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Rashomon & Realism

[1]3,476 words

Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) is commonly found on lists of the world’s greatest movies, and deservedly so. Rashomon features avant-garde narrative techniques (flashbacks, multiple points of view), dynamic black-and-white cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa, compelling Ravel-like music by Fumio Hayasaka, subtle and intensely dramatic performances, and a complex but tightly edited script, all combined into a fast-paced 88-minute masterpiece with an emotionally devastating climax. Rashomon is also distinguished by featuring one of the most loathsome and twisted female villains in all of cinema (“Let’s you and he fight, and I’ll go with the survivor”).

When Rashomon won the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice International Film Festival, it did more than lay the foundations for the enduring world-wide fame of Kurosawa and his star, Toshiro Mifune, it opened the eyes of the world toward Japanese cinema as a whole.

Rashomon is the story of a rape and murder committed in 12th-century Japan. Or, rather, it is four radically divergent stories of the same rape and murder. Rashomon is constantly trotted out by coffee-house intellectuals as an illustration of the subjectivity of our perceptions and the relativity of truth. But this is a superficial misreading of the film.

The stories in Rashomon do not diverge because of the ineluctable subjectivity of all claims about the world. The witnesses are simply lying. Furthermore, if we pay attention to their testimony, the characters of the witnesses, and the enduring facts of human psychology, we can reconstruct what really happened. Finally, Rashomon does not just presuppose that reality is objective and knowable, but that there is a moral order that is objective and knowable as well, an objective ought as well as an objective is. In short, Rashomon is not a relativist film but a deeply realist one.

The film opens in a downpour. Two men, a woodcutter and a priest, have taken refuge from the rain in the ruins of the Rashomon gate of Kyoto. It is a time of war, famine, natural disasters, and social breakdown. The woodcutter speaks the first words of the film: “I can’t understand it. I can’t understand it at all.” The two men look at each other and then turn to morosely watch the rain.

Soon they are joined by a third man, who turns out to be a cynic and a thief. Hearing the woodcutter repeating “I just can’t understand it,” the cynic asks what he is talking about. The woodcutter and the priest both state that they have heard troubling testimonies that day. The cynic asks to hear all about it. When the priest begins to sermonize, though, the cynic cuts him off. He only wants to hear the facts for his amusement. The priest can keep his moralizing to himself.

The Woodcutter’s First Story

According to the woodcutter, three days before, he went to the forest to gather wood. Walking along a forest path, he first encounters a woman’s hat with a veil hanging on a bush, then a samurai’s hat trampled in the leaves, then a length of rope, then an amulet case, then the dead body of a man. Horrified, he rushes off to tell the police. Next we see the woodcutter testifying in court. When asked by the judge if he saw a sword, he answers no.

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Left to right: the cynic, the woodcutter, and the priest

The Priest’s Testimony

Next, we see the testimony of the priest, who passed the murdered man on the road on the afternoon of his death. The murdered man was a samurai, carrying a sword and a bow and arrows. His young wife was on horseback. The priest, who does love to sermonize, then begins to speak of the fragility and fleetingness of human life.

The Policeman’s Testimony

Next we see a policeman sitting next to the bound bandit, Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune). The policeman claims that he captured the bandit after he had been thrown from a horse, which turns out to be the horse of the samurai’s wife. The policeman also found the samurai’s bow and arrows.

Tajomaru’s Testimony

Tajomaru scoffs at the policeman’s claim that the great bandit Tajomaru had been thrown from a horse. Instead, he claims, he had been sick with dysentery from drinking polluted water. He then admits that he killed the samurai and tells how it happened.

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Toshiro Mifune as Tajomaru, the bandit

It was a hot day, and Tajomaru was resting alongside the road. The samurai and his wife passed by, and a breeze momentarily lifted her veil. Struck by her beauty, the bandit decided that he would have her, even if he had to kill her husband. (This sort of contingency brings to mind Camus’ The Stranger, in which the protagonist Patrice Meursault ends up killing an Arab because it is an especially hot day on the beach.)

Tajormaru quickly hatches a plan. He approaches the samurai and tells him that he found a treasure of swords and mirrors buried in the woods. He offers to sell them to him at a good price. The samurai follows the bandit down a forest path and into a grove, where the bandit springs on him and ties him up. The bandit returns to the wife and tells him her husband has taken sick. Her childlike concern made him feel jealous of her husband. He wanted to show her his disgrace and led her into the grove.

When she sees that her husband has been captured, her expression goes cold. Then she pulls out a dagger and attacks the bandit fiercely. He evades her blows, and as she tires, he seizes her. She breaks down in tears as he rapes her, dropping the knife as she gives in.

After the rape, the bandit prepares to leave and allow them to continue on their journey, but the wife stops him with a shocking proposal. She has been shamed. Two men cannot know of her shame. One of them must die. The two must fight, and she will go with the survivor. The bandit is horrified by this proposal. He cuts the husband’s bonds. The husband seizes his sword and attacks. There is an epic swordfight, and the samurai is killed. It is an honorable death, but it was not what the bandit intended.

When the fight was over, the bandit discovered that the woman had run off. So he took the husband’s sword and bow and arrows. Then he found the wife’s horse and left. He sold the samurai’s sword. But he forgot to collect the dagger, which he calls his “biggest mistake.”

Throughout his testimony, and in the flashbacks as well, Tajomaru’s testimony is filled with bravado, boasting, boyish hi-jinks, and loud, hollow laughter. At times, he seem maniacal. Even though he has been captured and will surely die, he pretends that he is in control, speaking haughtily to the policeman and judge. Genuine laughter is an expression of a sense of superiority. Nervous or forced laughter is an expression of feelings of inferiority trying to mask itself as superiority. The same is true of boasting. The bandit has been shamed, and he is trying save face. We must bear this motive in mind.

Japan, like other Far Eastern societies, is a shame culture, not a guilt culture. In shame cultures, one’s infractions of morals and manners cause intense shame if seen by others. In guilt cultures, one’s infractions of morals and manners cause pangs of conscience, even if nobody else knows about them. In shame cultures, one does not suffer pangs of conscience if one’s infractions go unnoticed or can be covered up with a face-saving lie. All the lies in Rashomon are motivated by the desire to hide shame and save face. If one bears this motive in mind, one can reconstruct what actually happened from the four widely diverging stories.

After Tajomaru’s story, the movie returns us to the Rashomon gate. Much to the cynic’s surprise, the wife was found alive, hiding in a temple, and was brought to the court to testify. The woodcutter then declares that both Tajomaru and the wife were lying. How does he know this? It turns out that he saw the whole thing, and lied about it to the court.

The Wife’s Testimony

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The samurai’s wife

In the court, the wife is far from being the virago described by Tajomaru. Instead, she is tearful and submissive. According to the wife, after the bandit raped her, he told her his name and mocked her husband. The husband struggled in his bonds, and the wife ran to his side to help. The bandit laughed and ran away. The wife was frozen by her husband’s glance, which was aloof and filled with loathing. She screamed for him to kill her, but not to hold her in contempt. She fetched her dagger, freed her husband, and asked him to kill her. Then she grew hysterical and fainted. When she awoke, she found her husband dead, the dagger in his chest. It is never made clear whether he died at her hand or his. She said that she did not remember leaving the woods. She found herself by a pond and tried to drown herself, but failed. Then she took refuge in a temple. She ends her testimony by asking, “What could a poor, helpless woman like me do?” The whole thrust of her story is to establish her good intentions and to absolve her of all responsibility for what happened. She does not even have the agency to secure the honorable death that she claims she desired.

The movie then returns us to the three men conversing at the Rashomon gate. The cynic doubts the woman’s testimony, accusing women of fooling themselves and using tears to manipulate men. Then we learn that the dead samurai also testified in court, though a spirit medium. The woodcutter, however, declares that the dead man’s story is a lie as well. Again, he can say this because, as revealed later, he actually witnessed the whole crime.

The Husband’s Testimony

The medium’s testimony is one of the most imaginative sequences in the film. The medium is played by a woman, who engages is some sort of shamanic ritual, then speaks in a raspy, unearthly male voice.

According to the husband, after the rape, the bandit tried to console his wife and persuade her to run away with him. The wife agrees to go with the bandit, but then she implores him to kill her husband, again to hide her shame. The bandit is horrified by this and feels sympathy for the husband. He turns to the husband and says that he will kill her if he wishes it. The husband says that for these words, he almost forgave the bandit. The woman then fled, and the bandit chased her. Later, the bandit returns alone. The woman has escaped. The bandit frees the samurai and leaves. The samurai, sickened by his dishonor, takes up the wife’s dagger and stabs himself. As he dies, he feels someone approach and remove the dagger from his chest.

At this point, we return to the gate, and the woodcutter blurts out that the story is untrue, for the samurai was killed by a sword, not a dagger. At this point, the canny cynic realizes that the woodcutter had seen more than he let on and persuades him to tell the whole story.

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The spirit medium

The Woodcutter’s Second Story

As in his original story, the woodcutter first found the woman’s hat on a branch. But then he heard a woman weeping. He crept closer and found the samurai tied up and the bandit begging the woman to stop crying. The bandit has just raped her, but now he begs for her forgiveness. He offers to marry her. He even offers to work to support her. He then threatens to kill her if she refuses.

The wife gets to her feet and uses her dagger to free her husband. She does not wish to choose between the two of them. She wants the men to fight to the death, and she will go with the winner. The husband, however, holds her in complete contempt. He will not risk his life for a shameless whore and tells her to kill herself.

The bandit too is repulsed by her. He begins to leave but she begs him to stay. When her husband continues to insult her, however, the bandit stops and sticks up for her. Pressing her new opportunity, the wife manically shames both men, saying that if they were real men, they would fight each other. She says that women can only be won by strength, by the sword.

At this point, both men are still united by loathing for the woman, but they are also shamed by her into a half-hearted battle, a battle that they think will restore their honor but which simply deepens their own feelings of self-loathing. Instead of the epic show of swordsmanship in Tajomaru’s story, we witness an utterly degrading farce in which two men, sword hands trembling, advance hesitantly then quickly retreat, rolling in the leaves and dirt. Eventually, almost by accident, the husband — begging for his life — is killed by the bandit who throws his sword at him, almost to renounce responsibility for the killing in the very act. He is utterly sickened by his victory. (This long-drawn, sordid murder brings to mind the killing scene in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain some years later.) The woman then flees, dishonoring the bandit still further. The bandit picks up the samurai’s weapons, finds his horse, and flees, full of furtiveness and self-loathing.

When the woodcutter finishes his story, the cynic questions the truth of the tale, and the woodcutter bristles and says that he is telling the truth. A bit later, the cynic asks him why he omitted any mention of the dagger, and the woodcutter admits that he stole it and sold it.

What Really Happened?

We can determine what really happened in Rashomon if we understand that all the lies and omissions in the various tales — save one, which is crucial to the movie’s end — spring from the same motive: the desire to conceal shame and save face. I think it is most plausible to work backwards from the woodcutter’s second tale. The woodcutter’s account is most likely to be accurate because he was merely a witness, not a participant in the events. But even he conceals something out of shame, namely his theft of the dagger. But that was after the rape and murder took place.

If we take the woodcutter’s account as basically accurate, then remove everything from it that the bandit, the wife, and the samurai would find shameful, we will arrive at the tales they tell.

The woodcutter did not see how the samurai and his wife ended up in the grove, or how the rape took place, so we simply have to take the bandit’s account of those events at face value.

The humiliating events that the bandit omits from the woodcutter’s tale are begging the woman to marry him, the woman’s verbal abuse and shaming, and the disgraceful duel at the end. Instead, as the bandit told it, he was prepared to leave and let the samurai and his wife to continue their journey, but she begged him to kill her husband. He was horrified by this proposal and released the husband. The husband then attacked. A gallant duel followed, ending with the samurai’s honorable death.

The woman’s tale omits everything after the rape that casts her in a shameful light. Gone is her proposal to have the two men fight to the death, which is present in all the other accounts. Gone is the bandit’s horror at this proposal, which is also present in the other three accounts. As the wife tells it, the bandit simply leaves, the husband treats her contemptuously, she begs him to kill her, then faints. When she comes to, she finds her husband dead with her dagger in his chest — perhaps at his own hand, perhaps at hers. Her story does not account for what happened to the dagger, which was not found at the scene of the crime.

The tale told by the samurai’s ghost also omits everything personally shameful to him: his wife goading the men to fight and his death at the end of their degrading duel. Instead, he claims that he committed suicide, but, unlike the wife, he had the presence of mind to explain why he was not found with a knife in his chest.

What remains to be explained is the discrepancy between the woodcutter’s first and second accounts . Why did he completely omit the events after the rape leading up to the murder? To answer this question, we need to examine the final scene of the movie.

The Foundling

[6]After the woodcutter finishes his second story, the priest bemoans the fact that human lies and selfishness create hell on earth, and they are living through it.

The ruined Rashomon gate is not just a place where people take refuge from the rain. It is also a spot where unclaimed corpses and unwanted babies are abandoned. After the priest finishes his lament, they hear the cries of a baby.

The woodcutter and the priest are horrified to find the cynic stealing the baby’s clothes and an amulet left for its protection. The cynic defends himself by claiming that if he did not do it, someone else would. The woodcutter accuses him of being evil and selfish. The cynic deflects that by claiming that the parents of the foundling are evil and selfish for abandoning it.

The woodcutter disagrees. The amulet was left for the baby’s protection. It must have been hard for the parents to abandon their child. The cynic mocks the woodcutter’s compassion for the parents and leaves. The woodcutter then tells the priest that he will adopt the baby. He has six children already. One more won’t matter. The priest then tells the woodcutter that he has restored his faith in humanity. The rain stops, sun breaks through the clouds, and the woodcutter departs with the foundling. The End.

How has the great Rashomon gate of Kyoto become a ruin where rotting corpses and unwanted babies are abandoned? How did life on earth become hell?

Rashomon‘s answer is: because of Japanese honor culture, because of the selfish desire to save face, to construct and propagate an image of oneself, which requires lies, manipulation, and the domination of others. How does one get beyond selfishness, lies, and violence to heal the world? The woodcutter shows us the way: through compassion. I read Rashomon as a critique of Japanese honor culture, including the code of the samurai, from the point of view of a Buddhist ethics of compassion.

The woodcutter’s compassion even explains why he omitted so much when testifying in court. Granted, he had selfish reasons not to mention the theft of the dagger. But then again, he had six children to feed. However, he did not omit the story of the murder to hide his own shame, but because he felt compassion for the shame of the bandit, the samurai, and his wife. It was painful for him to watch. It is painful for us to watch. We want to look away, and we can understand why the woodcutter did not want to compound their shame by revealing it to the world.

If Rashomon is a deeply realist work, presupposing that both facts and morality are objective and knowable, why has it become the favorite film of relativists? Why has such a superficial reading  become the dominant one? What sort of bovine mind could view four completely contradictory accounts of what the rest of us naively call “the same events” and conclude that there’s nothing more to the film than that? How can one watch Rashomon all the way to the end and never advance beyond the opening words, “I can’t understand it. I can’t understand it at all”? What sort of mind would wish to repeat and recommend such an experience? And what do such viewers make of the ending of the film, which I interpret as a repudiation of everything that the relativists praise?

I believe that the relativist reading of Rashomon is popular because we today are living in the same kind of world depicted by the film: a Dark Age of selfishness and lies. Relativism is just a philosophical rationalization of the egocentrism and dishonesty that turned the world of Rashomon into a hell. Which means that today we face the same problem explored in the film itself: how can we awaken the forces of compassion and solidarity, forces that can free us from the deep solitude of spirit to which this Dark Age confines us, allowing us to redeem this hellish fallen world and make it a place we can all call home?