This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.
Is Rashomon a parable of relativism? Not exactly (sorry if that sounds like a relativist statement!). After all, the events (or rather, the different versions of the same event) portrayed don’t differ merely in perspective or this or that detail, but in the entire thrust of the action. Even the most anti-objectivist, open-minded, postmodern, pluralist thinkers would not claim that multiple accounts of a physical encounter, which completely contradicted one another, could all be “true.” When I first saw Rashomon, it quickly became my favorite Kurosawa – because of the lush visual (and sonic) texture and the cleverness of the storytelling. But I was baffled by the claim it offered some kind of concrete critique of “reality” and the “truth.” The point seemed a bit trite – after all, a man was killed, somebody killed him, and the different versions were all incompatible with one another. It’s possible nobody is right, but it’s a cinch everyone isn’t. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said in a heated political debate, “You’re entitled to your own opinions, sir, but not to your own facts!”
What are the facts of Rashomon? Nobody disputes that a man and his wife entered the forest and were intercepted by a bandit who tied the husband up and raped the wife. The three major accounts – bandit’s, wife’s, husband’s (from beyond the grave, via a spooky female medium) all concur on these points. What then? According to the boastful bandit, the wife begged him to kill her husband so that only one living person would know of her dishonor. According to the wife, the rapist stormed off and she was left distraught, pleading her husband forgiveness, and then asking him to kill her, while he only stares at her in cold disgust. According to the dead man, the wife deviously begged her assailant to take her with him and kill her husband. In all three versions, the bandit and the husband are tough, in some sense “honorable” (despite variously murdering, raping, and scorning an abused woman). It is the woman’s character who shifts mercurially.
Indeed, even in the wife’s own testimony she accepts the logic of disgrace and humiliation, begging to die, accepting that she should, but unable to throw herself in the water. The bandit seems fairly indifferent to her character – she is an object for his lust, but not really a human being whose inner dimensions intrigue him. And of course to the husband she is a vicious, lusty, backstabber. The two men and the woman herself are essentially arguing not over the facts of the case, but the nature of the wife and her affections. The wife says she did the best she could, the husband says she didn’t, and the bandit could care less; he’s just in it for the loot and the glory. To the extent the bandit’s character is up for grabs, it’s secondary to the wife. She dispenses with him immediately when her flashback begins (she’s as indifferent to his inner working as he is to hers – for both, the rape is the set-up for the dilemma which follows).
Meanwhile the bandit makes himself out to be a charismatic villain, a sort of pirate of the land, bellowing and cackling and vanquishing his honorable opponents. It’s the husband’s perspective which is most curious – he essentially makes the bandit out to be a good guy, aggressive perhaps but disgusted by the wife’s suggestion to kill her husband. For the husband, the key fact is not that a bandit attacked him and assaulted his wife, but that the wife “submitted.” He almost seems to respect the bandit, and despite being on opposite sides of this particular situation they appear to have a sort of “understanding,” a male camaraderie-in-adversity that they perceive the “treacherous” woman as having betrayed. All of these characters have something at stake – for the husband his victimhood, for the wife her honor (at least honor in death if not life), for the bandit his vanity. And why are these values at stake?
Here’s where a surprise fourth account enters. The woodsman who discovered the body claims, after the trial is over, to have actually witnessed the entire event. In his version, the bandit is a sniveling, confused coward, baffled by the husband’s disgust and especially the wife’s defiance. These don’t fit his personal narrative, a tale of plunder and skullduggery in which he forces himself upon the weak and they submit or die valiantly. The husband appears equally cowardly, while hypocritically trying to couch his cowardice in terms of betrayal – saying that he won’t fight the bandit “over such a woman.” He wants to see himself as a victim of her treachery, but she quickly turns the tables on him, shaming him by impugning his masculinity. Importantly, she is the one who unties him, flipping his own posthumous version of events on its head: there, he was rendered helpless by circumstances beyond his control; here, he has only himself to blame for inaction and impotence.
Meanwhile, the wife, the most enigmatic character in the movie up til now, reveals herself as a restless, disgusted human being, impatient with her husband, revolted by the bandit, and scornful of both their heroic claims. She shatters all the false images set up so far: the bandit’s “goddess,” riding high on a horse that might as well be a white cloud (which he wants to drag down to earth); the husband’s Jezebel, forsaking duty and honor for venal passions; and even her own virtuous, shamed girl, a martyred picture of womanhood. Seen here, she is as human as anyone else – almost entirely sympathetic in her disgust with the chest-pounding, self-serving mythos the men impose on her, themselves, and one another. Certainly the woodsman’s account has the ring of reality, especially if we’re predisposed to believe that people are usually less honorable, noble, or pure than they believe. But is this version any more true than the others?
The entire film unfolds as a story told under the Rashomon gate, and in the framing device a traveler mocks the woodsman’s claims to truth. There’s a compelling angle to all this – the woodsman is insistent that the husband was killed “by a sword, not a dagger,” while the traveler accurately speculates that the woodsman himself stole the dagger. Though the theft would not be inconsistent with his story, this also raises the possibility that the woodsman killed the husband himself, to prevent the discovery of his theft (in this account, the husband would have still been tied to a tree while the wife and bandit disappeared). This would give additional meaning to the woodsman’s acceptance of the abandoned infant at film’s end, not merely as recompense for lying or theft, but for murder. I do think this points out something about the film’s truth-claims; you can accept one or the other, but if you entirely reject them all it becomes a rather meaningless exercise – the power dissipated instead of reinforced.
To my mind, the woodsman’s account is the most convincing. He seems too simple to concoct the byzantine, conflicted dialogue and interaction that he claims to have witnessed. Also, each character’s behavior perfectly offsets their own accounts (the cowardly bandit boasts of his fierceness, the humiliated husband whining of his wife’s treachery, the cynical wife of her weepy confusion – in the final case probably less a matter of wishful thinking than protective self-stereotyping). “All accounts are true” is as easy a claim as it is impossible, while “none of the above” seems an anti-dramatic cop-out. I do not think the woodsman is necessarily 100% honest – not only in leaving out the theft of the dagger, but perhaps even in his culpability with the crime itself – however, his observations about human behavior do have the ring of truth, and I suspect at least some of what he witnessed came to pass. Ultimately, however flawed, his account can stand as the Rosetta stone for the whole film and the characters, a notion that may upset those who want to see complete relativism but which offers a kind of loose logic to the kaleidoscopic vision of character and motivation.
At any rate, that’s my story – and I’m sticking to it…
Rashomon appears at 2:30 in "A Violent Release", a chapter in my video series "32 Days of Movies".