Rashomon is a film by legendary Akira Kurosaki made in Japan in 1950. The starkness of the setting and the endless rain make produced in black and white make for a look at the differences in perceptions of witnesses to the rape of a Japanese woman in the woods. One thing rings at the end of the movie that most men have accepted at some point in their lives: “If you are not selfish you cannot survive”. This film shows human weakness and selfish egoism, as well as how fleeting life is from moment to moment.
The first thing noticeable is the building set where two men are sitting and contemplating an event that just took place in the courtyard. Another man comes upon the scene and the viewer listens to the exchange of differences in the accounts of the event discussed in detail. Immediately we are told that there are many disasters, like wars, floods, famines and other manner of ill in the world, but the worst kind of event we all are subject to is man’s inhumanity to man.
Immediately, I sense the horror of the atomic bomb’s destruction which had occurred only a few years before the making of the film as one of the sets. The other is the woods, which is always a dark and dangerous place, in all myths and stories of yore. We come back to the “Rashomon” or the building set many times and each time there is a sense of foreboding felt between the three men in the scene. The mise en scene is simple, the setting stark and this reminds us of the harsh realities of life. It is said in the film that even the demons have left “Rashomon” as they have given up on the lies and deceptions men inflict on the other. Losing faith in the human soul is worse than a disaster, as what have we left if people cannot be trusted?
There are several existential themes in this movie, “the ferocity of men”, “everyone lies and is selfish” and people do not wish to get involved. During the movie the explanations of those who witnessed the crimes in the woods all have different stories that come from personal agendas. The woman is viewed as a selfish, conniving whore and even her own story is how her husband refuses to look at her after her assault by the bandit in the woods. A medium recounts the “dead mans” side of the story in which the husband saves face by suicide. The bandit has another tale and the woodcutter another. Plain and simple, it shows how we all see things dependent on our agendas and the view we have on life.
The end of the tale is even more poignant. After what have been hours and hours of rain, the men argue about how selfish the woodcutter was in not doing anything but watch what happened in the woods. The other man, a priest is having his own crisis of soul and then a baby’s cry can be heard nearby. One of the men goes to the baby and instead of picking it up to care for it, takes the amulet and kimono it is wrapped in and plans to steal it. The woodcutter decries the listener for being evil in doing such a thing and the man reminds him that he too has been selfish, where is the ivory dagger that was lost in the woods that everyone mentioned in their testimony? The onlooker looks ashamed as the other man leaves. The priest picks up the baby and then men stand in the rain watching a continued cleansing of the area pounding in rain. As the scene shifts the onlooker tells the priest he will take the child and the priest believes he will harm him, but the man tells him he has 6 other children, what is one more? The priest believes in the goodness of man and now has a renewed faith in that belief. The child, representative of a new beginning, also reminds us that life is cyclic and one day he also many have to make choices that is judgments of ethical behavior.
Of this film Akiru Kurosawa has written about how his script was not initially understood by the makers of the film. He wrote: “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings–the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood going beyond the grave—even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem. This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego. You say that you can’t understand this script at all, but that is because the human heart itself is impossible to understand. If you focus on the impossibility of truly understanding human psychology and read the script one more time, I think you will grasp the point of it.” (http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/196-akira-kurosawa-on-rashomon)
There is a type of effect called the “Rashomon Effect” that was introduced after the movie came out that refers to the subjectivity or perception of a recollection of an event. The observers are known to offer very different, but equally plausible accounts of what happened even though described in contradictory ways.