Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto
Director of Photography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Production Designer: Takashi Matsuyama
Music: Fumio Hayakawa
Assistant Director: Yasuhi Kato, Mitsuo Wakasugi, Tokuzo Tanaka
Released in 1950. Winner of the Golden Lion Venice Film Festival (1951) and Best Foreign Film Oscar (1951).
Tajomaru (the bandit).........Toshir˘ Mifune
Masago (the samurai's wife)............ Machiko Ky˘
Takehiro (the samurai)...........Masayuki Mori
The action takes place in Kyoto, Japan, in the 12th-century, a period of strife and civil war. A woodcutter, a priest, and a commoner wait out a thunderstorm under a ruined gate, Rashomon. The woodcutter and the priest appear distressed and tell the commoner of a recent investigation, in which they both appeared as witnesses, which has uncovered the following. A samurai and his wife are attacked by the infamous bandit Tajomaru while traveling. The husband is tricked and bound by Tajomaru, the wife and bandit have sex, and the samurai dies a violent death. However during the investigation, some events are disputed because the protagonists relate conflicting stories.
According to the captured Tajomaru, after an ardent struggle, the wife accepts his sexual advances, then tells him to kill her husband because she cannot bear to be shamed in the eyes of both men. He kills the husband after a most valiant fight.
According to the wife, she is raped and Tajomaru runs away. She frees her husband and offers to let him kill her. Her husband's disdainful gaze, however, causes her to faint; when she wakes up her husband is dead with a dagger in his chest. She recounts her failed attempts at suicide by drowning.
The dead husband is heard through a medium. In this version, after Tajomaru rapes the wife, he begs her to marry him. The wife replies that he must first kill her husband. The thief is so shocked by her treachery that he asks the husband what he should do with her. The wife runs off, chased by the bandit. After several hours, Tajomaru returns saying he could not find the wife and frees the samurai who, being disgraced by his wife's behavior, commits suicide with his wife's dagger. As he lays dying, he hears footsteps approach and the expensive dagger is removed from his chest.
With some prodding, a fourth version is told by the woodcutter at the gate. He claims that after the rape, the wife baits both men into fighting a duel over her. In the cowardly fight that follows, her husband trips and is killed by Tajomaru.
The woodcutter and the priest bemoan the state of humanity that engenders all this lying to others and to oneself. The commoner laughs it off. When the three find a baby abandoned at the gate, the commoner steals its few possessions; accused by the woodcutter, the commoner charges him with stealing the raped woman's dagger. The woodcutter's behavior makes it clear that he did in fact steal the expensive dagger, and the commoner leaves with the baby's blanket and amulet, the priest being unable, or unwilling, to stop him The disillusioned priest and the guilty woodcutter are left alone with the baby. As the weather breaks, the woodcutter vows to care for the child and heads off in the sunshine with the baby in his arms, thereby restoring the priest's faith in humanity.
Although usually Rashomon is
considered a movie about the relativity of truth, Kurosawa tells us in
his autobiography (handout), that its central concerns are egoism,
vanity and self delusion. The character which provides the
interpretive key to the movie is the commoner. He is an Hobbesian
man. In his view, the world is a competitive place in which everyone
is out for oneself and all displays of moral virtue or justice are mere
facades put forth in order to increase one's prestige and power.
His extreme outlook is incompatible with the existence of a good and just
society, and is typical of civil wars (like that witnessed by Hobbes) so
protracted that they lead to the disintegration of society itself.
His view are conveyed not only by what he says, but also by what he does:
not only does he steal the baby's possessions, but he tears down fragments
of what's left of the great gate (a symbol of society) in order to warm
himself. The commoner paints himself as a cynical realist, and certainly
he is at least partially right: even the woodcutter, who seems so upright
and honest, is shown to have refrained from telling all the truth to the
judge and, more ominously, to have lied: he stole the wife's valuable dagger.
The bandit, the samurai, and the wife tell different and incompatible stories because they produce self serving myths which, perhaps, they end up by believing themselves, as the priest's remarks suggest.
The bandit projects the image of capricious and terrible power (I would have let them go but for a wisp of wind), seductive and sexual prowess, great swordmanship and horsmanship (we crossed swords 23 times; the samurai's horse did not throw me; I fell because I was sick from bad water).
The wife projects the image of the dutiful wife who is doubly wronged, by the bandit and, more distressingly, by her husband. In her version, once she realizes that her samurai husband considers her dishonored, she offers to let him kill her; after her fainting spell she tries to commit suicide but fails. She is just a woman, a poor creature in the hands of wicked and cowardly men, who has nevertheless tried to do the right thing and ultimately took refuge in a temple.
The samurai (who, by the way, is probably no real samurai, since he's ready to obtain weapons from a looted samurai grave) is dead, but his concern with a self image embodying the virtue of honor is still alive. He is betrayed by his wife, who proves morally inferior even to the bandit. Her dishonorable behavior is such that he does the right thing: he kills himself to save his, and perhaps what remains of her, honor.
The woodcutter final story portrays both the samurai and the bandit, who presumably oppress him by exacting taxes and extorsions, and whose power he envies, as cowards, and therefore as not better than himself. While the samurai projects an image of honor and the bandit one of capricious terribleness (both appropriate to dominant roles in society), the wife projects an image of upright weakness appropriate to her gender, and the woodcutter one of subversive equality.
We never see the judge. In fact, the camera location makes clear that we, the audience, sit in the position of the judge. But we cannot know who, if anyone, told the truth. The point is not that truth is relative, but that without a common ethical and political ground which allows us to be ourselves (which does not compel us to play roles) and moderates the search for power (notice that glory, or at lest having a good reputation, is a form of power) common discourse breaks down and we become unable to reach not only truth, but even objectivity. Both becomes a commodity like any other; we fabricate usable myths which we parade as true, objective or, at least, as our version of reality. But then, since we must interact with others, which version wins? What counts as objective? Usually, the story which is associated with the greater power (in the short run, victors make 'history'). This is why Hobbes claims that in the end the sovereign (i.e., absolute power) determines the conventions grounding truth and falsity.
Rashomon, however, does not end in a sad note. The woodcutter, a liar and a thief, is shamed by the commoner and, what's important, feels ashamed of what he has done, as Kurosawa shows us in a great shot of his face in the rain. One is shamed in front of others, but one feels ashamed inwardly by seeing oneself as others see one; the former per se does not change us; the latter often does in that it pushes us to live as we think we ought to. The woodcutter breaks out of the Hobbesian picture of human beings. Now he is concerned not merely with his own welfare, but with that of the baby whom he takes home. This is why the priest, who traditionally represents moral conscience, says that the woodcutter has restored his faith in humanity. This faith is the basis of civil society, and in fact through it civil society is reinstated, as the repeated exchange of bows between the two men indicates. But perhaps the commoner is right: the woodcutter just needs another hand, although the end of the storm (a metaphor for bad times and strife) and the upbeat music suggest otherwise.