Rashomon was filmed in 1950 by director Akira Kurosawa. It is famed for its brilliant narrative structure, which intrigues and ultimately bamboozles the viewer. It was the first Japanese film to be widely distributed in the Western world, and its popularity gave Kurosawa the spur for an astonishing career that would include The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo.
What follows is a summary of Rashomon's complex storyline, followed by some thoughts on the film's meaning. It is intended only for those who have already seen the film; if you haven't seen it yet, don't read any further!
The Structure of Rashomon
Rashomon is set in and around the ruins of Rashomon Gate in Kyoto during the troubled 12th Century. All the events take place in one of three locations:
The Ruined Gate - Here, three men, the Priest, the Woodcutter and the Tramp, shelter from torrential rain.
The Police HQ - Here, in flashback, we see the characters recounting their tales to an unseen interrogator
The Woods - Here, also in flashback, we see a murderous event take place. But exactly what happens depends on who is telling the tale.
The story can be broken down as follows:
In the ruins, the Tramp asks the other two why they are depressed. In answer, the Woodcutter begins his tale.
The Woodcutter's First Tale
The Woodcutter recounts how he found the body of a man - the Husband - in the forest.
The Priest's Tale
The Priest recalls seeing the Husband and Wife travelling along the road shortly before the incident.
The Police Agent's Tale
A Police Agent tells how he found an injured Bandit (who had fallen off his horse), and took him to the police.
The Bandit's Tale
The Bandit insists that he did not fall off his horse; he merely had a stomach ache. Under interrogation, he describes what happened in the woods. Seeing the Husband and Wife, and lusting after the latter, he tied up the Husband, and raped the wife in front of him. Gloating over his misdeed, he prepared to leave, sparing their lives. But the Wife, who was now despoiled in the eyes of herself and her husband, begged him to stay, saying she would belong to whichever of them could kill the other in a fair fight. The Bandit agreed, released the Husband and fought him in a tough, honourable sword fight. Eventually, he defeated the Husband. But when he turned around, the Wife had run away.
The Wife's Tale
The Wife, who has been sheltering at a temple, now tells her story. It is completely different. After the rape, she says, the Bandit ran away. The Wife tried to talk to her Husband but he was disgusted with her, and merely glared at her with cold disdain. She released him and offered him her dagger, to kill her. But he wouldn't do it, and his stern expression appalled her so much that in the end, she stabbed him to death.
The Husband's Tale
Now, in an extraordinary sequence, the Husband recounts his tale via a medium. According to him, the Bandit told the Wife that her husband would no longer accept her, and that she must live with him. She agreed, but insisted that the Bandit must kill the Husband first. Instead, the Bandit asked the Husband whether he would like him to kill the Wife, since she thinks so little of him. The Wife runs away, and when the Bandit releases him, the Husband kills himself with a dagger.
The Woodcutter's Second Tale
Back in the ruins, it seems that after the Husband's tale, the mystery seems to be solved. After all, as the Priest says, dead men cannot lie. But the Woodcutter insists that there is a complication: the husband was definitely killed with a sword, not a dagger. Having admitted that he saw the whole thing, the Woodcutter now recounts the full story.
After the rape, the Bandit begged the Wife to be his. The Wife demanded that the men fight for her, rather than simply hand her on. But the Husband refuses to fight over a woman such as her. The Wife, furious, told them that neither were real men. Nervously, the two men drew their swords and fought, in a cowardly, scrappy battle. Eventually, the Bandit won, but only by sheer luck.
Back in the Ruins
The Woodcutter finishes his tale. Surely the mystery is now solved? But the Tramp does not believe his story, and suggests that the Woodcutter stole the dagger - missing from the crime scene - and is trying to cover his tracks.
Everyone, especially the Priest, is depressed by the bizarre situation. Then, in a corner of the ruins, the men find a baby that some poor parents have exposed to the elements. The Tramp steals its blanket, and when the others protest, retorts that if he didn't do it, someone else would, and leaves, cackling. The Woodcutter makes a decision. He decides to take the baby home, even though he has six children of his own. The Priest feels that this action restores his faith in men, and as the Woodcutter leaves, the rain ends and the sun emerges.
The Moral of Rashomon
At the end of film, it is impossible to know who is telling the truth. All the participants tell their story with absolute conviction, and Kurosawa films each version with the same realistic, textured, and lovingly detailed photography. Yet the stories cannot be reconciled, because no teller can be trusted. Amazingly, this is true even though three of the participants insist that they killed the Husband: this is not a case of guilty people trying to escape justice.
The Bandit's story cannot be trusted because he seems to be exaggerating to make himself look like a brave warrior. In his version, he is loved by the wife, and defeats the Husband in a brave and honourable combat.
The Wife depicts herself as suitably penitent, and her Husband as cold-hearted. Her tale is superficially plausible, but the Woodcutter's insistence that the Husband was killed with a sword, not a dagger, casts doubt on it.
The Husband's tale ought to be true, since we are told that the dead cannot lie. Yet it is contradicted by the Woodcutter's account, and it too seems an elaboration, designed to make the Husband seem like a noble martyr. How do we know that the dead cannot lie? And even if they can't, can mediums lie?
The Woodcutter's tale may seem the most plausible. The Woodcutter has nothing to gain from lying. Furthermore his tale presents the characters without any idealisation: the men are cowardly buffoons, and the wife is only interested in cynical self-preservation. And yet there is doubt here too, because the Tramp accuses the Woodcutter of inventing the story to deflect attention from stealing the dagger. We don't know if he did steal the dagger, but he looks guilty at the suggestion, and indeed we may be reminded of the Husband's description of his death: the Husband recalled a long pause, followed by a feeling that someone was drawing the dagger from his heart. When he was telling his story, we assumed this was an angel taking the Husband to the next world. But might we now suspect it was the Woodcutter, stealing the blade from his corpse...?
At the end of Rashomon, it is simply impossible to arrive at a solution by deductive means. This is not a detective story. It is not constructed to bring you to a clear conclusion about what happened. Nor is there a 'true' reading of the event that the makers have tried to disguise. Instead, Kurosawa has created an entirely relative situation, in which there is no secret truth, because the truth can never be objectively proven.
The moral of Rashomon, then, is that truth is relative. But why does this cause such anguish to the characters, especially the Priest? It is because a lack of absolute truth means that there can be no moral certainty. Religion, or even simple faith in the human spirit, requires the certainty that there is a moral order. If truth is relative, if even a dead man can lie, then morality can be relative; the Tramp who steals the baby's blanket is no more or less moral than the Priest. In such a world, the selfishness displayed by all characters in the film can thrive. The world of Rashomon Gate - a ruined, rain-sodden hell - is everywhere. The film suggests a universal nightmare of uncertainty - but for Japanese audiences in 1950, under occupation by American forces and mourning the destruction of their empire, it must have seemed especially applicable to them.
This is why the Priest is so relieved when the Woodcutter decides to give the baby a home. The relativism of truth may encourage amoral nihilism like that of the Tramp. But an alternative viewpoint is that of Existentialism, the French philosophical schema in vogue at the time the film was made. According to Existentialism, there is no absolute certainty: thus, our only way forward is to find a purpose for ourselves, even though we know it to be futile. The Tramp may steal the baby's blanket, but he will remain a purposeless creature living an empty, futile life. The Woodcutter, by devoting himself to the baby, has given himself a purpose. Seeing this allows the Priest to regain his faith, and devote himself to his own futile, but purposeful devotion.
So it's a happy ending. Hurrah. There's only one problem. If truth is relative the Priest cannot know that the Woodcutter is really going to look after the baby. Maybe he's actually planning to roast it over a slow fire, and feed it to his starving kids! The can of worms that is Rashomon remains horribly open...
Rashomon did well at the Japanese box office, but it was not a huge success. It got its big break when it was screened at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 and won the Golden Lion. It made Kurosawa's name, and also introduced Western movie-goers to the brilliance of Japanese cinema.
Rashomon was remade in a Western setting as The Outrage in 1964. Paul Newman played the Bandit as a Mexican; Laurence Harvey and Claire Bloom were the Husband and Wife; and William Shatner played the Priest. The medium was played as a Native American. The film is generally considered a faithful but rather pointless effort, which fails to offer any improvements to the original.