Quest for the Classics: Rashomon

by Tom Ingram

Foreign movies are something I’ve never tried before. Nearly every movie I’ve ever seen has been from Hollywood (which is a little foreign, but not much). Watching a movie made entirely in another language really brought me out of my comfort zone. Akira Kurosawa’s films have been hugely influential on western fiction. His samurai movies are famous in their own right, and inspired many classic westerns. However, it’s the highly-influential Rashomon that we’re going to take a look at today, a classic tale of a crime committed in feudal Japan.

The movie opens with a man running to take shelter from a rainstorm under the ruins of Rashomon, an ancient gate. There he meets a monk and a woodcutter, who appear to be in shock. They say that they’ve heard a terrible story that has killed their faith in humanity. As the unnamed man tears some old wood off the gate to make a fire, he asks to hear it.

The only things that are known for sure is that a samurai has died, there was a sexual encounter between his wife and a well-known bandit, and that the bandit stole the samurai’s stuff while the wife disappeared. The woodcutter discovered the body and the monk was the last one to see the samurai alive before the sequence of events that led to his death. The bandit, the woman, and the samurai (speaking through a medium) all tell their own versions of the story, with mutually contradictory details (though they agree on certain things).

The bandit claims that the sex was consensual, and that he killed the samurai in a fair duel afterwards. The woman claims that she was raped, and the bandit ran off when the deed was done. When she went to see her husband, he looked at her with contempt. She demanded that he kill her with her dagger, but he refused. She fainted while holding the dagger, and accidentally killed her husband. The samurai claims that his wife was not only willing, but eager to have sex with the bandit, and afterwards she asked the bandit to kill him for her. The bandit was disgusted by this. After they were both gone, the samurai killed himself.

The woodcutter says that all the stories are full of lies, and it’s easy to see why. Each person’s version casts themselves in a positive light, for their varying definitions of positive. Apart from intentional lying, there is certainly at least some misremembering at play here. Our worldview colours the way we interpret events that happen before our very eyes. Combine that with faulty memory exaggerating the insignificant and inventing details that never existed at all, and the tales become fairly screwed up before anyone even begins to lie.

On top of that, the entire thing is told as a flashback by the priest and the woodcutter. How well do they remember the stories they were told? How much is exaggerated by them? What value judgments have influenced which details they considered important? Throw the medium into the mix, too. Can she actually talk to the dead, or is she just making it up? Is she misrepresenting what the samurai tells her, for her own reasons?

Why is this important? Well, for starters, something really did happen in the grove. If you were to dig deep enough, you could probably find a plausible sequence of events that explains all the stories. You can’t just throw up your hands and give up, saying, “it’s all relative anyway. Reality is an illusion”. But there’s also people like Terry Goodkind and probably Ayn Rand who would dismiss any doubt of our minds’ reliability as “mysticism”. The point of view we get in Rashomon is much more reasonable, in essence saying, “the truth is out there, but you’ll actually have to work to find it”.

In the end, the woodcutter reveals that he witnessed the entire thing, and tells his version of the story, but after what we’ve already seen it’s impossible to trust his word. His story shows elements from the other stories, only everyone is shown in a negative light. The storytelling is interrupted when the three men hear the crying of a baby. They find that a child has been abandoned at the Rashomon gate. The unnamed man steals the kimono that the baby was wrapped in. He says that mankind is motivated only by selfishness, and in this cruel world you have to be vicious to survive. As evidence, he points out that one loose end remained in all four versions of the story: the wife’s valuable dagger was never found. He accuses the woodcutter of stealing it, and the woodcutter admits it. The unnamed man walks off into the storm while the monk comforts the baby.

But a more optimistic view of the world prevails, restoring the monk’s faith in humanity. The woodcutter selflessly offers to take the baby in and raise him as his own.

The movie is made in a very minimalist style, with intense action punctuated by long subdued periods. There are really only three locations–the woods, the courthouse garden, and the gatehouse. All three are stark. Rashomon is not a movie that jumps around to a lot of different locations, and it serves the narrative well. The score is at times excellent and at times obtrusive. The part where the woodcutter walked through the forest with almost vaudevillian musical accompaniment was much longer than it needed to be, but there are other moments throughout the film where it really shines. It also prominently features the clarinet at a few points, which is a good way to get me on side.

In the end, Rashomon is a tightly-made, thought-provoking cinematic experience. I enjoyed it the whole way through. But if we’re to learn anything from this movie it’s that you can’t take my word for it. Go watch Rashomon and see for yourself.

Quotes: Not many. Rashomon is many things, but quotable isn’t one of them. There’s not very much dialogue at all in this film. However, a good one that jumped out at me is: “It’s human to lie. Most of the time we can’t be honest with ourselves.”

Moments to watch for: Notice the little things. In Tajomaru’s story, he keeps swatting bugs and scratching himself. It makes sense that he would remember that discomfort, as he felt it himself. He doesn’t do that in anyone else’s version, because they probably wouldn’t remember such a small detail. I’m sure there are other things like that that I didn’t catch on to.

Next time on Quest for the Classics, Strangers on a Train.