not in our stars, but in ourselves
25/52: A film by an Asian director
Akira Kurosawa’s idea for Rashomon was a simple one: what is truth? If you ask two different people about a car crash they witnessed, you’ll hear two different stories. The more emotionally grueling the event they witnessed, the more heavily involved they were, the more likely their stories will differ. He summarized his aims:
Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings–the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood going beyond the grave—even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem. This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego. You say that you can’t understand this script at all, but that is because the human heart itself is impossible to understand. If you focus on the impossibility of truly understanding human psychology and read the script one more time, I think you will grasp the point of it.
Rashomon is about four conflicting accounts of a rape and a murder. Two men, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki), have just attended a trial during which they heard three of the four stories. They’re waiting out a rainstorm under the crumbling shelter provided by Rashōmon, an old gate. While they shake their head at the wildly differing tales they’ve just heard, a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) runs to join them and get out of the steaming rain. They recount what happened at the trial. The woodcutter says that he found a woman’s hat abandoned in the mountains, and then stumbled across the dead body of a samurai (Masayuki Mori). The perpetrator, a notorious bandit named Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune), claims responsibility for the murder. He didn’t want to have to kill the samurai, he claims, but he did want to “have” the samurai’s wife (Machiko Kyō). He ties up the samurai, rapes his wife, and frees the samurai so that he can fight for her honor. After a heroic battle, the bandit slays the samurai, and the wife runs away. The wife, for her part, says that the bandit abandoned her after he raped her. When she sought forgiveness from her husband, he glared at her with contempt. She begged him to kill her, fainted, came to, and found him with a dagger in his heart. Through a medium (Noriko Honma), the samurai tells his story: after the bandit seduces his wife, he asks her to go with him. She agrees, and asks him to kill the samurai. That’s too much even for the bandit, who asks the samurai if he should kill the wife or let her live. The wife runs away, and the bandit can’t find her. He releases the samurai, who stabs himself with the dagger. Now, he says through the medium, he’s trapped in a black and empty hell. Back at the gate, the commoner realizes that the woodcutter knows much more than he’d let on initially. The woodcutter confesses that he saw everything: after the rape, the bandit begged the samurai’s wife to marry him. She frees her husband, who spurns her as a ruined woman, and tells her to kill herself now that she’s “known” two men. She laughs at the bandit and the samurai, saying neither of them is a real man, or else they’d fight for her. They do, nervously and badly, and it’s only through dumb luck that the bandit kills the samurai.
It seems likely that the woodcutter’s version is the closest to the “truth” – but Kurosawa didn’t think it mattered much which version was right. It’s not a whodunit. It’s an agile, engaging, astute exercise in human psychology. Humans can justify anything to themselves. They can twist reality in such a way that it justifies murder, robbery, adultery, cruelty, rape – you name it. The bandit doesn’t want to admit to himself, much less to anyone else, that he’s just some lowlife rapist; so he imagines himself to be a master seducer and swordsman. The wife doesn’t want to admit to herself that her husband told her straight out that she’d be better off killing herself than reuniting with him, nor does she want to admit to herself that she browbeat him into a death match with her own rapist. The samurai (assuming it really is the samurai speaking, and not just an inventive medium) doesn’t want to admit to himself that a sloppy hoodlum raped his wife, that his wife insulted his manhood after she’d just sampled someone else’s, and that he’d died begging for his life. We’re all the heroes of our own stories, and it takes hard work to undo the natural inclination to think anything you do is justified/justifiable just because you do it. You see the world out there, don’t you? It’s full of people doing unconscionable things. Is the world full of psychopaths? No, it’s full of people looking out for number one.
I don’t know enough about postwar Japan to comment on this in depth, but I understand that there are those who see, in Rashomon‘s completely contrary accounts of the same event, a sort of allegory for World War II. Just as World War I brought about a seismic change in Western thought and moral certitude (i.e., it completely destroyed it), World War II could very well have brought the same brute force crashing down on Japan’s very psyche. What was real anymore? How had they gotten themselves into this gruesome war? How had they deserved the horror of two atomic bombs? Weren’t they the good guys? Stephen Prince writes in his essay for the Criterion Collection:
Style for Kurosawa is not an empty flourish. The bravura designs of his films are always carefully motivated—this is why he is a great filmmaker. As in all of his outstanding films, in Rashomon Kurosawa is responding to his world as an artist and moralist. The Second World War had devastated Japan. In its aftermath, he embarked—with moral urgency and great artistic ambition—on a series of films (No Regrets for Our Youth, 1946; Drunken Angel, 1948; Stray Dog, 1949) that illuminated the despair and confusion of the period and offered narratives of personal heroism as models for social recovery, seeking, in his art, to produce a legacy of hope for a ruined nation.
The heroism and desire for restoration that these stories embodied, however, had to struggle with a dark opposite. What if the world could not be changed because people themselves are weak and easily corrupted? Kurosawa’s films have a tragic dimension that is rooted in his at times pessimistic reflections on human nature, and Rashomon was the first work in which he allowed that pessimism its full expression. Haunted by the human propensity to lie and deceive, Kurosawa fashioned a tale in which the ego, duplicity, and vanity of the characters make a hell out of the world and make truth a difficult thing to find.
It certainly is. Again, I am very much a novice when it comes to Japanese cinema, so I can’t say much about whether Rashomon was a game-changer upon release, or if it was a slower process, but I remembered some of the beginning lines of Hiroshima Mon Amour – released a decade later by Alain Resnais, and dealing with the similarly treacherous task of remembering a dead love affair: “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.” “I saw everything in Hiroshima. Everything.” That’s about the impossibility of knowing anything for sure, too, especially in Hiroshima, especially after the war, especially after everything that seemed certain has been vaporized and set on fire. At a certain point, maybe you have to lie to yourself, just to keep going.