7 November 2004 - Sunday

Demons flee in fear of man

"I don't understand my own soul."

The film Rashōmon, written and directed by Kurosawa Akira (Japan, 1950), is well known as a representation of differences in perspective. The word "Rashomon" is synonymous in popular thought with subjectivity; this film supposedly illustrates the tendency of witnesses to disagree.

The movie is based on two short stories by Akutagawa Ryunosuke. The first, of the same title, tells the tale of a starving man who robs a starving woman in the Rashō Gate of Kyoto. The film adapts this scene to introduce and close the content of a different story, "In a Grove," which is the story American audiences know as that of Rashōmon. In Akutagawa's story, several witnesses describe the murder of one samurai. The bandit Tajomaru confesses to the murder, claiming it was incited by the victim's wife. The wife, in turn, claims she killed her husband (at his request) because he loathed her after her rape. The murdered man, however, announces through a medium that his wife asked Tajomaru to kill him, and that instead he had killed himself in shame.

Kurosawa follows these accounts closely, but adds material to the story of the woodcutter who found the samurai's body. In the film, this woodcutter (telling his story later at the Rashōmon) admits that his testimony in court was a lie; he was a witness to the murder itself, and is disgusted by the cowardice of all involved.

This is where I disagree with the popular interpretation of the film. Although Akutagawa's intentions in the short story are more difficult to fathom, Kurosawa's rendition is not a statement about subjectivity. It seems to be, rather, a statement about human depravity.

The woodcutter claims to be disgusted by the lies he heard in court. Everyone, he declares, is a liar not only to others but to himself. "Everyone is selfish and dishonest, making excuses," he says. The truth is obscured by the vices and insecurities of each witness, so that "in the end, you cannot understand the things men do."

The bandit's story seems to be tainted by his pride. The wife's account may be a result of feeling unloved, while her murdered husband tells a story rooted in vengefulness. The woodcutter, finally, describes a scene in which are all involved are embarrassing cowards -- including the woodcutter himself, who lied in court because he "didn't want to get involved." Because of this he is embittered and ashamed.

There is a twist on this last account, which I will not reveal. The surprise does not compromise the woodcutter's evaluation of truth, however; it reinforces the sense that courage is necessary if men are to be truthful, whether to each other or to themselves.

No one in the story of Rashōmon is innocent. One observer, listening to the woodcutter's bitter conclusions, uses the moral muddle (and the woodcutter's complicity in it) as a vindication of his own nihilism. The woodcutter does not. In the end, he decides to assert the truth in an act of courage and goodness.

It is pointless to try to solve the mystery of Rashōmon. The question of what actually happened to the samurai and his wife in the woods is irrelevant to the meaning of the film. I do not believe that Kurosawa intends us to understand that truth is not important; I believe he intends us to understand that truth is beyond our sinful nature. The solution to the mystery is unattainable; our responsibility in the face of general moral decay is not.

I suspect (although I have no external evidence for the belief) that it is significant that this film was produced within a few years of the end of the Second World War. The question of war guilt would not have been far from the mind of the audience. It seems reasonable to think that the message I have described -- that truth and faith may be found through moral courage, even in the face of one's own guilt -- would have comforted a disillusioned nation.

In any case, the film is marvelous to watch. The cinematography is beautiful, the acting is captivating, and the pacing (while imperfect, or so my friends think) merits another florid adjective just to make you understand how much I liked the movie.

| Posted by Wilson at 13:34 Central | TrackBack
| Report submitted to the Humanities Desk

Fantastic. That's as good, and as original, a perspective on the film as I've ever read.

I do think you're on to something with Kurosawa's post-war connection. The shadow of WWII falls over several of his films, most explicitly in Akira Kurosawa's Dreams.

The thoughts of Jared on 7 November 2004 - 22:21 Central
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