THE FIRST THING YOU HEAR anybody say in Rashomon is “I just don’t understand.” It’s the priest (Minoru Chiaki) talking to the commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) and the woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), and he’s referring to the tale of violent death and possible sexual assault in 12th-century Japan. The details of a single terrible afternoon in the forest don’t add up. And they don’t add up because they’re coming from at least four different people, not including the priest himself. A samurai (Masayuki Mori) is killed, his wife (Machiko Kyō) raped. And every scenario involves a lunatic character called the bandit (Toshiro Mifune), who did either the raping, the murdering, or both.
I know. Sounds like a mess, but it’s richer and stranger than that. One side of the story belongs to the dead samurai, who speaks at the trial through a medium (Noriko Honma). The movie, which Akira Kurosawa co-wrote and directed, operates as an expressionist fable about what a mess people are.
Rashomon was released in 1950 and introduced Japanese filmmaking to the rest of the world. But its reputation as a movie masterpiece has steadily diverged from its eventual status as a symbol of elusive truth in both art and life. More and more, actually having seen the movie isn’t a barrier to reference. Its masterpiece status arose, in part, from its revolutionary structure, which destabilizes the literary convention of a reliable narrator. Instead, the same incident is repeated and tweaked from competing perspectives, so you’re not sure what to believe. That destabilization made the movie a thing. People have applied a so-called “Rashomon effect” to law, philosophy, psychology, and other movies. Fairly recently, television has concocted a small handful of Rashomon-like mysteries – The Affair, True Detective, American Crime, Big Little Lies, The Sinner – that treat Kurosawa’s mixed-use approach to truth as a storytelling gimmick.
The shorthand appropriation, of course, discards the movie itself. There’s more to it than “who’s lying now.” Rashomonisn’t as mighty as some of Kurosawa’s other films (masterpieceis both overused and, regarding Kurosawa, feels better applied to Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Yoijimbo, and even High and Low), yet it still secretes its own intoxicants. The black-and-white cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa, for instance, manages these feats of light that make even shadows seem so clear. How many other films, not shot by Miyagawa, look this crepuscular and eclipsed, this sharply etched amid so much narrative blur?
Part of that blur comes from Kurosawa’s conflation of naturalism and melodrama in the acting. We never see the judges or jury of the open-air court. The camera sits in the position of authority while the defendants sit on a lawn of pebbles, testifying. During the film’s production, Kurosawa apparently had the actors watch some wildlife documentaries made by the adventurer couple Martin and Osa Johnson in the 1930s — lions and panthers doing lion and panther stuff. Whether in the woods or before the court, he wanted them to follow suit — simulate the physicality of their respective animal — which they do. Kyō takes herself from something you’d find on a farm to someone feral and more cunning. Mifune seems far from sane and further from “housebroken.” In the channeling scene, with the medium, Honma outdoes everybody. She’s a whole zoo.
Facing the camera and pleading their cases, you’re no longer watching a mere movie but a work of theater. This also goes for each new iteration of the forest scenes, where Kyō and Mifune add wood nymph to the film’s menagerie. Some of what’s ingenious about Rashomon is that it gets that recollection can be a kind of performance. The samurai’s wife and the bandit have their motives for whatever happened that day in the forest. That performance is apparent just in the way Kyō is bent over, in one shot, weeping before the court — and us — then upright and coolly reclined in another. Control like that can give you the chills.
The central mystery in nearly every account of the encounter here involves the loss of that control. Was the bandit so ravished by the samurai’s wife that he ravaged her? Could she really have been so taken with the bandit that, before running off with him, she’d have him kill her husband? It isn’t just that anything is possible in this movie. Everything is. And that’s the source of its symbolic endurance. And what’s lasted about Rashomon is the question of what’s true. Do, say, four sides of a story ever produce a stable, square truth? Or do you always get something uneven and odd-looking, like a rhombus? Those and the questions of man’s inherent goodness or badness, which Kurosawa tries to solve with a sentimental ending fit for a greeting card—or one of William Wyler’s weepies.
The effect is both cruel and exhilarating. You sit through the entire entertainment and, when it’s over, have no idea what really happened. Here’s Kurosawa philosophizing in his 1982 memoir, Something Like an Autobiography, about the psychological dimension in Rashomon:
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…You say that you can’t understand this script at all, but that is because the human heart itself is impossible to understand.
During the trial, for instance, you wonder how the samurai and his wife could ever have trusted each other, when, depending on whose account you believe, this is all it takes to tear them apart. And by the time of the movie’s terrible ending, you wonder whether you should even have trusted Kurosawa. The moral trajectory of art tends to follow the arc of history, toward justice of a sort. With art, that justice tends to come in the form of closure. But what if “the truth” is simply a less compelling question than who can you trust? Obviously, trust is a cousin of truth. Without the latter, you can’t experience the former. But trust is less abstract and more dynamic. And Western movie audiences in 1950 had no cause to distrust a filmmaker. The entire point of, say, a murder mystery is the sorting out of what happened and exposing whodunit. Kurosawa didn’t want a viewer to rely on a single account.
Truth and Rashomon became forever conjoined because not many people had spent a whole movie being lied to. And people tended to like the experience of the lie because they were used to being given the truth. Some of the thrill of the Rashomon experience was being told that you can’t trust anyone. The original audience liked seeing a film break the rules. Not dissimilarly, ten years later, audiences would be shocked to see a movie knock off its heroine at the halfway point the way Alfred Hitchcock did in Psycho.
With Rashomon, over time, in mass entertainment, a version of its lie became the trick ending: Bonnie Bedelia turning out to be the killer and not Harrison Ford; Verbal Kint's limp becoming Keyser Soze’s stroll. Truth, in life, is important. But it doesn’t exist without trust. For Americans right now, that trust feels crucial to the greater truth of the country’s democracy. What, for instance, is a lie? And how can we know what’s true? A lot of us think we know. But a lot of us are also like the priest. I just don’t understand.
This is to say that there’s another way to think about Rashomon and its effect: as an elaborate framework that enables distrust. The film’s court never issues a verdict. That, Kurosawa leaves up to us. The only way to arrive at an official outcome is to know who to trust, and so the question becomes, Who’s most trustworthy? And the answer here is either no one or everyone. What Kurosawa gave us is another theoretical way of thinking about the truth, as other than granular. As both official and self-servingly personal. The title Rashomon happens to name the ruined gate in Kyoto where, eventually, thieves and bandits hid themselves. It’s very much a place. But Kurosawa’s movie makes it something more: a state of being.