Akira Kurosawa’s movies are some of the best works in cinema that I have ever seen. From the first movie that I have seen of him, I realized why people regard him with such reverence. The first movie that I saw was Seven Samurai. One couldn’t help but be awed by that movie when you consider the fact that it was made in 1954. After that I became unwavering fan of his work and saw a few more of his movies. But none of these movies were as great as Rashomon to me. To me it is the crown jewel in the master’s work. In psychology there is even a phenomenon named after it; The Rashomon Effect.
When you watch any of Kurosawa’s movies the phrase that comes to your mind is that it’s far ahead of its time. The greatest quality of all is that his movies retain a kind of freshness even today, so much so that somebody like me, who is generations apart from the time of his greatest movies, is also able to appreciate it so much. That more than anything is the hallmark of a true genius; his legacy is immortal.
Rashomon’s appeal is its plot and its narrative. The story starts off with recounting of a crime and the accounts of the people involved by a woodcutter and a priest to a vagabond commoner. The crime is the murder of a Samurai and the rape of his wife by a bandit. The narrative style is that of a flashback within a flashback as the priest and woodcutter retell the testimony of each of the witness to the vagabond.
The testimonies of the witnesses are all self serving and vastly different form one another. The bandit claims to have captured the husband and then tries to rape her. He however claims that she submitted to him of her own wishes rather than him raping her. He also claims that to absolve herself of her subsequent guilt and shame she goaded both men to duel one another. According to the bandit both men proceed to duel each other skillfully and fiercely until he kills the Samurai with his sword. On seeing this, the lady runs away. On questioning about the wife’s expensive dagger, which is missing, he claims to have forgotten completely about it in the confusion.
According to the lady’s version she claims that the bandit captured her husband, raped her and left her there with her husband. Her pleas for forgiveness were returned with nothing more than a cold stare by her husband. After she freed him she tries to give him the dagger and begged him to kill her. She claims to have overcome with stress at this moment and fainted. When she awakes she finds her husband dead with the dagger in his chest implying that she killed him accidentally while falling over unconscious. She even claims to have tried to drown herself later on.
The husband’s tale is told through a medium. He claims that after raping his wife the bandit asked her to join him. The wife agreed and asks the bandit to kill the samurai. Even the bandit is shocked by this and asks the samurai whether or not to kill the woman. At this the wife fled and the bandit freed the man. The samurai then claim that he committed suicide with the dagger. He added on that he had the feeling that someone removed the dagger from his body after he had died.
At this the woodcutter claims that the Samurai must have lied as he was killed by a sword. He then goes on to say that he witnessed the whole affair and begins to tell his version of the tale. He says that the bandit raped the woman and later begged her to marry him. At this point the woman demanded that the men duel each other for her. This enraged the Samurai and he refused to do so and only comply when called a coward by the woman. The woodcutter describes that their fight was more of a comical struggle than anything else. He contradicts the earlier version of the bandit where they had fought with valor and skill. The bandit won the duel, plunging his sword into the chest of the Samurai as he was attempting to scamper away in the bushes. The wife fled on seeing this with the bandit hot on her pursuit.
However on hearing this story the vagabond accuses the woodcutter of having stolen the dagger and hence completely inventing the new story to cover up its existence. The woodcutter’s look of guilt makes us convinced that he might have stolen the dagger.
The priest’s faith in human goodness is shaken by this turn of events and his lamenting is interrupted by the cry of an abandoned child. The woodcutter takes the child from the priest saying that he already has six children and that the addition of one more is not going to make any difference.
The story is a powerful pointer to how perception sometimes clouds the truth. Each of the character tells their own version to justify their actions and to cast them in a better light. It shows the selfishness of men. We are no closer to unraveling the mystery after hearing all the accounts than when we started off.
The bandit’s version cannot be believed because he is a thief and his moral values have already proven to be suspect. Also he wants to show himself as a great warrior when he implies that the Samurai was a great swordsman and he was able to defeat even him.
The wife’s tale shows her guilt when she says that her husband gave her a cold stare after she was raped. Her account cannot be believed because of her desire to defend her virtue and seems more concerned with how others would think of her character.
The Samurai’s tale should have been the truth. But even here we suspect it because it would be far honorable for him to claim that he committed suicide than to admit that he was defeated in a duel by a bandit. Also his account that the bandit did not have any qualm for rape but is averse to murder too defies logic.
When I first saw the movie I was sure the woodcutter’s version is the correct one. But when his thievery was brought to life then his entire narration seemed made up or at least lacking in details. The missing dagger is the critical piece of the entire narrative. If we accept that then the woodcutter’s version is not believable.
Kurosawa does not spoon feed the audience with the answer but rather leaves it to their intellect and understanding. He leaves it to the audience to draw their own conclusion. Remember that this was done in 1950 probably for the first time, and there in lies his genius.
Reviews of Akira Kurosawa's Major works
Rhapsody In August (1991)