Rashomon Plot Spoiler: Guilt, Lies, then Atonement

by Paulo Almeida on December 9, 2009

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I recently saw in a movie theater a new print of the 1950 movie Rashomon, directed by Akira Kurasawa. I was surprised, however, to discover that the film has a happy ending… of sorts.

That was not how I remembered this film, but this surprise was a meaningful coincidence because “unreliable memory” is at the center of what is popularly called the “Rashomon Effect.” The Rashomon Effect is sometimes invoked in cases where witnesses to the same event recount the details differently. Something to the effect: “The getaway car was a blue sedan.” “No, it was a white van.”

I, however, thought that this “Effect” was misnamed, because it seemed clear to me that Rashomon was not about faulty memories. It’s about deliberate lies, and the purpose of the movie was to make the audience sit in judgment and wonder why each witness told his or her particular lie.

This point of view was shared by a character, the woodcutter, who puts the movie into motion by finding the body of a samurai, dead from a stab wound. The woodcutter gives his testimony directly to the camera… and, by extension… to the audience, which substitutes for the unseen and unheard investigator. ;The woodcutter then sits in the background and overhears the testimony of the other witnesses. Thinking back on their conflicting versions, the woodcutter declares: ;They’re all lies!

My view is, I suppose, a result of my own life experience. I once lived in a country whose government had effective control of the press. With that in mind, I read the newspaper each morning not because I believed what was printed but because I thought it would be revealing to wonder why the government decided to tell this particular lie on this particular day.

Rashomon begins with the woodcutter sheltering from torrential rain in the ruins of an enormous gate. Gazing at a desolate exterior landscape, the woodcutter is nonetheless looking inwardly and muttering about “how horrible” it all is. An impoverished Buddhist monk, who is also sheltering from the rain, is reluctant to talk but, fortunately, a third man comes in from the rain and encourages the woodcutter to tell his story as a way to pass the time. ;The movie flashes back to the woodcutter walking into the forest where he finds the dead man. That’s his testimony.

The monk testified that he passed the samurai, accompanied by his wife on horseback, on the road. A bandit then confesses to luring the travelers into the woods, where he overpowered the samurai, raped the wife, and killed the samurai in a duel. Case closed, it would seem, except that the wife tells a different story.

The samurai then tells his side of the story, channeled through a medium. At the end of all this, it is uncertain whether samurai was murdered or committed suicide, whether he was killed by the bandit’s sword or by the wife’s dagger, and whether the sex between the bandit and the wife was, ultimately, consensual.

The different stories are acted out each time by the bandit, the wife, and the samurai. Toshiro Mifune became internationally famous for his role as the bandit, stealing the show by chewing up the scenery. Machiko Kyo is impressive in her role as the wife, acting a broad range of emotions (boredom, fear, treachery, remorse), depending on the version of the story. However, I now realize that Rashomon is fundamentally about the psychology of the woodcutter, played by veteran actor Takashi Shimura, who might be better remembered as the quiet leader of The Seven Samurai, a 1954 film also by Kurasawa.

Before the testimonies begin, and the film is swept away by the three actors interpreting different versions of ;the crime, director Kurasawa dedicates the better part of a minute (an eternity in conventional film pacing) to show the woodcutter walking deeper and deeper into the forest. This is more than a standard establishing shot. For a man in a psychological crisis, this long walk into a dark woods is the metaphorical equivalent of a journey into the unconscious.

The pivotal moment comes after the medium concludes the defunct samurai’s testimony with the admission that he committed hari-kari with his wife’s dagger, after which some unseen person removed the dagger causing the samurai to bleed out and die. The wife and the bandit had both testified that they absentmindedly left the dagger at the scene of the crime but, significantly, the dagger has not been found.

The monk suggests that the posthumous testimony ought to settle the matter, but the cynical;third man asks why they should give any special credence to a ghost. The woodcutter is oddly disturbed by the posthumous testimony, and insists that the samurai was killed by a sword. ;That declaration reveals to the other two men that the woodcutter has, himself, been lying. Rather than merely finding the dead man hours afterwards, the woodcutter must have witnessed the crime if he were so certain that a sword was the murder weapon. ;The cynical third man then asks about the missing dagger, and accuses the woodcutter of keeping it for himself, which would make the woodcutter a thief as well as liar. Guilt, it seems, is at the root of the man’s uneasy mind.

The tension between the three men is interrupted by the cries of a baby, which the cynical man finds hidden in the ruins, wrapped in a kimono. The man lifts the baby, carefully unwraps the kimono, and puts the baby back in the debris. The monk is appalled: “The child will die!”   To which the man responds that the parents should have thought about that before they abandoned the consequences of their pleasure. ;He leaves and this is how I remember the film ending.

I had forgotten the importance of those few precious minutes of film after the cynic runs off into the rain. The monk picks up the baby, and the woodcutter tries to take the baby. Having finally reached the end of his patience, the monk cracks and accuses the woodcutter of wanting to take the little the infant has left. The woodcutter humbly replies that he has his own kids at home and taking care of another won’t make much difference. The monk, abashed, apologizes for having been judgmental, and passes the baby to the woodcutter. They bow. The rain stops.

How could I have forgotten that bow! ;They bow not just once, but twice, as if Kurosawa wanted to be sure that we don’t miss the point. More than just a sign of respect, the bow is a recognition of the presence of the godhead in each individual. Those bows stopped me from leaving the theater this time with the satisfaction that Rashomon is about lies and existential despair because, in the end, the lies don’t matter. Rashomon is about suffering, not despair, and suffering is how we learn to improve ourselves.

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