Everyone is selfish and dishonest
Stories & Ideas

Fri 19 May 2017

Everyone is selfish and dishonest: The Rashomon effect and Kurosawa's storytelling legacy

Film Retrospective
Nick Bugeja
Nick Bugeja

Writer & Editor

Kurosawa's seminal film fundamentally changed the audience's relationship to the medium, writes film critic Nick Bugeja

You see these various versions of the [story] and you are never told which is true and which isn’t true. Which leads you to the proper conclusion that it is all true and none of it’s true. So, it becomes a poem.

Robert Altman

Rashomon, since its release in 1950, has had a profound cinematic and cultural impact. In fact, it spawned what is now known as ‘the Rashomon effect’: a well-known phenomenon where individuals interpret the details of an event in a different or contradictory manner. The term ‘Rashomon’ is even recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The film catapulted Akira Kurosawa to international acclaim. Its influence can be found in countless films, most notably Richard Linklater’s Tape, Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, and Zhang Yimou’s Hero.

When Rashomon was released, many critics and theorists presumed that it had taken considerable inspiration from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. The use of flashback sequences, and their respective ideas around truth, objectivity and human nature, bore a remarkable resemblance. It turned out that Kurosawa only saw Citizen Kane in the years following the release of Rashomon. In light of this, the comparisons made between the films stand as testimony to the greatness of Rashomon as a piece of cinematic invention and subversion. After all, it represents one of the earliest, and fullest, attempts to cinematically tackle such weighty philosophical questions.

There was no predictive or prophetic sense in which the film would be successful. Rather inauspiciously, Kurosawa’s assistant directors came to him for answers. “What does the film mean?” they asked. His response was typical: the film is a manifestation of real life. Life isn’t always clear-cut, sometimes things are unclear.

By 1950, Kurosawa had made a handful of moderately popular films. Rashomon was taken on by the production company Daiei films, and it was the first film they produced. The film was made on the condition that it could be done cheaply and quickly. Once it was completed, the head of the production company was grossly dissatisfied with what he saw as a convoluted and impenetrable film. 

Nevertheless, Rashomon went on to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. In Roger Ebert’s words, it “effectively open[ed] the world of Japanese cinema to the West” – something we can now interpret as endlessly important and valuable.

A deteriorating temple, drenched in persistent rain, is the first image we see in Rashomon. Three men are gathered there: a Woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), a Priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a Peasant (Kichijiro Ueda). They come to discuss a sordid tale about a Samurai (Masayuki Mori) found dead in the forest. The Woodcutter claims he found the body, and that he rushed to alert the authorities. He finds himself at a hearing, alongside the Priest, to give his version of events. The self-confessed killer, bandit Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune), is also called to testify.

The different accounts – put forth by Tajōmaru, the Samuari’s Wife (Machiko Kyō), the Samurai (via a medium) and the Woodcutter – are deeply misaligned. The only events about which they agree are that the Samurai is dead, and that Tajōmaru raped the Samurai’s Wife.

The affairs in dispute take place solely in all-encompassing forestry. The environment is walled by green foliage, and roofed mostly by tall trees. In one of his most famous shots, Kurosawa points the camera to the sky, whereupon we see rays of the sun bursting through the treetops. This locale in which Kurosawa places the action – one that is shrouded and concealed – generates a powerful sense of hiddenness, of inaccessibility. It is as though the truth is forever locked within this forest, never to be known or properly understood. We are, therefore, alerted to our opaque, constrained perspective. All the testimonies cannot be true, so which characters are lying? Which are telling the truth? For Altman, Rashomon “would have been quite a different film” had it been set elsewhere.

Kurosawa’s visual representations of the film’s overtones don’t stop at the forest. While Tajōmaru sits before the court, he looks up to the sky with a perplexed look. In the next shot, we find out what he is staring at: the sun obscured by clouds. In the forest scenes, there are many shots that expose us to various modes of viewing and observing. Sometimes, we are positioned within the perspective of the characters, seeing the world through their eyes. The most memorable example of this is when we see the Samurai’s Wife, charmingly dressed in a perfect white dress, from Tajōmaru’s perspective. Kurosawa makes us see what the characters see – which doesn’t necessarily align with the truth of the incident. These shots aim to highlight the uniqueness of human experience, to remind us that truth is not merely attained through seeing. In many cases, sensory perception entails an interpretation of events, not an unobstructed, foolproof means to possessing truth. 

Alternatively, the camera sits in behind the characters, giving us a more third person, observational vantage point. Ostensibly, this puts us in a more objective position to view the action. Unconventionally, however, Kurosawa exploits this framing technique to rule out the universal truth of the images. Our point of view in respect of the action is irrelevant: we only see a subjective, recounted version.

This framing provokes us to reconsider and ponder the truth of the images before our eyes. This is a subversive move by Kurosawa, as the cinema has traditionally dictated the truth of images to its audiences. While characters are regularly portrayed in cinema as unreliable, truth contained in the visual aspects of film is generally taken for granted. In Rashomon Kurosawa undermined this cinematic tenet, and in the process he reconfigured the language of cinema.

During the hearing scenes, the camera steadfastly faces those who have become before the court. They sit and relate their version of events, which lead into long, episodic flashbacks of the incident. It is clear that the flashbacks are what the characters claim, or think, to be true. We never see the individual tasked with their judgement – but are rather expected to fill their role. Wemust determine the veracity and guilt of those before the court.

The occasional overlapping of accounts does not suggest to us that there is any one correct interpretation. Rather, it is open to us – the judge – to form our own conclusions. Perhaps the best thing to do in the circumstances is to abstain from selecting one ‘definitive’ version. As the Peasant says, “it’s human to lie.”

Indeed, it is manifestly clear that Kurosawa isn’t looking for in-depth, conspiratorial responses to the conflicting details. He is far more interested in the implications of being unable to be objective and for the truth to be impregnable. What the film seems to meditate on is questions of the foibles of human memory. Are our memories, shaped by our inclinations, preconceived notions and fantasies, so distorted that correct recount is impossible? As Tajōmaru remembers the events through a valiant, honourable lens, and the Wife remembers herself as contrite and racked with grief, Kurosawa notates that veracity can be unattainable in circumstances of human recollection.

The primary issue with which Kurosawa seems to grapple is objectivity. For him, one of the conditions to be human is to experience phenomena subjectively. It contradicts our very nature to see things coldly and impartially. The flashbacks of the incident are the character’s subjective experience. Consequently, without objectivity, there can be no truth. Without one, there cannot be the other.

Perhaps, as the Peasant claims, “We all want to forget something, so we tell stories.” Instead of our memories failing, we consciously fabricate and exaggerate to suit our own ends. This is a plausible reading of the film – as the Samurai, above all, emphasises his victimhood, and the Woodcutter deliberately leaves out that he stole the Wife’s dagger. In such a case, truth does exist, but it remains confined within the minds of those personally witness to an event. In the same way, though, truth remains inaccessible to a wider audience.

Arguably, this talk about the failure of humans to be objective and truthful is depressing. But Kurosawa seems keen not to leave us with such thoughts. He returns us to the temple, where the Priest and the Peasant are berating the Woodcutter for lying about stealing the dagger – “a bandit calling another a bandit.”

Out of nowhere, the rain begins to disappear, and the loud cries of a baby become audible. In a wave of magnanimous existentialism, the men run to the baby. The Priest holds it tightly, lovingly; the Woodcutter, eager to make amends for his moral transgressions, volunteers to accept the child. “I have six children of my own. One more wouldn't make it any more difficult.” The Priest, a beacon of good, apologises to the Woodcutter for doubting his compassion. Rashomon ends with the Woodcutter resolutely walking towards the camera with the baby in his arms. As he gets closer, his figure gets bigger and bigger – as our hope for humanity begins to revive itself.

Nick Bugeja

Watch Rashomon on Cinema 3

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