Last weekend, I saw PHSA and DSL’s staging of RASHOMON at the CCP. I was quite amazed with the production, and more so, at how its story still affects me. Last night, I got to see RASHOMON once again and I’m still in awe. Its plot, direction, design, performances, and screenplay are the reasons why we love Cinema.
After my viewing, a friend told me that it was Akira Kurosawa’s birthday last Tuesday.
That is why I decided to do, at least, a small tribute to the Master by writing an analysis of a “comprehensible yet intricate” story about truth and honour and preservation. I hope this will give meaning to those who are still uninitiated and to those who have always wondered what’s the real score is. Note that this is not a review. It’s my attempt to analyse its plot and justify what Kurosawa has been whispering to his audiences through the decades.
I just hope I did well.
RASHOMON (1950) was as startlingly complex in concept and structure as it was exotic to Western audiences unfamiliar with Japan’s period films. Its narrative, set in medieval times, repeated four accounts of a rape and murder (or suicide). The incident in factual detail involves a Merchant (Masayuki Mori) and his beautiful Wife (Machiko Kyo) who are attacked by a Bandit (Toshiro Mifune) as the couple travels by horseback through a dense forest. Tricked by the bandit, the merchant is tied helplessly to the ground, his wife seduced, followed by a sword fight between the two men in which the Merchant is killed. The Bandit flees with the couple’s horse.
The four flashback accounts of this incident develop as three men, curious about the incident, huddle under the crumbling Kyoto gatehouse during a storm. As they sort out rumors, one of the men, a Woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) who claims to have witnessed the event, introduces the stories. Each is presented by the vagrants as though they are offering court testimony. Subjective, self-serving perspectives unfold as the dead Merchant (using a medium), his Wife, the Bandit, and finally the Woodcutter recall the rape-murder. Each version is revisualized by Kurosawa’s camera with circumstances altered slightly to depict individual interpretations.
The Merchant maintains that his wife willingly gave in to the Bandit and then sough her husband’s death. It is implied through a Medium that the husband took his own life.
The Wife professes innocence, viewing herself as forever debased and no longer acceptable to her husband. When she awakes from a faint, she claims to have found her own dagger in the dead husband’s breast.
In the Bandit’s account, the wife readily acquiesces and he kills the angry Merchant during an honourable sword fight for the woman’s favour.
The Woodcutter’s version reveals the Wife freeing her bound husband and pleading that he avenge her rape. Both men fight reluctantly and ungracefully until the Bandit finally kills the Merchant. This more realistic, straightforward rendering of details (presented without the colourful background music that accompanied the others) seems to give the Woodcutter’s story greatest credibility. The Woodcutter’s story becomes suspect, however, with the revelation that he stole the Merchant’s dagger following his death.
Equally important are the film’s spiritual dimensions and Kurosawa’s questioning of the universal goodness (or badness). of humankind. The final scene in which the Woodcutter offers protection to an abandoned baby suggests a reaffirmation — a redemption, even. Amidst the ruins of the depressed city, the Priest (Minoru Chiaki) commends the Woodcutter for his kindness, saying, “I have regained my faith in men.”
RASHOMON’s mosaic narrative lends itself to limitless possibilities of interpretation. Issues are raised by the contradicting testimonies that place the very nature of perceived realities under philosophical scrutiny. The notion that individual truth suffers when strained by guilt also appears relevant in interpreting Kurosawa’s fractured story. Significant, too, is the manner by which the film unveils the idea that artistic (filmic) versions of reality are, like human accounts, illusory and subjective.
Here, Kurosawa argues that, contradictions and ambiguities abound in art as in life.