Rashomon: The Many Faces of Truth
After a Samurai is murdered in 12th century Japan, four witnesses recall the events of the murder — including the dead man himself.
Title: Rashomon (Kanji. 羅生門)
Released: August 25, 1950.
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori.
It has been 70 years since visionary director Akira Kurosawa’s crime thriller ‘Rashomon’ flung the Japanese film industry to worldwide recognition. The movie never reveals the truth about the events of a murder throughout it’s 88 minutes of runtime and even today, people continue to speculate and form their own interpretation of the truth based on the four witnesses’ tale. It has been tough writing about a spoiler-free version of the plot for this article even, because that’s how convoluted yet superficially simple the story is.
The film starts off at the Rashomon city gate where A Woodcutter and a Priest are taking shelter from the rain. They are joined by a Commoner, also seeking shelter. The first words uttered in the movie are “I just don’t understand”, which is a clever foreshadowing to the events that are going to unfurl in the next 90 minutes because that’s what the viewer would feel at the end of the movie. The commoner asks the Woodcutter and the Priest to tell him the reason why they look so concerned.
“I’ve never heard of anything so strange” says the Woodcutter, and starts narrating the events.
There has been a gruesome murder of a Samurai and the rape of his wife in the nearby woods, and the infamous bandit Tajōmaru is presumed to be the perpetrator. The Woodcutter was the one who came across the dead body while roaming in the forest and reported it to the authorities. The case is then brought into the local courthouse, where the false narrative begins. Without wading into spoilers, four witnesses recall the events of the murder.
Witness 1 — Tajōmaru
First up is the bandit Tajōmaru. Caught by a local policeman, he tells his side of the story at the local courthouse.
Note — One thing to remember is that the Woodcutter is narrating the events which Tajōmaru narrated in the court house, as the entire film is told through flashbacks and the only moment which takes place in the present are the three men seeking shelter from the rain.
Tajōmaru, a bandit known for his cunningness and deceit, surprisingly confesses to the crime of the murder and rape. His version of the story involves valor and honour, and he gives a detailed account of his duel with the Samurai, from which he emerged victorious. He also claims that the woman he raped was “fierce, determined like a cat”, referring to her as someone with a strong will and not giving her body up to Tajōmaru without a proper fight.
Witness 2 — The Samurai’s Wife
The Samurai’s Wife is summoned in court and asked to testify, where she completely contradicts Tajōmaru’s statements. From her version of the events, she paints herself as a scared and weak woman, who can’t even stand her husband looking at her with fierce eyes. While Tajōmaru’s version of the story says that the Samurai was killed honorably after he lost a duel, the Wife recollects an entirely different sequence of events leading to his death, one in which Tajōmaru wasn’t even involved!
This is when the movie takes an absurd turn, because the next witness is …. The dead Samurai himself.
“If men lie in this world, what makes you so sure they’ll be honest in the next?”
Witness 3 — The Samurai
The Woodcutter continues narrating the story to the commoner. The Samurai’s spirit was summoned to the court through the use of a medium. His spirit takes over the body of his wife, and starts narrating his murder. His revelation shocks everyone present, as he claims that there wasn’t even a murder! And that the cause of his death is due to something entirely different.
At this point the viewer doesn’t know whom to believe. The viewer’s confusions are amplified when the fourth witness is revealed.
Witness 4 — The Woodcutter
The Woodcutter confesses to the Priest and the Commoner that he was lying all along, and that he didn’t discover the dead body. In fact, he was the one who secretly witnessed the entire scene starting from the rape to the death of the Samurai in the woods. He had not confessed this at the court because he didn’t want to get involved. He then proceeds to tell his version of the story to the two, which once again contradicted every detail that the other three had spoken about.
… is the question film-lovers have been debating for over 70 years now. The movie ends without telling the viewers which version of the story actually happened. Neither does it tell us who was convicted or what happened to the Samurai’s wife. The viewers are just left with four distant yet interconnected stories to ponder upon. Each story has its own killing motive, method of killing, aftermath of the rape as well as the bandit’s conscience. These four variables fluctuate between the stories and every time you start to believe one of the witnesses, the next witness would come and convince you otherwise.
Another sign that marks the brilliance of the movie is the way Kurosawa presents the courthouse scene. The camera is placed in such a way that the authorities are never shown. The viewers are inserted into the POV of the judge. Thus, Kurosawa tells the viewers that they are the judge and that they decide which version of the events actually happened. Even the voices of the authorities aren’t heard by the viewers, yet the witnesses hear them and answer. Basically, the witnesses answer the questions that the viewers would be thinking at that point, and in a sort of way, they read the minds of the viewer. Just another example of why Akira Kurosawa is remembered as one of the greatest directors of all time.
Kurosawa doesn’t even tell you if the truth is within those four stories, or if something else happened entirely. Nor do we know what the judgement at the courthouse was. Something did happen in those woods on that fateful day, unfortunately, we’ll never get to know.
*Note: Images are sourced under the Copyright Disclaimer under section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976. Allowance is made for “fair use” for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, education, and research.
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