RASHOMON directed by Akira Kurosawa (Japan, 1950)
When hearing testimony in criminal cases, the judge and jury always have to keep an open mind. The need to save face, guilt, shame or simply a bad memory are all reasons why the accounts of eye witnesses may not be as reliable as they first seem. What passes as an indisputable truth is often merely one person’s word against another.
Kurosawa’s cinematic masterpiece illustrates this with a poetic and brilliantly realised presentation of the killing of a samurai as seen from four different points of view.
The film opens during a violent storm with a woodcutter and a priest sheltering from heavy rain under a partially ruined temple of Rashomon. They are both depressed about a tragic murder, a killing that makes them despair for the human race. A passing ‘commoner’ joins them and takes a more pragmatic perspective, unable to understand why they should be getting so distressed over the death of just one man.
What follows are four different accounts of how the samurai met his end. All the versions are agreed on what preceded this man’s demise . This is that a bandit (Tajōmaru) takes a shining to a woman journeying through the woods by her husband. He follows the couple, lures hubby away with a cock and bull story about swords for sale (cut price?!) then ties him so that he can have his wicked way with the wife.
In most synopses this is referred to as a rape but it is presented more as an aggressive seduction. She puts up some violent resistance at first but this is followed by passive submission and her clenched hand changing to a caress suggests complicity.
It’s like one of those scenes in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns where the man with no name (Clint Eastwood) beds a girl with no shame even when she initially seems unwilling. In other words, it’s based on the non politically correct premise that “no” means “maybe”.
Tajōmaru’s wild manner and maniacal laughter either makes him a dubious witness or someone with nothing to lose.
His version of events is actually the most credible. This has it that he chivalrously set the samurai free to fight (a little belatedly!) over the woman’s honour and won out in the ensuing duel.
The woman is distraught and her account is less convincing. She apparently begged for forgiveness but was met only with her husband’s steely accusatory gaze. The guilt and despair forces her to faint with a dagger in her hand. When she come round the dagger is buried in her man’s chest.
The woodcutter disputes this testimony on the basis that the man was killed by a sword. But can he be trusted? Initially he denied having seen anything but then changed his story. Ultimately, he also identifies the killer as the bandit, although he says the duel to the death was a far messier affair with Tajōmaru emerging victorious by good fortune rather than through expert swordsmanship.
The dead samurai gets to give evidence too through the use of scary looking medium who looks like his wife in drag. The way he tells it is that he committed suicide, again with the dagger, as he couldn’t live with the disgrace of his woman having done the nasty with the bandit. This seems the least believable of the four possibilities. For starters, someone would have had to come along afterwards to remove the blade.
However, by the close, there’s nothing to say definitively what really happened. The only thing that’s certain is that the samurai is no more.
The allegorical ending shows a new life substituting the needless death. After the storm abates, an abandoned baby is discovered crying in the temple. The woodcutter offers to take the newborn and this gesture, together with the sight of him gleefully carrying the child in swaddling clothes restore’s the priest’s faith in humanity.
This majestic movie is equal 26th in BFI’s list of best movies of all time and the ‘rashomon effect’ is a term now used to describe the fallibility of perception.