Movie-Hype00861 – RASHOMON
One of the highlights of any Psych 101 class is when the teacher pulls some sort of stunt to show off how limited and unreliable eye-witness testimony is. (One famous example is showing the students a video of a basketball game, telling the students to count the number of times the ball touches the ground. When the video is over the professor smugly asks the class what the gorilla was wearing, chuckling at the stupefied students’ faces.)
The concept that individual subjective perception can lead to drastically different but plausible accounts of the same event is called The Rashomon Effect.
The Rashomon Effect is based on the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film RASHOMON, itself based on a 1915 short story of the same name by Akutagawa Ryunosuke. (Actually, the plot of RASHOMON is based on a different Ryunosuke short story, which really complicates matters, and makes the psychology term a true simulacrum, if you care about such things.)
For our purposes today we are concerned with the 1950 movie, and the phenomenon it opened up to the world of film.
Akira Kurosawa definitely deserves his own huge column, but for now let us leave it at this: no competent discussion of the TOP FIVE MOVIE DIRECTORS OF ALL TIME omits his name as one of the possibles. The man is incredible. It is only the general movie illiteracy of the American public (and the fact that his films are in Japanese) that keeps Kurosawa from being as legend as John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock, and you can’t find a film student who wouldn’t bear the man’s children, even if that involved time machines and a sex change.
If you are looking to up your Foreign Film IQ, RASHOMON is a great place to start. The plot is simple enough (yet maddening, as we’ll get to). Four witnesses give an unseen court their accounts of a horrific event: the murder of a Samurai and the rape of his wife. These testimonies come to us as flashbacks within flashbacks, although they are easy enough to follow once we get rolling.
(It should be noted that dialogue is not very important in RASHOMON, to the point where you could watch the film without subtitles and pick up nearly as much. For that matter, I watched the movie once on the Criterion Collection—with a heavy-weight commentator explaining the symbolism of each scene and impact on a Japanese perspective—and had zero problems following the film.)
The four accounts are from a bandit (who is the presumed rapist/murderer), the Samurai’s wife, the Samurai himself (via a medium) and a woodcutter who found the body. Additionally, the woodcutter and a priest who was in court are recounting all the testimony to a passer-by, thus completing the effect.
Most of this sounds routine, and I suppose in today’s Movie-scape it might be. After all, numerous movies use the technique of multiple conflicting flashback testimony, as do various cop shows and the like.
What’s important to remember is that RASHOMON did it first. You really can’t find a film that predates RASHOMON with this kind of extensive interlocking contradictory testimony, all set in flashback form.
However, if that’s all RASHOMON was, I’d recommend it to film buffs as a curiosity and go on about my way. But remember what I said about Kurosawa. He’s the absolute man. Operating on a miniscule budget, and using no special effects, name actors or other usual movie magic, Kurosawa creates a timeless and indelible work that is shatteringly unforgettable to anyone who sees it.
Famously (and oft imitated), there is his use of light and shadow in the film. Kurosawa may have been the first filmmaker to repeatedly film the sun. He also delights in filming his scenes “through” nature. Rarely do we get a clean shot of what we’re seeing. Often it seems as important to look at the light reflecting off the leaves as the action that may be happening. I know that sounds weird or new-agey, but the effect is stunning and gives an added weight to what would normally be simple events.
(Indeed: serious film commentators have been fighting for years about what the light actually means. Some go for the traditional route: light=good; darkness=bad. Others have argued for the exact opposite, noting that most of the “sin” takes place in sunlight, while the only truth (if there is any) occurs in shadow. I could easily write an entire column just on this aspect, but as the discussion might be better suited to people who’ve already seen the film, I’ll forego.)
What makes RASHOMON so famous, of course, is how there doesn’t seem to be a consistent story. Was the woman actually raped? Was her husband murdered? If so, by whom? Even today in our cynical viewing culture, we might be used to accounts that are full of lies, but we fully expect to get the “truth” by the end of the movie or show. That won’t be happening in RASHOMON. You’ll probably be less sure of who did it when it’s all over than when you began.
The first man to testify is the bandit. He cheerfully admits to tying up the husband and planning to rape the wife, but claims that at the last minute the wife is into it, then demands the husband be killed in a duel so she won’t be shamed.
(I asked my friend—who had just gone through a bitter breakup—“What kind of woman could commit adultery in front of her husband, then coldly demand that either her husband or the new guy die?” My friend answered bitterly: “One who’s breathing?”)
When you hear this account it sounds pretty plausible. After all, the bandit cheerfully admits to planning the heinous crime, and does admit to killing the Samurai, albeit in a honorable fashion. Then the wife gets up there. Not surprisingly, she has a far different tale. By the time she’s done you’re not sure what to believe, although I leaned towards the bandit’s account, which may mean I’ve run into that type of woman myself.
When the medium shows up and channels the dead Samurai, I was sure we were getting the “true” account. After all, what motive could a dead guy have to lie?
Plenty, it seems. I guess being dead takes away no desire to look good in front of the world. When we round everything out with the woodcutter (who’s been relating most of these accounts), we’re so thoroughly muddled that we wonder if there is a solution.
To some minds, the very messy confusing lack of clear resolution will seem like a trick. We’ve been jerked around for two hours, with no intention of ever telling us the truth.
But my friends: smack yourself in the head and get this point: THERE IS NO TRUTH!!!
Not when it comes to murder. Not when it comes to reputations, agendas, pride and a million other motivations simmering beneath the surface. Witnesses to a crime—WHO AREN’T EVEN LYING—often remember things totally differently. Once it happens, it’s gone. Add in lies, deceit and self-delusion, and you’ve got yourself a quagmire.
But we’ll let the Justice system ponder that. One truth I do know: Rashomon is terribly entertaining, endlessly fascinating, and so multilayered and complex you can see it 5 times without getting bored. It’s truly a work of art, no matter what lights you have on.