“What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” – James 4:14
It was fortunate and unexpectedly timely that I chose to watch Rashomon for the first time just days after re-watching Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal with a couple of friends. I have wanted to see more of Akira Kurosawa’s films for some time, having only seen his most famous film, Seven Samurai. Both Kurosawa and Bergman’s legendary filmographies weigh heavily on philosophy and having seen these two films back to back, I really heard their individual cries for answers, knowledge, and peace. In both films, we do not get final conclusions on where their search for answers brought them. It is much like the wailing of Solomon in Ecclesiastes, painfully longing, yet clinging to hope.
Based on In a Grove, the 1922 short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Rashomon is essentially a story of stories in which a terrible crime is recalled from different points of view. The film begins with a Priest, a Woodcutter, and a Commoner taking shelter from the downpour of rain and sharing what they had learned at the trial of a crime involving a married couple and a bandit. The husband is dead, the wife has been raped, but how it all happened isn’t as clear as it initially seems.
“I don’t care if it is a lie, as long as it’s entertaining.” – the Commoner, Rashomon
One of the many interesting things about Rashomon is that it is one of the first films to have unreliable flashbacks used in the telling. Others that come to mind are The Usual Suspects and Shutter Island. During the trial scenes, we never actually see an interrogator. I believe it is a purposeful move on part of Kurosawa to make the audience the interrogator. He wants us to feel just as questioning and lost as we sift through the stories and interpretations of what happened.
Kurosawa adds to the confusion with his camera techniques and choices. There really is no sense of place, other than the Rashomon gate where the Priest, Woodcutter, and Commoner are discussing the event. We don’t really know where the crime takes place, just some random woods somewhere. There isn’t a solid starting point, an ending point, or even a real road. The impressionistic use of leaves, trees, and the shadows they cast make the event feel more chaotic and claustrophobic. The camera moves and follows characters a lot, which also adds to the disorientation of the audience. Even though these techniques are more for artistry, they truly add to the weight and interpretation of each story.
The rape and treatment of the wife will no doubt make today’s audiences feel triggered and sensitive. I argue that we cannot view or discuss the rape on a surface level. If we dig deeper, we’ll find that Kurosawa is actually providing commentary on his society’s treatment of women and the guise of the macho samurai. I have been told by other reviewers that Kurosawa actually pokes fun at false machismo across the board in his films.
In the final version of the trial story, the Wife calls the men out for their weakness. I love her line, “A woman loves passionately, but a man has to make a woman his by the sword.” This is a bold statement for the culture of the world in 1949, when there was only a recent awakening to this very cave-man idea of marriage meaning ownership, instead of real love and equal partnership. Not to mention the obvious cultural issue of shaming the rape victim, which we still, unfortunately, see today in countries where fathers, brothers, and husbands can throw acid on women’s faces or kill them simply because they’ve been raped and are now “damaged goods”.
On that note, I thought it was interesting that the Bandit, who did the raping, actually felt bad for the woman when her husband shamed her. Even went as far as to say “don’t bully her.” It kind of raises a philosophical query. Both the husband and the bandit behave despicably here, but could the one who does the shaming and rejecting be just as vile—if not even more so in some cases—than the one who actually did the raping?
The final third of the film is the most compelling portion, in which the Woodcutter reveals what he saw as the objective viewer. In this version, the Wife is more fierce and outspoken, delivering her best lines that I mentioned. Additionally, the battle between the Husband and the Bandit is shown in its true light. It’s sloppy and driven by fear of death and the will to survive. It’s reality. The performances from all three actors are exceptional here. Throughout most of the film, the acting sways between the classic Japanese use of silence in art, and the exaggerated performance of Kabuki theater. The final act is definitely more organic and authentic, and I think the choices to use these different methods throughout were all intentional from the filmmaker.
As the Woodcutter wraps up his story to the Priest and the Commoner, there is a sense of despair. The humanist Priest feels overwhelmed by disappointment in his fellow man. All three people in the story prove to be ultimately immoral. The Commoner laughs at the Priest for ever believing such goodness was the norm. In the midst of this, a baby cries, and the three men find the abandoned child in the ruins they are currently sheltering in.
The commoner takes the only valuable the baby has, the priest comforts the baby, and the Woodcutter accuses the Commoner of petty thievery. As he does, the Commoner reveals that the Woodcutter has done similar actions himself. This whole exchange causes further distress to the Priest trying to quiet the child as the other two quarrel over who is the more terrible person. The Commoner departs, and the Woodcutter reaches out to the Priest for the baby. The Priest accuses him of trying to take the last thing the child owns, but the Woodcutter replies tearfully, “I have six children at home, one more won’t matter.”
The Priest is humbled in his judgment and hands the baby over to the Woodcutter, who instantly calms the child. He walks away from the Rashomon gate smiling.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this film until that moment. I think each audience member will relate to one of the three men regaling the tale. We each react in a way that is firmly rooted in our worldview. My takeaway from Rashomon is precisely my takeaway from life. Humanism cannot be successful permanently because mankind is flawed to the core. However, within that flawed nature, there is always love. There is always grace. We see the worst of humanity in the story of the man’s murder, but there is also pity and sorrow in the brokenness of each of the characters that come through in the final act. The Woodcutter has stolen from people, he is imperfect, yet willing without question to open his home to the orphaned child. Grace.
This principal theme in Rashomon brings to mind Vision’s wonderful quote in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and it is what I will leave you with today…
“Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites, and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings.”