Another film that was new to me, but that I already knew all about by way of reputation. And I’m sure you have as well, or at least seen one of the gabillion works that it has overtly or subtly influenced over the years – any movie or show you’ve ever seen where you get to see two or more different versions play out for “how an event happened”, that’s Rashomon.
Usually the what of “what happened” is pretty clear, as it is in this film – somewhere in the woods in medieval Japan, a bandit (Toshiro Mifune) ran into a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyō). The bandit ended up raping the woman, and the samurai got killed. A woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) found the body and reported the crime, and the bandit captured soon after. The woman was found a bit later in a fugue state, and brought to testify at the bandit’s trial.
Those are the facts; but each witness has a different story as to how those facts manifested. The bandit says the woman gave in, and that he and the husband had a daring duel for her continued affections. But the woman says it was rape, and that her husband still rejected her; and that she killed him. The judge even calls in a medium to try to contact the ghost of the samurai for his testimony; his story is completely different from the bandit’s and his wife’s, including the identity of the killer. We even get the woodcutter’s perspective; he saw a little more of the incident than he originally let on, but his own account varies from the others’ tales.
Now, that bit I knew – that we’d get to see four different takes on a specific incident, all of which varied from each other. What I didn’t know is that we wouldn’t ever get to see which version was “correct”. In fact, the film muddies things even further with a framing story, with the woodcutter and a monk telling the whole story to a third man, a traveler who runs into them as they wait out a thunderstorm. And towards the end, the traveler figures out a reason to suspect that the woodcutter is fudging the facts on his own story – which casts doubt on all the other stories not only because each teller may have been lying, but also because now we can’t trust the second-hand reporting on their testimonies in the first place.
And ultimately, I learned that that’s what this film is “about”. There is no one right answer or correct version of events; we will never know, because every person telling their perspective is doing so through a skewed filter, one which may be muddied through distraction, or self-interest, or fear. The monk in the framing story frets a few times about how the whole mess has convinced him that mankind is ultimately too flawed, and the world is ultimately too corrupt; it’s bad enough that the woman was raped and the samurai murdered, but with everyone telling half-truths about it, we can’t even agree on why it happened. There is a small moment of goodness that redeems things for the monk towards the end, fortunately; but ultimately, this is more of a philosophical meditation on “what is real” than it is a fact-finding investigation.
In a way, I’ve been set up to like those kinds of questions. My father has always enjoyed playing devil’s advocate in discussions, as a way to explore either the topic of discussion itself, or to examine how other people construct their own arguments. He’s taken this kind of Socratic approach to discussions about the death penalty, taxation, foreign policy questions, religious dogma – I even saw him once draw my entire 20-member extended family into a spirited debate on government food purity standards during one unusually memorable Thanksgiving. Dad’s ultimate point is that different people have different perspectives on the same thing whether because of their backgrounds or just where they happen to be standing, and they are usually just as valid as anyone else’s. Kurosawa’s film has a bit of a bleaker perspective on this paradox, but it’s similar, and it lead my brain down some interesting paths.
There are those who get put off by the acting in this. Director Akira Kurosawa was heavily influenced by silent film, and encouraged his cast to go a little broad; Toshiro Mifune can come across as especially hammy, since throughout the bandit’s tale he frequently stops to cackle evilly. But the four different accounts of the same incident also lead to four different chances for the actors to change up their performances, and that can be an interesting exercise in comparison. Two of the stories feature a “duel” between the bandit and the samurai, and while the bandit’s version features a full-on swashbuckling showy fight, the woodcutter’s version of their duel is a more panicked, inexpert scuffle, with both parties visibly terrified.
Kurosawa is a director I’ve wanted to examine more for a while, so I was looking forward to this as well.