What Is Truth?
Rashomon has now become a byword for when a group of people provide different testimony to the same event/situation without them being totally dishonest or completely accurate, depending on the person's perspective. Rashomon the film not only brought director Akira Kurasawa to the world stage, but also introduced Toshiro Mifune, one of the legends of Japanese cinema to the world as well. The film itself leaves one wondering whether we can trust what we are told, or perhaps even what we see, but we do have the chance for redemption from our wicked, wicked ways.
The story is told mostly in various flashbacks with this as the framing device: at the Rashomon Gate, two men are waiting for the rains to stop. One is a woodcutter (Takashi Timura), the other a priest (Minoru Chiaki). They are joined by a third man, a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda). The woodcutter and priest have been witnesses in a criminal case, one which has shaken them tremendously, and they tell what they saw at the trial.
The woodcutter had come across a murdered samurai in the forest, the priest had been the last person to see the samurai (Masayuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyo) alive. Now we get to the center of Rashomon: a search for the truth from three witnesses.
The first witness is Tajomaru (Mifune), a notorious bandit. His story is that he at first took little notice of the samurai and his wife, but then a glimpse of her set his heart aflame. Overpowering them, he violated the wife. Shamed by her inability to defend herself with a dagger, she begs Tajomaru to kill her husband so as to spare her the shame of living as a violated woman. Tajomaru untied the samurai, and their epic battle killed him. The wife ran away.
Our third witness is the dead samurai himself, contacted via a medium (Noriko Honma). His story is that after the forced encounter, Tajomaru asks her to come with him. She not only accepts but goes further, asking Tajomaru to kill the samurai so as to be free from him. Tajomaru is so shocked by her request that instead he goes to the samurai, telling him it would be up to him to forgive or kill her. The bandit releases the samurai, and after she runs off and Tajomaru fails to recapture her, the samurai kills himself.
The woodcutter and priest are shocked by the varying stories, and the commoner is convinced each lied for their own purposes. However, the woodcutter himself has been less than forthcoming, for it is now revealed that he KNOWS they all lied since HE had seen it all. We then get The Secret Witness' story.
Tajumaru wants to marry the wife, but she frees her husband instead. She shames them into fighting for her (one for her honor, one for her body). The samurai won't fight for her but she pushes them into it. After they begin their duel, Tajumaru kills the samurai while he begs for his life. The wife runs off in fear and Tajumaru, wounded in the duel, also leaves the scene of the crime.
A baby's cry alerts them to its presence. The commoner is about to steal from the baby, but the woodcutter objects. The commoner correctly figures that the woodcutter was the one who stole the dagger from the dead man's body, and ridicules his sudden morality. The priest's faith is nearly shattered, until the woodcutter begs to take the baby and raise him with his own children. The theft of the dagger is now seen by the priest as more a desperate than evil act, and with his faith in humanity restored, the woodcutter takes the baby, now that the rains have stopped.
The question I had in Rashomon is whether the woodcutter's own story was the truth. Film standard would tell us that the final story told would be the "truth", but what guarantee is there that his story would be what actually occurred if he himself had a reason for not telling the absolute truth. The samurai's story (which shows that dead men DO tell tales) could easily be the truth. What about the woman? Was she a brave warrior fighting for her honor (like Tajumaru states)? Was she a frightened and shamed victim (as she portrays herself)? Was she a shameless harlot (as the samurai's ghost reports), or someone lashing out at both men (as the woodcutter testifies)? If the woodcutter's story was the absolute truth, why did Tajumaru go to such lengths to portray her positively (unless he was still in love with her)?
Rashomon does not give us an easy, pat answer as to what exactly happened In the Grove (Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto adapting Ryunosuke Akutagawa's short stories Rashomon and In the Grove). Instead, Rashomon has us asking if we can trust what we have seen and heard. "It's human to lie. Most of the time we can't be honest with even ourselves," the commoner says. He is the most cynical, but also the most honest of the characters because he is the most impartial. The struggle between keeping faith in humanity and in being able to know the truth (as the priest would) and the failure of honesty to rule (which the commoner would believe) is one of the themes of Rashomon.
Rashomon, instead, asks us to not figure out what the actual truth is but whether we ourselves would believe the truth if presented to us. None of the stories we're given can completely be trusted, but there is never any commentary as to which one is The Truth. Like the priest and woodcutter, we the audience are the ones who are presented these various versions of one event and asked to find which one is true. Perhaps none of them are, or completely are. Kurosawa will not let us off so easily.
Cinematically, Rashomon has some haunting images, and I say that deliberately. The entire sequence with the medium is frightening but magnetic: the altered voice and the actual imagery of his summoning and being possessed by the spirit is amazing. Same for the wife's testimony: her tears and agony appear so real, so how can we fail to believe her version, or are they crocodile tears.
In terms of performances, it is Toshiro Mifune that runs away with the film. He is lusty and egocentric, almost mad with self-assured glee when he tells the bandit's story, but then he shows that perhaps the bandit is really more a product of self-promotion than a dashing and daring individual. While each performer is excellent in Rashomon, it is Mifune whom you can't take your eyes off. He commands the screen and his range is extraordinary. Of all the performances, it is Toshiro Mifune that we remember from Rashomon.
Rashomon is an essential film in cinema. Its variations on its central story keeps one guessing, and the philosophical questions it asks of us (can we trust what we see? what motives the altering of truth?) elevates it to a higher level. However, let that not frighten you: Rashomon is also highly entertaining, filled with beautiful imagery and most important, a note of optimism at the end. We may never know exactly what happened in the forest that fateful day, but we leave trusting that in the end we can maintain a hope for the future.