By Carter B. Horsley
There are certain books and movies that arelandmarks in the intellectual history of the world. The movie"Rashomon" is one of them.
Like Samuel Beckett's play, "Waiting forGodot," that dates to about the same period, "Rashomon"is deeply disturbing and lingers long in the viewer's mind, forevercasting doubts about an individual's perception of reality andunderstanding of the concept of "truth," and ultimatelythe meaning of life.
Like the play, the movie's cast of charactersis small, but unlike the play, "Rashomon" is packedwith action and stirring emotions.
It could also be compared to Shakespeare'splay, "King Lear," in its emphasis on different interpretationsof apparently simple actions, although Shakespeare's play is,of course, much more complicated.
In "Rashomon," three men independentlyseek shelter in a ruined temple known as Rashomon near Kyoto,Japan, more than half a millennium ago. The men are a priest,a woodcutter and a vagabond. A rainstorm pelts down on themferociously.The priest and the woodcutter are unpresupposing persons who apparentlyare in a state of shock over a recent event. The vagabond joinsthem and encourages them to tell him of the allegedly "terrible"event.
The priest, played with mournful stoicism byMinoru Chiaki, begins to recount how a scruffy bandit encountersa man escorting a beautiful woman on horseback in the forest andproceeds to tie him up and watch him rape the woman and then bekilled by him at the request of the raped woman. The event isshown in flashback where the bandit, played by Toshiro Mifune,is being held at a trial and he recounts the incident.
Prior to the commencement of the bandit'sretellingof the incident, the movie is very somber, oppressive and ratherdepressing.
Mifune's performance as the bandit is explosivelyvulgar, unpredictable and frightening. He is obviously a very,very coarse man given to hysterical ravings. In many ways, hischaracter is so mesmerizing as quintesential evil that one couldalmost conjure the hypnoptic speeches of Hitler. Mifune comesacross as a great force of evil, a force that is not without itsfascination.
Mifune's tale is recreated on film and Kurosawa'svisual depiction of the bandit wandering through the forest andglimpsing through the dappled sunlight on leaves a very largewoman's hat with huge veils astride a horse drawn by what appearsto be a nobleman is a mesmerizing enchantment that understandablyleads the bandit to chase, at a distance, the couple. The entiresequence of the bandit's tracking and chase and final encounterwith the couple is one of the most sensational cinemagraphicallyin history and is more beautiful and impressive than even StevenSpielberg's forest chases in "Star Wars" decades later.
The movie has dramatically switched from analmost drab historic piece to a riveting, scary and exoticallyintriguing adventure and melodrama culminating in the liftingof the hat's veil by the woman, played by Machiko Iyo. Her visageis climatically startling. She appears to be very beautiful andto act very much like a lady. Kurosawa's initial close-up of herface in this sequence is only matched by Grace Kelly's first appearanceas she is about to kiss James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock's "RearWindow" a few years later. Both cinematic moments are extraordinarilyeffective and recall Josef Sternberg's dreamy entrances for MarleneDietrich some years earlier. These "entrances" attestto the power of beauty and of women and clearly indicate thatsexual attraction is very important.
The bandit's rendition of the event moves backand forth between his recollection and his testimony at the trialand Kurosawa has Mifune go through almost pyrotechnical actingtransformations that also conjure episodes of "Frankenstein,"so horrific are the bandit's temperament, countenance and actions.
At the end of the bandit's version of theincident,he admits to the rape and the murder of the woman's husband.
The vagabond at the temple is not overwhelmedby the story, but the woodcutter says that there is more to itand introduces the retelling of the incident by the raped womanwho appears at the same, open-air trial.
Her version is self-serving and she claimsthat she did not instruct the bandit to kill her husband. Herversion, however, is quite convincing as the actress is wondrouslybelievable as an innocent victim.
The vagabond at the temple is a bit moreinterested,but the priest then tells him to listen to the dead husband'sversion, which will make him understand better why he and thewoodcutter are so shocked. The vagabond asks how the dead husbandcould testify and the priest introduces the segment of the trialat which a woman medium, played with memorable eeriness by FumikoHonma, speaks for the dead husband in a ghostly voice. The scenesin which the medium testifies with her flowing robes and longhair is spellbinding, and very beautiful. Her version, that is,the husband's version, is altogether different in that after thewoman is raped and the bandit runs off after a furious fight withhim and he commits suicide because he is ashamed that his wifehad been raped and wants to abandon him for the rapist.
The vagabond's interest is now piqued, buthis attention now turns to the woodcutter, played with a pitiablesullenness by Takashi Shimura, who reveals that he was a witnessto the incident and proceeds to give yet another version, which,again, differs from the others, but which seems more reasonablesince it is not self-serving.
The three men at the temple begin to try tounravel the truth from the contradictory stories, noting thatthere are elements in each that are believable and that none ofthe versions is very satisfying.
The message of the film, therefore, would seemto be that truth is relative, fragile, fleeting and uncertain.In his review of the film, James Berardinelli noted that thatmovie "is not about culpability or innocence." "Instead,it focuses on something far more profound and thought-provoking:the inability of any one man to know the truth, no matter howclearly he thinks he sees things. Perspective distorts realityand makes the absolute truth unknowable." (His review maybe found at http://us.imdb.com/Reviews/110/11025.)Some other reviewers have made analogies with the film and theO. J. Simpson trial, the Clinton/Lewinsky Affair and the ClarenceWhite/Anita Hill controversy, and some have also read into aforeshadowingof the Deconstructivist theories that would become popular severaldecades later.
Before any resolution of the discussion bythe three men, they are interrupted by a baby's cry elsewherein the temple. They rush around and discover the baby and thevagabond instantly rips away her blanket for himself, much tothe distaste and dismay of the other two. The priest lifts thebaby into his arms and the woodcutter then pleads with him tolet him have the baby as he has eight children and while verypoor knows how to take care of babies. The priest relents andgives the woodcutter the baby and the film ends on this fairlyhigh, optimistic note of humanity.
This coda however is brief and not powerfulenough to cast aside the very weighty bulk and import of the film.Some critics have, with good reason, criticized the "happy"ending of the film, but virtually all have correctly noted thatthe film's impact on the viewer's conscientiousness and conscienceis immense. Some of these critics have argued that the film'smessage is that individuals can only see themselves in one, favorable,light, while others, more on target, expound on the film's upsettingof the basic underpinings of knowledge and the foundations ofthe notions of truth.
"Rashomon" is a brilliant but bleakand very dramatic examination of epistemology, the philosophyof knowledge, the need for certainty and its frail attainment.
A few other great films like "Last Yearat Marienbad" (see The City Reviewarticle) and "Providence," both by Alain Resnais,and "The Seventh Seal" (see TheCity Review article) and "Persona," both by IngmarBergman, have seriously tackled "heavy" themes likethe meaning of life or truth, but none with more brilliance than"Rashomon," whose truly memorable acting and cinematographyare haunting.
"Rashomon" is not perfect as the"happy" ending is too convenient and the music scoreby Fumio Hayasaka is disappointing as it is sort of a Westernizedversion of Ravel's "Bolero," and becomes a little obviousand boring.
The performances of Mifune and Iyo, alone justifythis film as great, but its psychological and philosophic mandatesand imperatives elevate it to the highest ranks of cinematicachievement.