Criterion: Rashomon and the moral ambiguity of humanity


May 3

Rashomon, a 1950 Japanese film by director Akira Kurosawa, is a favorite of directors and a film school staple. A samurai and his wife are attacked on the road by a bandit who rapes the wife and allegedly kills the husband. There are four witnesses to the murder, the three people involved and a woodcutter who witnessed it in secret. They each give differing accounts. Everybody lies, even the spirit of the deceased samurai and the supposedly disinterested woodcutter.

The story takes place several centuries ago and is told as the woodcutter, a priest, and a ragged stranger take refuge from the rain at the dilapidated city gatehouse called Rashomon. The priest and woodcutter had testified at the trial of the bandit. The priest had found the wife hiding in his temple and woodcutter had testified to finding the body, not to witnessing the crime.  The action switches between the telling of the story at the gate, the forest where the attack took place, and the open air court. If the conflicting stories of the wife and bandit weren’t interesting enough, through a medium, the samurai also testifies. The woodcutter insists that a spirit can lie because he, too had witnessed the murder and knew what happened. His testimony is suspect in the eyes of the stranger because he suspects that the woodcutter stole an expensive dagger, the missing murder weapon in the wife’s story, from the scene of the crime. 

Rashomon was one of the first films to use an unreliable narrator. When it ends the audience still is uncertain as to what actually took place. Apparently this film has been the inspiration for a number of movies where the concept of conflicting perspectives on the same event is explored, Courage Under Fire and The Usual Suspects for example.

The point of the movie is not to find out what really happened, but to understand why each of them told a different story and why each man at the gate is affected as he is by the incident. In looking at the players in the crime itself, the samurai, the wife, and the bandit each tell the story in a way that avoids personal shame and best reinforces the image each wants to project. In considering the responses of the men at the gate, the priest is disillusioned and feels that he’s lost faith in humanity after what he’s heard in court. The stranger reveals his cynicism asserting that everyone lies and acts out of self-interest. The woodcutter is conflicted and is not ready to face his own guilt. Yet Kurosawa’s direction may hold a clue. The woodcutters’ testimony has no musical accompaniment while the other three tell their stories to music that reflect the mood and tone of each character. This may indicate that the woodcutter’s version is a more accurate but incomplete version of what happened.

In the forest scenes Kurosawa uses light and dark, especially scenes of sunlight pouring through leaves. If the traditional interpretation of light as good and dark as evil holds, the dappled effect seems to indicate that a certain moral ambiguity exists in each character. No one is completely good or completely evil.  The rain at the gate adds to the pensive, reflective attitudes of the three men, each considering his position on absolute truth and the nature of man. The positions seem to be that the priest wants to believe in the goodness of humanity, the stranger wants to believe in selfishness and inherent evil of humanity, and the woodcutter wants to deny his own guilt and be more than his most recent evil act.

Many critics see the final scene as a flaw in the movie. The woodcutter performs an act that restores the priest’s faith. I felt like this final scene provided another alternative to ponder. Perhaps the point is not whether human beings are capable of being absolutely good or completely truthful, but that human beings are morally ambiguous creatures who may show shocking selfishness and amazing altruism on the same day. The woodcutters choice could be interpreted as truly unselfish, or as an attempt to redeem himself and alleviate his guilt. So even his seeming unselfishness might be morally ambiguous. What I got out of Rashomon is not that we can place our faith in the goodness of humanity but that we can be sure that goodness exists and that goodness will manifest itself in restorative and beneficial ways when we respond to opportunities to practice goodness.

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