Relative truth and the ‘Rashomon Effect’: 70 years of Akira Kurosawa masterpiece ‘Rashomon’
“In a mad world, only the mad are sane.” – Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa’s status as one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema has been immortalised by his brilliant cinematic masterpieces and his 1950 film Rashomon is included among his finest works. However, when the film was first released in Japan, it received average reviews from Japanese critics who were confounded by the film’s radical narrative choices. Kurosawa’s genius was properly acknowledged only when the film screened outside of Asia, for the first time, at the prestigious Venice Film Festival in 1951 where it won the highest honour, the Golden Lion. International audiences were made aware of the power of Japanese cinema and Rashomon even won an honorary Academy Award in 1952. The legacy of Kurosawa’s masterpiece is enormous, not just in cinema but even in the domain of legal theory. What exactly is it that makes Rashomon so great?
Based on an amalgamation of two short stories, In A Grove and Rashomon, by Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Kurosawa’s film is a powerful philosophical investigation of the nature of dialectics. He introduces us to the volatile universe of modernity by making us witness the unceasing storm and rain, a recurring motif in many of his films. Two forlorn figures, a woodcutter and a priest, are seen taking shelter from the storm in the ruins of the legendary Rashomon Gate in Kyoto. Although the gate was already in a bad condition by the 12th century, Kurosawa reinforces the wooden structure with concrete pillars in the film to signify how the industrial foundation of the contemporary world is engaged in a futile attempt to prop up the decaying soul of humanity. The production crew paid a lot of detail to attention while constructing the gate as well as the scenes in the forest. They used mirrors to magnify the light of the sun so that they were able to shoot in as much natural light as possible and mixed black ink into the water so that the cameras were able to capture the water droplets. All these tiny elements add up to an inescapable sense of foreboding.
It’s almost as if the trauma of the tragic events refuses to be uttered into existence through language because the priest and the woodcutter just stare into nothingness. The latter keeps mumbling, “I don’t understand, I just don’t understand.” Everything is set into motion only when an outsider comes in out of the rain and asks about what is being discussed, or rather avoided. The irreverent commoner dismisses it when someone tells him that a man was murdered. He immediately replies, “Just one? So what?” Kurosawa sets the tone for the entire film with this exchange because he creates a distinction between the idealistic priest who cannot come to terms with the human capacity for evil and the common man who has become desensitised to a world of crime. Instead of paying respect to the weight of the tragedy, he starts tearing the wood out of the Gate to build a fire. He can only think of himself.
Kurosawa expands on Akutagawa’s experimental prose by conducting a fascinating translation to the cinematic medium. The story revolves around a bandit called Tajomaru (played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune) who chances upon a beautiful lady in the middle of a forest, guarded by her samurai husband. Even though he is captured by a policeman later and subjected to legal proceedings for killing the husband, it’s never clear what really happened. All the characters involved in the event present their cases to the camera and the audience is left to sift through the massacred remains of objectivity. We are the jury but we do not know whom to trust. This phenomenon has now been termed the “Rashomon Effect”, used to describe a situation where a single event is interpreted in multiple ways by multiple witnesses. It is in this macrocosm of moral relativism that Kurosawa holds a beautiful funeral for the ideal of “objective” truth and justice, divine or otherwise.
The radical, non-linear narrative of Rashomon is a tremendous cinematic achievement because it reduces the significance of chronological continuity. Just like the constructed ruins of the enormous Rashomon Gate, it is a combination of fragments belonging to different dimensions and there is no way of telling them apart anymore. Tajomaru nonchalantly claims, “If it hadn’t been for that wind, I wouldn’t have killed him.” The gravity of his crimes devolves into the absurdity of postmodern irony. We hear the accounts of Tajomaru, the lady, the spirit of the dead man channelled through a medium and the woodcutter but all their words are shrouded in ambiguity. They project their own fantasies and we see and hear what we want to. What’s interesting is the attitude of the commoner throughout the film. The priest complains about everyone lying but the common man does not care. He says, “I don’t care if it’s a lie, as long as it’s entertaining.” This small dialogue is an example of transgressive meta-fiction and a poignant one at that. Kurosawa reminds us that what we are watching is a film and film has its own binaries of the philosophical and the commercial. On a primary level, the story is about a phallic battle involving two men who cross swords for the “possession” of a woman but the plot takes a backseat to the philosophical concept that Kurosawa presents. The truth does not exist anymore. For a brief moment, we think that the woodcutter is telling the truth because he was an outsider looking in but his hypocrisy is pointed out by the commoner as well. The woodcutter did not want to get involved only because he stole a valuable pearl dagger from the crime scene, not because he was traumatised by the events. Humanity’s hope for any kind of moral order is akin to the small bonfire that the commoner ignites. It fails to illuminate anything in a world of black rain.
Kurosawa’s great thesis reaches its apotheosis in the final scenes when the cries of a baby shake the ruins and the three of them go to investigate. The commoner takes the kimono which the baby is wrapped in and leaves, insisting that the only way to survive in this world is to be selfish. All that is left is the legacy of modernity: a disillusioned priest (referring to the inevitable irrelevance of religion), a seemingly honest woodcutter who has been reduced to the status of a thief and the crumbling skeleton of traditional values. Rampant moral degradation and widespread mistrust has turned the priest into a cynic, evident in the scene where the woodcutter (a father of six) tries to take the baby from the priest but the priest recoils. The last shot is haunting, the woodcutter smiles and takes the baby away from the ruins of the iconic Rashomon Gate and from the priest who is left static by all the dynamism of violence. It is a deceptively optimistic ending where human values seem to triumph, a father leading a child to a better tomorrow and man learning to trust another man again. However, that would be antithetical to the philosophy of the film. We do not know what happened to the baby and what the woodcutter’s true intentions were because we aren’t meant to. Kurosawa leaves it to the viewers to decide whether they want to believe in human kindness or whether they should approach everyone with the eye of a cynic and that is exactly why Rashomon is still one of the best films in world cinema, 70 years after its release.