The Unseen Spectator: Cinematic Truth (and Lies) in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon
Cinema is not an art, not a technique. It is a mystery.
Histoire(s) du cinéma
It is very hard to think of Japanese cinema without first thinking of Kurosawa. Following that, it is virtually impossible to not first consider Rashomon among his legacy of films. Possibly Kurosawa’s most critically acclaimed picture, Rashomon’s texture is as enticing as it is abrasive: devious play of light and shadow, lust and barbarity mixed with murder and betrayal. All this mayhem wound around three perplexed men who sit under the dilapidated ruins of a massive gate wondering what on earth it all means. The film’s visuals are gorgeous and dense, making entire scenes appear as still life photos. Yet somehow the plot remains unnerving and elusive. Like the three men just trying to get out of the rain, the audience is confronted with the confounding inability to make sense of the whole sordid mess. As popular American cartoon characters Marge and Homer Simpson once quipped, “Marge: Come on, Homer. Japan will be fun! You liked Rashomon. Homer: That’s not how I remember it![i]”
This very principle, often called the Rashomon effect, rings true even with those unfamiliar with the film. Later American movies such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Anatomy of a Murder and 12 Angry Men would expose the capricious nature of justice but none would question the idea of truth with the same uncompromising depth as Rashomon. Its uniqueness dealt with the core of human doubt not just by questioning man’s frailty but also by illustrating the monstrous nature of the truth itself. Kurosawa’s most daring move was showing that reality becomes a ticklish business when no one seems reliable, not even the camera.
Rashomon in the Post-War World
The film’s release brought critical appraise to Kurosawa’s name winning him a coveted golden lion at the Venice Film Festival. More significant perhaps was the fact that the success of Rashomon garnered international recognition of the Japanese film industry. In Hollywood, the film received exceptional attention, partially because it seemed to validate the new Japan, still under American occupation.
For them (Americans) Rashomon is a Japanese postwar film, thus its excellence must be due to the supervision and assistance supplied by the American occupiers. Nearly all the American reviews stressed the strong Hollywood influence in the postwar period and that the Japanese public has been spoiled by the polish of American movies which their native pictures cannot easily approach.(Harrington)
Despite the fact that Rashomon won the Oscar for best foreign film, there was an urgent need to explain how Japan had “suddenly” become relevant in the world of cinema. In truth, this suddenness was entirely untrue as Japan already had developed a significant film industry many years prior to the war but comparatively few Japanese films had been screened overseas. Japanese culture was typically seen as archaic and provincial making it all the more unaccountable that Japan, the decided loser in the war, would create a film that rivaled the best Hollywood had to offer. It was assumed by default that the success must have been due to the guidance of western democracy. This wayward critical response revealed an interesting aspect of the film, one often overshadowed by its visual complexity: alienation and distrust in a war-torn country. In seeking an explanation for Rashomon’s creative brilliance, most American reviews had unknowingly touched on an unpleasant truth of the lives of the Japanese people. This had, albeit inadvertently, shown America’s role as the unseen judge in the wake of post-war Japan. To quote fictional sleuth Hercule Poirot, “Now you have accidentally said something valuable![ii]”
Evidence of this can be seen in the all of the courtyard scenes wherein the witnesses face the camera. The faces of the members of the court are never shown and their questions go unheard by the audience. The silent gaze of the judge and jury peer down upon the witnesses as the accounts unfold without any clear indication of the magistrate’s ruminations on the case. Even at the end of the film the verdict is left uncertain, just as much as Japan’s own future was unforeseeable after the collapse of the empire. It is crucial to note that when Rashomon was released open discussion of the old regime and, in particular, the atomic bomb was strictly censored.
Interestingly, this privation of discourse forced the film to take a necessarily figurative approach. Although Kurosawa would later go on to approach the subject directly in the spellbinding tale of paranoiac industrialist Kiichi Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune) in the 1955 film I Live in Fear, the absence of direct confrontation speaks to the mentality of postwar Japan. More than looking at the immediate consequences of the war and the catastrophic losses of the bomb, Rashomon questioned the temerity of the human soul and whether or not any good could come from man. Although rarely looked at as a traditional jidaigeki (period drama) the film’s setting, situated at the end of the Heian period, was by no means coincidental. The ruination of the Heian period is remarkably similar to the disastrous aftermath of the post-war era. In both scenarios Japan had experienced a culmination of advancements, both culturally and scientifically, followed by an eruption of war and violence.
Even before I Live in Fear, one could make the case that Kurosawa dealt with the bomb, or at least its legacy, in allegorical form. Consider Rashomon, with its vision of a ruined gate at which sit three perplexed men. Physical ruin and metaphysical doubt, the major pictorial and thematic characteristics of the film, made Rashomon a timely allegory of Japan’s ignominious defeat and a universal philosophical examination of the new world order wrought by the bomb.(Dresser)
Fittingly enough, if any people were more surprised than then Americans by the film’s success it was most certainly the Japanese themselves. The unprecedented fact of the film’s international commendation illustrated all too well that Japan was in the midst of turbulent and rapid change. Ironically, it wasn’t the purported “western,” qualities that caused many Japanese critics to dismiss the success of the film. Rather, many asserted that the western affinity for stereotypical Japanese period pieces, complete with swords and samurai, must have been the only logical reason for the film’s international appeal. Kurosawa himself bemoaned the recalcitrant disapproval from his fellow countrymen.
Japanese critics insisted that these two prizes (the golden lion and academy award) were simply reflections of Westerners’ curiosity and taste for Oriental exoticism, which struck me then, and now, as terrible. Why is it that Japanese people have no confidence in the worth of Japan? Why do they elevate everything foreign and denigrate everything Japanese? Even the woodblock prints of Utamaro, Hokusai and Sharaku were not appreciated by Japanese until they were first discovered by the West. I don’t know how to explain this lack of discernment. I can only despair of the character of my own people.(Kurosawa)
Amusingly enough, Daiei Studios president Masaichi Nagata had expressed grave concern over the film during its production, worried that its antiquated backdrop would put off westerners and tarnish the image of a bold new Japan. However, even above the apprehension over the film’s setting was the unconventional and perplexing script. Regardless of the production team’s familiarity with the original material, an adaptation of two Ryunosuke Akutagawa short stories, the vexing plot was the source of much contention even as shooting began. In his autobiography, Kurosawa recalls the discrepancy vividly:
One day just before the shooting was to start, the three assistant directors Daiei had assigned me came to see me at the inn where I was staying. I wondered what the problem could be. It turned out that they found the script baffling and wanted me to explain it to them. “Please read it again more carefully,” I told them. “If you read it diligently, you should be able to understand it because it was written with the intention of being comprehensible.(Kurosawa)
Considering the sizable challenges of creating a period piece in a country that was just emerging out of its ravaged wartime state, it is an impressive feat that Rashomon was ever filmed in the first place. However, it was precisely the scandalous nature of the story that would reverberate throughout the international world of cinema, like a belated aftershock of the atomic bomb that had devastated Japan only five years earlier. At the time of its release it was apparent that both the U.S. and Japan had not fully understood the philosophical and psychological chasm that was created from World War II. The spectacle and intensity of Rashomon would bring about a sobering reminder of the world that was left to the survivors. Whether victorious or conquered, mankind had just experienced the bloodiest and most costly conflict in its history. The question remained whether or not humanity was an entity worth having faith in any longer. As the Commoner from Kurosawa’s tale said, “In the end you cannot understand the things men do.”
Perhaps the most curious quality of the film is the fact that, even after multiple viewings, the testimonies of the central figures are equally irreconcilable. Despite conflicting one another, no one testimony benefits one party while condemning their accusers. The experience of each character is so starkly different that it becomes apparent to the audience that they value the “truth” of their own accounts at the expense of their innocence. Dismissing the deceased Husband’s testimony, for those disinclined to listen to mediums, there appears to be nothing to gain from taking one piece of testimony over the other.
The Husband’s story speaks in condemnation of his wife’s actions. He openly decries her for succumbing to Tajomaru’s advances. Along with his pitiless accusations, he even pardons the rape of his wife after Tajomaru leaves the final decision of her fate up to him. Misogynistic attitudes aside, what could the deceased Husband possibly gain by excusing the rape of his wife and committing suicide? Of course, the film implies that mankind’s selfishness extends beyond death even when no material satisfaction can be acquired, but for the audience, and the magistrate for that matter, the testimony seems utterly incomprehensible. In terms of rationale, the Woman’s tale does not fair much better. While she does not actually confess to murdering her husband she implicates herself as the responsible party by having a suspicious lapse in memory by taking up her dagger, the alleged murder weapon, after Tajomaru flees. She too, does not stand to benefit in any capacity by lying about “suddenly awaking to find the dagger buried in her husband’s chest.” So, why should she fabricate such a bizarre tale? Tajomaru’s testimony is easily the most perplexing. He has no qualm about admitting to the murder of the Husband, even though the husband’s story directly contradicts this assertion. In fact his only real concern seems to be defending his reaction to the Woman after sexually assaulting her. Curiously, he denies neither the acts of murder nor rape and only seems uncertain when it comes to the dagger. In fact, the one coherent, unifying piece of testimony among the three is the uncertainty of what happened to the dagger after the murder. Only the Woodcutter’s final version suggests what happened and this arises after he condemns the Commoner for stealing from a hapless infant. Ignoring the dénouement, attempting to piece together a sensible report of the crime is ultimately an exercise in futility. Appropriately enough, this is exactly the effect that Kurosawa sought to establish:
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. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem.(Kurosawa)
Even if none of the characters’ testimonies are reliable, which the end of the film seems to suggest, their own self-delusion prevents them from retracting their accounts. Furthermore, the resolution of the film doesn’t answer the whodunit and leaves the audience uttering the same opening line as the Woodcutter, “I don’t understand it at all.” Author and NYU Professor of East Asian Studies, Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, further explains this idea:
The film does not include any clearly marked details that enable us to determine the truth value of their stories. This kind of criticism misses the point of the film’s narration, since what is foregrounded in Rashomon is not the question of the characters’ reliability as narrators but the question of the reliability of narration in image…by not constructing any complex logical scheme underlying the testimonies of the defendants and witnesses, Kurosawa foregrounds the fundamental affirmativeness of narration in film image.(Yoshimoto)
Again, Kurosawa’s message becomes lucid only by recognizing the incomprehensibility of ascertaining the truth. By not showing “what really happened,” Kurosawa clearly exposes the ambivalent nature of humanity. The characters are thrown into the disorienting light and shadow of the forest and caught up amongst the hellish reality of their own self-delusion, desires, and lies. In turn, the audience is caught up in the confusion and chaos of their stories, totally unable to decipher the truth behind it all.
What does it all mean?
If Rashomon‘s message focuses on the inability to reconcile the actions of people in the midst of struggle and scandal, then what is the audience left with as a response? Is the presentation of this fascinating, but nonetheless, disturbing story meant to confound the viewer or communicate some greater truth? The difficulty in claiming what is true always becomes more complex when it is impossible to ascertain what is false. Just as the silence of the magistrate is an obvious metaphor for the American censorship during the occupation, so the grove is a greater metaphor for the world: a dense maze fraught with contrasting shades of light and dark, confusion and clarity.
Instead of looking at the forest in the Shakespearean context of the so-called “green world” wherein fantastical things occur, one should recognize it as a brutal depiction of reality. In turn, it is the court and its consistent visual clarity, always shot in medium-wide symmetrical balance, that is the fantasy world, the lie. It is this very establishment of social order and moral justice that serves only as a stage from which the characters lie. Again, the Commoner mentions this obvious fact when the Woodcutter protests the veracity of his final story, “No one lies after he says he’s going to do so.”
However, the film is not simply an exercise in cinematic misanthropy. Indeed the radical claim of the narrative is the fact that our sense of “what is real” is ultimately determined by our own recollections, experiences, and reason-none of which is absolutely unquestionable. Much like the biblical account of Job, the inability to find coherence or meaning behind the heinous actions of men is the truth of the matter. In attempting to claim otherwise, we only produce greater falsehoods. This, claims the character of the Priest, is no excuse to capitulate to barbarism; rather it is all the more reason to hope. Are we, the audience, not placed in the same condition as those three figures getting out of the rain, unable to give a reason for such a horrible crime? The first human reaction and most honest interpretation when faced with brutal confrontation with the truth is disbelief. If the truth is monstrous, better to not believe it and concoct a more approachable falsehood.
By saying ‘I can’t understand it’ we are captured by the film’s rhetorical effect, putting ourselves in the position of the woodcutter and the priest, the surrogates for the audience. Precisely by performing the role of the bewildered spectators, we correctly respond to the film without realizing it.(Yoshimoto)
Thus, it is the figure of the Woodcutter who, while acquiescing to his own failures and deceit, agrees to face the uncertainty of the world and take on the unnecessary burden of the child. The movie’s resolution is a particularly sore spot for many critics who deride it for its shameless Disney-esque “happily ever after,” tone that seems so incongruous with the overall bleakness of the story. But, this critique blatantly misses the overall point: what should cause the audience to think that, after everything they have seen, the child will grow up to be anything different than the bandit Tajomaru, the doubting Priest, or the misanthropic Commoner?
The Woodcutter surely holds no such delusions concerning the “sinless” nature of the abandoned child. Rather he asserts that it was the parents who made the sacrifice by placing the amulet next to the child. This, admittedly irrational and desperate act, places trust in strangers, in some unknown other. In spite of the hopelessness of the world, the parents trust that someone would recognize that the amulet was left to protect the child from the harsh realities of the world. The Woodcutter believes this, despite all evidence that the parents had committed the reprehensible act of forsaking their own child. Instead of stating this obvious fact, he boldly asserts that even though the parents failed to care for their infant they still held the hope that someone else would not be so feeble. It is this action that causes the doubting Priest to state, “Thanks to you, I think I can keep my faith in man.”
In a time when Japan was most uncertain about its future and in dire need of philosophical direction, the most honest assessment was to resist any facile attempt to rationalize or justify the ruinous state of the world. Rather than attempting to paint the horrors of war in a romantic vignette of national solidarity or assimilate western cultural values, Rashomon gives a much more powerful answer. We must recognize the futility of such endeavors and move on in spite of the emptiness of man and the meaninglessness of human suffering.
Dresser, David M. “Japan: An Ambivalent Nation, an Ambivalent Cinema.” Swords and Ploughshares IX (1995): 16-17.
Harrington, Curtis. “Rashomon and the Japanese Cinema.” Akira Kurosawa, Donald Richie. Rutgers Films in Print: Rashomon. Ed. Ryusunosuke Akutagawa Donald Richie. Trans. Rysunosuke Akutagawa. Illustrated, re-print. Vol. VI. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987. 141-142.
Kurosawa, Akira. Something like an autobiography . Trans. Audie E. Bock. 1st Edition. New York: Vintage Books, 1983. 130-139.
Murder on the Orient Express. By Agatha Christie Paul Dehn. Dir. Sidney Lumet. Perf. Albert Finney. Prod. Richard B. Goodwin John Brabourne. Paramount Pictures, 1974.
Yoshimoto, Mitsushiro. Kurosawa: film studies and Japanese cinema. Ed. Harry Hraootunian, Masao Miyoshi Rey Chow. 1st Edition. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000. 185-189.
[i] Taken from the episode “Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo” from the show’s tenth season
[ii] From the 1974 film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express