Rashomon

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they take 4 different views on Akira Kurosawa‘s Rashomon because they think they’re clever.

In the #24 (tied) movie on the list, a bandit, a samurai, his wife, and a woodcutter each tell their version of a violent encounter on a forest road. With each new entry, conflicts and distortions arise, ultimately bending and challenging what we think of as the truth in storytelling and in life.

Landon Palmer: As with Seven Samurai‘s influence on westerns to kids’ movies about insects, Kurosawa’s Rashomon is famous not only for its own accomplishments, but for its influence on the structure of many films and TV shows. But I’m wondering if we’ve Rashomon’d Rashomon to a degree – if reflecting on its influence and its impact changes our perception of it.

Your thoughts in one flashback or less.

Scott: Oh, we’ve definitely Heisenberged it — which was probably Kurosawa’s intent. Its elements of uncertainty and chaos have all been driven into the ground, but to prove that the movie still holds complexity within in its complexity, I was hoping you and I would be up to the challenge of presenting 4 more takes on it beyond the usual conversation about subjectivity.

Landon: Only if I get a free baby at the end.

Scott: Deal, but you have to start us out.

Take One: Many Have Copied It, But No One’s Really Copied It

Landon: The Rashomon Effect in its influence is not the same thing as what Rashomon does.

Scott: Alright. That sounds smart, so I’ll agree with it, but I need you to unwrap that a little for me.

Landon: So Rashomon has influenced the likes of Vantage Point, Arrested Development, and even Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. And usually, one perspective is shown, and a second or third perspective is shown that offers a corrective or clarification (or adds details to) the previous perspective. This seems to be generally accepted as Rashomon-ing. But this in’t what the film does. The perspectives laid out here are contradictory. They’re fundamentally incompatible. They can’t be clarified or expanded upon, because they can’t all exist simultaneously.

I can think of very few movies besides Rashomon that actually utilize the structure of a movie like Rashomon.

Scott: Right. It’s become a method of joke delivery or mystery-solving instead of a storytelling structure. I’d imagine that’s because going Full Rashomon is really risky.

And the best possible reward is being compared to Rashomon without being figuratively defecated on for copying it.

Landon: Some would say avoiding defecation is a reward unto itself.

Scott: Tom Six wouldn’t.

Landon: But it makes the film all the more special — and incredibly complex in its 80 minutes — to remain largely unmatched after 63 years. There are many examples of movies following the Seven Samurai formula with dedication; fewer with Rashomon.

Scott: In a sense, did Kurosawa invent a subgenre while destroying it by doing it perfectly?

Landon: Less a subgenre than a narrative structure — and yes-ish. It turned film into a device for exploring subjectivity, empathy, and prejudice in rather straightforward (yet still potentially complex) ways. Memento might be Rashomon‘s descendant in more important ways than movies that seem to attempt to directly copy the formula.

Scott: Although it’s a structure that seduced imitators and parody while being fiercely elusive to imitators (but maybe not parody).

Landon: Good point. It also creates generic constraints – it’s only good for mystery stories for which the mystery does not become definitively solved.

Scott: Or, at the very least, stories with a ton of colorful, moving elements.

Landon: So, yes — he did invent/perfect/kill a structure in one fell swoop.

Take Two: Every Movie As Rashomon

Scott: For a second take on it, I’d like to apply Rashomon‘s logic to other movies — ones that didn’t try to ape its structure.

Landon: Intrigued. Speak in the direction of the invisible judge.

Scott: You can’t see the judge?

Landon: You might be having a different kind of flashback than what I had in mind.

Scott: As you say, few movies even attempt to tackle Rashomon‘s structure, but you can apply it to just about everything because the key to it isn’t that the narrators are unreliable due to drug use or a hit on the head; they’re unreliable because people are unreliable.

Landon: Because people act in their own self-interest, as the commoner despondently emphasizes at the end.

Scott: While robbing from a baby.

Landon: Naturally, but it’s not altogether an un-fitting sentiment after the entire world went to war with one another.

Scott: As for Rashomoning other flicks, it’s simple. Imagine the climax of your favorite movie. Let’s say Jaws just for fun.

The movie presents us with a scenario where Hooper gets into scuba gear, the shark destroys the boat’s transom, Quint gets eaten, Brody shoves a tank in its mouth, and Hooper makes the impossible shot to save their lives.

But maybe Hooper got into the gear but was immobilized with fear. Maybe Quint committed suicide before falling into the water as easy pickings. Maybe Brody murdered Quint after getting in a drunken fight with him the night before.

Maybe they had illegal explosives and had to explain them away with an absurd story about a bullet hitting a scuba tank and it blowing up. Because, come on.

Maybe the shark got away, but they couldn’t go back home after sinking their ship without a victory story. A big fish story, if you will.
Landon: I’d also want to consider Jaws from the shark’s perspective: his fear of humans, his need to dominate the ocean and prove himself. Or perhaps Jaws already is from the shark’s perspective: that’s why he strikes such fear and causes such problems. Perhaps from a diferent perspective, the shark was hardly an issue at all — like the changes in character during the sword fights in the first and fourth tales of Rashomon.

Scott: The shark was exaggerating about how many people it ate all along.

So you see what I mean. Granted, this injects chaos into every story and expands each movie in ways filmmakers never intended, but that’s the profundity of what Kurosawa’s work does. If we buy its structure of unreliable narrators, why shouldn’t we question every narrator?

Landon: Every movie already has its potential variety of perspectives embedded within, there’s no such thing as objective storytelling, and so many movies can be reduced to a self-interested dick-measuring contest.

That’s the thing so many people forget about: the narrator telling the story, even when recounting the various experiences of others, is also potentially acting in self-interest.

We aren’t simply getting “various perspectives,” but various perspectives filtered through one.

Scott: But it’s far, far easier to forget that and sink into the story via the storyteller. Which is also precisely why movies like Fight Club that have an unreliable narrator shock us with twists. Put your trust in Jack, and he’ll throw you down a flight of stairs Durden-style.

Before we get too deep into this, let’s move on to a new take.

Landon: Only if it makes us reconsider everything that came before

Scott: Oh, it shall!

Take Three: Rashomon Doesn’t Have a Special Structure

Scott: Because I propose doing the opposite of Take #2 and treating Rashomon like every other movie out there.

But to demystify it, we need to choose which storyteller we think is correct, and then view everyone else as liars. Do you have a nominee?

Landon: Hmmm. My nominee would be the samurai, simply by virtue of being dead. First time I saw this film, I thought “Well, of course the samurai is right, unless the medium is lying.”

Scott: Oddly enough, I would choose the samurai, too. Which, yeah I know, complicates what we’re trying to do here. But even though he’s got a mumbo jumbo-speaker talking for him — a truly unreliable narrator — his story confirms that the bandit isn’t responsible for his killing, which seems decidedly not self-interested.

He could have lied from beyond the grave and gotten the bandit’s neck stretched. Since he didn’t, let’s assume he’s the honest one.

Machiko_Kyo_in_Rashomon

Landon: I also suppose that in any society with traditional power dynamics, the samurai would get preferential treatment during trial over the thief, the woman, and the woodcutter: he’s a male figure of authority who also happens to be the definite victim. He is systemically prone to being believed.

Scott: And calling someone “the bandit” seems a bit prejudicial…

Landon: Ha, yes, and if bandits hammed life up Mifune-style, they weren’t doing themselves any favors.

Scott: But now that we’ve agreed to accept the samurai’s story as the true version of events, we can view everyone else’s conflicting elements as lies or memory lapses.

Done and done. Rashomon demystified. It’s now the story of a dead samurai who’s final moments are obscured by a whining wife, a despot trying to avoid punishment and a self-important bystander trying to inject himself into a situation that doesn’t concern him.

Landon: Though I’m sure we’ve touched on this without saying it, but, is it possible, with any interpretation of the film, to posit that zero characters are knowingly lying or stretching the truth? That regardless of what “the truth” is, every character is equally convicted in their interpretation? That we regularly make up stories/perspectives for ourselves so that we don’t have to deal with our own shortcomings and failures?

Scott: You’re saying we can’t have complete knowledge of the things happening to and around us? Yours is a cold, dark world of honesty, Landon.

Landon: Well, maybe that means I get to walk off with a free baby

Scott: I think you do. I always preferred the lie. But I do have one last take on Rashomon.

Landon: Twist!

Take Four: A Standard Horror Anthology Where All the Short Films Are About the Same Thing

Scott: It’s a standard horror anthology where all the short films are about the same thing.

Landon: Oh man. That is a Rashomon effect that should be copied way more. It would sure save a lot of time and energy away from remakes and sequels.

Scott: Amen. Congratulations on winning the baby. I thought that was relatively confusion free.

And thanks for not mentioning that all the story perspectives in Rashomon are being repeated by the Woodcutter, which adds another layer of unreliability to it all.

Landon: Taking the baby = a less egregious version of Jumping the Shark: a completely arbitrary symbol of hope at the end of a narrative of deep pessimism.

Scott: Speaking of which, I think the sun just came out.

Next Time: Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood For Love 

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