The Strangest Story: Truth, Humanity, and Rashomon

Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:

Rashomon (1950)

Sometimes four irregular puzzle pieces will tell a story. Juxtapose them, read between the lines, and if you’re lucky or imaginative or both, you’ll get an image.

Four irregular puzzle pieces. These are what Akira Kurosawa presents us with in his opus, Rashomon, which, as it progresses, becomes less about the thrill of its drama and more about subjectivity and the nature of humanity.

The story opens with rain, torrential rain (it IS a Kurosawa film) sweeping the town of Rashomon in feudal Japan. Two despondent witnesses to a brutal murder sit under shelter in a post-testimony stupor. Neither can believe the things they have heard or seen, so they decide to unload their burden on the audience: the story of a dead body and the mess of testimonies surrounding it. The three parties involved all tell a different story of rape, swordplay, kidnapping, and death on a single afternoon in the woods. Each story reveals something different about what might have happened, each story has a different murderer.

When watching the film, it’s rewarding to not bother with the truth and just live within the unique drama and nuances of each story. When the fourth, final story is revealed – the one that is closest to real truth – I realized that the truth didn’t matter anymore. To search for truth in the stories of Rashomon is to miss the point: what we’re talking about here is the subjectivity of truth. When Tajomaru (the ever-incredible Toshiro Mifune milking his horrifying, shrieking laughter) tells his story of the woman who consents to his aggressive advances (tying up her husband and throwing her on the floor), the story is true to Tajomaru. When the woman tells the story about her desire to end her husband’s maddening, loathing glare, the story is true to the woman. And when her husband’s spirit (channeled through a pagan ceremony) tells the story of his shame and suicide, we are looking at a dead man’s truth. Each of the characters had lied to themselves so profoundly, that their lies have become their realities.

Allow me, for a moment, to talk about a few different components of the film. Kurosawa’s visual vocabulary is excellent. I know, I know—complimenting Kurosawa. Why don’t I take a number and get in the back of the line? But when an artist/ author who happens to make films is so terse—to show the idea of bitter consent with just a hand crawling up a man’s back—I can not help but cut in line and drool all over my keyboard.

Kurosawa chooses his motifs carefully here—and perhaps the most brilliant motif is that of the sky. Shots of the sky are present in every story for a very simple reason: the sky is the only universal constant. We, as the audience, grab onto the image of the sky and hold it—it’s the only thing we can really trust. The score is excellent and versatile. It goes from bleating drumbeats and screeching flutes to understated piano and violin pieces to complement Kurosawa’s visuals. Without such a superb score, Rashomon would not be half the film it is.

When I spoke about irregular puzzle pieces earlier, I neglected to mention something. In formulating the phantom image, one has to read between the lines. To fill in the blanks. In Rashomon the blanks are glued together by its philosophy of human nature. The idea that humans are worse than fire, famine or plague—that they lie, steal, rape and kill selfishly and with little remorse—is the idea played with in Rashomon. The witnesses and audience are so bewildered by the tales of horror in the woods that the only conclusion they can draw is that humankind is the pits. The characters wrestle with the notion, and eventually they come to a different conclusion. I was glad to find that the outcome was favorable for humankind.

But this is just a story. In the end, even the dead lie.