is impeccable (which it isn’t), we see how personal motivations alter the story as they tell it.
The whole film plays out like a parable. It starts in the heavy rain with one of them muttering, “I just don’t understand,” and it ends with that same man taking home an abandoned baby, marching past the camera as the sun emerges from behind the clouds.
Like in many of Kurosawa’s films, at least up until this point in his career, there is a clear lesson to be learned. He wants us to leave with a feeling of hope, and that final story beat feels a bit forced, a way to wrap a bow on a story in which characters discuss moral decay and the ways in which men lie and are out for their own good.
The story has ostensibly ended by this point, with the two witnesses remembering what they heard about the rape and murder. They tell this commoner everything they know, and the commoner’s response is one he’s clearly come up with long ago: “Is there anyone who is really good? Maybe goodness is just make-believe.”
The other quotes I noted while watching the film were… “in the end you cannot understand the things men do,” “everyone is selfish and dishonest,” and “man wants to forget the bad stuff and believe in the made up good stuff.”
So that should give you a pretty clear idea of story’s tone. It fits in with the dire nature of conversations in Kurosawa’s previous films, all heavily influenced by end of the second world war. These are stories set in or around slums, with characters openly debating morality and the lack of access to things they can only dream about. His characters are often fiscally and/or spiritually poor, though they show an eagerness to question what might’ve seemed set in stone. By the end there is reason for hope. That’s why several of his films end with a symbol of this hope, like the rains at the end of Stray Dog to combat the incessant heat throughout the film and the sun here to contrast with the heavy rain throughout the story.
Along with Rashoman, Kurosawa’s two previous films included a vicious fight between two men. In Drunken Angel they slip and slide through paint, in Stray Dog they roll around in a field, and in Rashoman they crawl on their hands and knees through the dirt and weeds. The fights in the first two films culminate the action, though in Rashomon it takes much earlier in the narrative. If the fights were meant to symbolize two clashing post-war ideologies in those other two movies, in Rashomon it only feels unnecessary and preventable.
And I suppose that’s the point. There’s a reason those other fights happened, because the story built to it. The fights were inevitable, the end of the funnel of a long narrative, meant to pit one extreme against the other. To make the conflict work we had to know objectively what was behind it.
But in Rashomon we don’t know. We’re given a variety of reasons, but none of them quite add up. We know for sure who did it, because the man is alive to tell his story, and the only real similarity between all the testimonies is that this man killed the victim. This is in some ways a “whodunnit,” but the mystery is never who did it. We know right away.
I wonder if Kurosawa is a fatalist. He presents stories (again I’m only working with film up until this one in his career) full of death and characters who have something spiritual hanging in the balance. Some of them are well aware of this. They question everything loudly and often, but others don’t realize what they’re facing. Characters challenge each other, and for some the response is to open up while others double down. There is always more at risk, in other words, than their immediate goal. We get the sense that in these Kurosawa movies a character’s entire way of seeing the world will forever change.
Maybe this seems obvious. After all a good movie has three levels of conflict, and one of them involves the character’s internal goal. In most good movies the character changes on a fundamental level. You see it in the road trip movie. The hero is out to get something, and by the end they want something else. Oftentimes it’s just the hero realizing that what they needed was in front of them all along. For better or worse this is what happened in, say, the Katherine Heigl vehicle 27 Dresses.
So Kurosawa isn’t the only person with films in which his characters change. Maybe it just stands out because it feels like so much is at stake, like their soul is crumbling before the finale offers a sense of restoration or even rebirth.
His films seem to be constant investigations into the human soul. His last three films up to and including Rashomon are all something like film noirs, and such a genre is like a magnifying glass into the human mind and spirit. These are stories in which, by nature, the hero is confronted with something that challenges their core being. They believe one thing, and they’re pretty damn sure about that thing, but then something comes along and lifts them off their feet. By the end they’re pushed back to where they started.
Now Stray Dog and Rashomon, if considered noirs, subvert this ending. They both culminate with a sense of hope. One man has become the detective he always wanted to be, and his happy ending actually seems to come with the elimination of nuance. He’s a character who begins to question all kinds of things about his profession, but by the end he lets those go and is ready to go about the job the way his older, more personally secure, detective always has. Unless I horribly misread something about the text, that one is a film about a character opening up to the nuances of the world and then determining that it won’t help him spiritually or professionally to question so much. You have to have some amount of individual resolve to keep going.
Rashomon, as I mentioned, ends with the man walking away with an abandoned baby, to raise with his six other children. The end sequence is the longest we spend in the present. This follows the stories the two men tell the commoner in which none of their views seem to change. The commoner has always been a pessimist, and the two men who tell us the entire narrative both seem at a loss.
They are equally disturbed by what’s happened and can’t account for the differences between all the stories told. When they find the baby, and the woodcutter resolves to raise that baby, the priest says he has restored his faith in humanity. It’s a nice message, but again it feels like it’s there only for the purpose of a happy ending.
Then again I suppose that ending needed to be there. The commoner points out that the woodcutter, like everyone else, adjusted his memory of the story. There is some debate as to whether the man was murdered with a dagger or a sword, and part of that confusion is because the woodcutter stole the dagger. His claim is that he never wanted to get involved, so his white lie comes from a place of self-preservation. This ‘defense’ validates everything the commoner has said, that we’re all out only to cover our own asses.
The ending is a positive message that we can still change. The entire story has been about the past, about the struggle to remember it, and the end is about the present and future. The characters struggle to remember the past, and they’re remembering other characters who are remembering. We are told the story of the rape and murder through, I believe, three levels of subjectivity at any given moment. One is the testimony of any given character, told through the testimony of the woodcutter, which is then told through Akira Kurosawa’s direction. He wants to elicit a certain response from the audience, just as the woodcutter does and the characters who are out to cover their own asses do.
The only character we’re presented with who might be objective is the spirit of the dead man, told through a medium. This, of course, is meant to be scrutinized, but the film presents it with the same authority as any of the other characters’ testimony, and that might be the biggest joke/point of the film.
There are actually a few funny moments in the film, and they’re entirely visual. That medium scene might be the best symbol of the entire film, particularly as all the characters play it straight (and one insists that dead men don’t lie), but the funniest moment is a simple shot of a character’s testimony with the woodcutter and the priest sitting stoically in the background…
The guy on the right is the priest, and I’m in love with his expression. They just sit there with no emotion listening to what’s said. In this particular moment we’re listening to the woman who was raped and whose husband was murdered. Given all that I’ve written about I’ve clearly glossed over the crime which is horrific, and her reaction is appropriately hard to stomach. At the same time she’s so emotive, and conflicting accounts of the story question her role as victim or perpetrator, so any sympathy we might have is watered down by our own suspicions.
The way the two men watch her, then, is a good image for the audience. Like James Stewart in Rear Window, these characters are stand ins for the audience. They reflect our own point of view and our own curiosity, though at the beginning they are distant from us because they have such a strong reaction to events we have not yet seen unfold.
Actually, because the characters are so disturbed at the start, and because we learn that even the woodcutter (the one character we think we can trust) was lying, it seems that the film directly indicts the audience as well. We’re no different then the people in the story, and when the commoner says everyone’s out for themselves, he’s including us. Maybe that’s not exactly a revelation, but it’s important that we have some identification with the woodcutter only to learn that he was lying as well.
So then there’s that final moment of hope. I guess Kurosawa might just be saying that we’re all human, for better or for worse, and all that matters is if we try our best going forward. Right? Well this isn’t exactly a PSA, it’s f*ckin’ Rashomon, but that’s what I took away from it.
Up Next: Scandal (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1951), The Spiral Staircase (1946)