Thoughts on Rashomon (1950)

mainIn an era of manufacturing boring narratives, Rashomon is refreshingly unique and timeless. Akira Kurosawa is a genius story teller who talks about the nuances of a patriarchal society no different from many parts of the world even nearly 70 years later. Rashomon is also ode to the fact that actions speak louder than words and although we know that Kurosawa loves speaking through action (be it through movement of the actors, the background or the camera) this movie also carefully chooses what it speaks. With Rashomon, the great Japanese teaser does not bring a movie but a case. A case which the woodcutter finds incomprehensible, the priest finds horrible and the devil finds entertaining.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Rashomon is infact a very simple story at the outset that is presented in a very complex manner. It leaves us speechless with questions for which the answers seem to lie in the several layers of the narrative.

So what is Rashomon about? Although many believe Rashomon is about the perspectives of 3 people involved in the death of a gruesome murder (and it is rightly so), I would like to look at this as a mere age old battle of good vs evil. The woodcutter simply struggles to ‘understand his own soul’. He is in conversation with the priest (the epitome of goodness) and the devil (the character who literally ignites the narration) as part of a quest to eventually unravel the truth.

What does Rashomon tell us precisely and how? It simply tells us as Dr. Gregory House would say ‘Everybody Lies’. It tells us about the struggle people go through to speak truth and why people lie. The best way for Kurosawa to talk about truth in this epic is simply to make his characters lie.

Perhaps the most interesting topic to talk about now would be the ‘why’. Why is every account of the happenings in the jungle a lie? At the same time we could just ask ourselves, Why do we in fact lie? The movie answers the former by showing first the values that each story-teller holds close to themselves. Tajomaru prides himself on how he defeated the samurai and also took his wife, thereby proud of his glory. The woman prides herself on her virtue more than speaking truth and finally the samurai is proud of his honor. When they narrate their versions of the story they seem to always protect what they are proud of most. Again, don’t we all lie for the same reasons? So, how do we know they are protecting themselves? Well if we believe the final account of the woodcutter’s story is the truth then in fact none of them involved could pride themselves on things that they held dearest to them.

Apart from the events that occur in the jungle, the movie is clever in showing us how the accepted ‘rules’ of the patriarchal society also play a major influence in the decision making of the characters leading to more chaos. This eventually leaves us lurking with questions – are the accepted rules of society more important than confronting the truth? What do we seek in social acceptance if we cannot seek truth? Somehow to all of them social acceptance was more important than even telling the truth.

Throughout the movie we see the woodcutter constantly confused because he knows the truth even though he never speaks it until the end. It rubs the good and bad side of him, he partially confesses after every story (emphasizing struggle in his mind) and finally talks about what really happened yet still hiding a few details (still struggles). The lesser he struggles with the truth, it makes it easier for everyone to understand the human nature. However, the devil is not fooled by the incompleteness of his story and further confronts him with the truth. This brings the woodcutter to shame and ultimately regrets his wrongdoings. He seeks retribution (after the devil leaves) by adopting the baby that is abandoned at the gate of Rashomon and is no longer soaked in the dampness of his lies. What better way to tell us truth only triumphs.

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