An Appreciation – Rashomon
The horror aspects come to full fruition by the testimony of the dead husband. Told through a medium (Noriko Honma), there is an overtly haunting quality as the husband gives his recount of the crime. The medium twists and turns with awkward physicality, as the husband’s voice comes through of her mouth like a demon reaching out from the abyss. The editing cuts between the flashback and the medium, creating an unnerving, spooky effect. The husband believes that the wife became attracted to the bandit. Her unfaithfulness fills the husband with jealousy and humiliation. He was the one who died – while everyone else lives on he must suffer in the emptiness of death. To him, the wife tried to force the bandit to commit the murder, acting with Lady MacBeth-like cunning. The bandit refused – both he and the wife left the husband alone in the forest. Abandoned and ashamed, the husband confesses that he committed suicide, unable to overcome his feelings of loss and betrayal.
Who’s telling the truth? Who’s lying? It is never made clear – characters might even be lying without realizing it. Even the woodcutter, who reveals that he was there to see the crime take place, maybe misconstruing the story. He describes the sword fight between the bandit and husband as sloppy, with both stumbling over themselves in fear and exhaustion. Everyone is painted as pathetic – the men indecisive and cruel, the wife unhinged and emotionally sporadic. How much of this can we trust? We discover that the woodcutter stole the wife’s dagger for his own benefit and lied during the trial to avoid getting implicated. The actions of all four were for self-preservation – they are all guilty in one way or another. How difficult is it for us to admit our own faults and weaknesses? In his memoir, Kurosawa says of the film’s central theme, “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves.”
The writing and direction insert the viewer as an active character. Each interrogation is shot with the character facing directly into the camera. There is no investigator shown, nor do we see any judge or jury. The characters address questions we don’t hear being asked. Eyelines look slightly off camera or straight into it. We the audience are placed into the position of power, where we take on the role of the interrogator. It is on us to interpret each testimony, to take what is being explained and having to put the pieces together. In this way, Kurosawa shows how easily people can be deceived or corrupted. Our allegiances shift after every piece of new information is brought to light. Every person we see operates with a certain level of ego, and it’s up to us to decide what really happened.
It’s a battle between good and evil, between hope and despair. Throughout, the priest grapples with the darkness he sees and how shattered the world has become. The temple he sits in has nearly collapsed, his clothes are tattered, and the person he is sharing this tale with (the woodcutter) has been exposed as a liar. He senses hopelessness all around him. Rashomon was made soon after WWII and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Much of the film’s tone reflects the social outlook of post war Japan. Although we are exposed to misery and immorality throughout, Kurosawa decides to end on an oddly upbeat note. Things change once the woodcutter, priest, and commoner discover an abandoned baby. The rain stops and the woodcutter takes the baby as one of his own. Observe which direction the woodcutter goes as he walks away from the temple: he walks straight toward the camera. Just like the testimonies, the final shot places the viewer in the position to make a choice, but this time it is plays in the opposite of all that we’ve witnessed. The baby becomes a symbol of reconciliation, recovery, and healing, as if Kurosawa is trying to guide us out of the shadows of war toward a promising future. We are given the responsibility to learn from the mistakes of these characters to live better lives and be more empathetic toward others. The film doesn’t close with a solution – we are left to fill in those empty spaces ourselves.
Is the ending too optimistic? An argument can be made that the evils of the world can’t be reversed just by the single image of a baby. But this view is nihilistic. If anything, Rashomon – as well as Kurosawa himself – is humanist. The film believes that no matter how bleak things may seem, the faith of a better tomorrow makes the effort to move forward all the worthwhile. That is Kurosawa’s great vision. Through striking imagery, brilliant construction, and creative execution, he sifted through the darkness of the soul to find grace and humanity. His approach is sophisticated and thought provoking, and his legacy has only solidified with each passing year. Kurosawa pushed through the boundaries of the artform to redefine storytelling itself.