Rashomon ★★★★★

We live in the world of RASHOMON. This is not to suggest we live in a world without facts. Or that truth doesn't exist. If you walk away from this film believing everything is up for grabs you've missed the mark. People really do get raped in the real world. People really do get murdered. The world is full of lies, theft, fraud, and sophistry. We misremember events, we get deluded, we intentionally deceive to gain the upper hand. 

These are all facts —things that actually happen every day. To claim there is no absolute truth, and to do so absolutely, is to automatically prove the failure of relativism.

No, to say we live in the world of RASHOMON is to admit that while facts are certainly stubborn things, our understanding of the facts can change and evolve, be deliberately twisted, or hide under the forested pall of deepfakes and half-truths. 

Watching RASHOMON is like going to a courtroom to learn about an event that actually took place, hearing conflicting stories about how that event went down, getting no resolution as to what it all means, and if you're not careful, concluding that truth is relative, people can't be trusted, morality is a sham, and the world is hell. Ironically, there's truth to each of these conclusions. RASHOMON is actually uniquely built to reveal more about ourselves —and how we interpret things —than it is equipped to dispense truths about its own nature. Finding the light in the dark wood of our souls, glimmering and refracting through an elliptical maze of leaves and shadows, is not an indictment against truth itself, but a testimony of how enormously difficult it is for us to be honest with ourselves, and with others. 

"Men are only men," says the peasant. "They can't tell the truth —not even to each other." First-time viewers of the film will want to get lost in the details of what really happened in that forest, perhaps tracing a line of shared experience across the competing perspectives in the hope to discover the reality of the events in order to pinpoint the liars and murderers. Yet solving the whodunit aspect of the story will be the least interesting path of interpretation. Personally, I find it much more interesting to move beyond some feigned-objective analysis to considering what these incompatible versions of the same story tells us about the nature of subjective truth, which isn't at all the same as saying truth is relative. Too many conflicting stories doesn't erase the fact that a woman was raped and a man was murdered. Facts are facts. Contradictory testimonies just means that more than one of these stories is false, or, the more fascinating angle —no one is lying and everyone is just telling their version of the truth as they remember it. 

Ritchie summarizes this point quite provocatively: 

"If the truth searched for becomes subjective, then no one lies, and the stories are wildly at variance. Truth as it appears to others. This is one of the themes, perhaps the main theme of this picture. No one —priest, woodcutter, husband, bandit, or medium—lied. They all told the story the way they saw it, the way they believed it, and they all told the truth. Kurosawa therefore does not question truth. He questions reality." 

You almost have to get Einsteinian to appreciate what it means to look at the same event from different perspectives, which in the world of RASHOMON means that truth is filtered through subjective prisms, even at the same time admitting that truth could've been distorted for malignant gain. The stories as they stand are not enough at variance to concede the path of moral relativism (meaning, they all share rape and murder in common, both stubborn facts). Moral relativism waffles in its own indecisiveness, but rape and cold-blooded murder will never be justified in any culture or historical period. How we interpret the meaning and culprit of this rape and murder —which becomes our subjective dance between flickering light and leafy shadow —is open for debate, and is what makes the story so wondrous, so challenging, so frustrating to behold. 

Reading RASHOMON as an examination of subjective truth in how each suspect experienced the event almost seems to transform the film into a meta-cinematic experiment for how audiences will interpret the overarching meaning of the film itself. It’s similar to Antonioni’s BLOW UP (1966) in this regard, another masterpiece about what it means to watch and interpret and dissect cinema itself, revealing worlds within worlds.

Isn't it interesting how Kurosawa implicates the audience behind the camera during the trial, never once showing a court inquisitor? It's almost as though the audience is meant to be the judge, jury and executioner of the trial as we listen to the evidence presented and determine for ourselves what is fact and what is fiction. Again, how you interpret the events in this story and assign meaning will say a lot more about yourself than the stingy film will actually reveal. 

To say we live in the world of RASHOMON is to ask yourself: Is human nature inherently evil, always suspect to embellish, twist or amnesiac the facts under the weight of an impossible, miserable uncertainty? Or is there some bastion of hope for the future, reflected in the image of a hungry, crying child, who, like truth itself, needs to be safeguarded against the monolithic tides of relativism, cynicism, and institutional powers everywhere that easily spin grand-narratives to manipulate us for their own gain?

Personally, I want to be the woodcutter who adopts the abandoned truth he finds. I want to nourish the childish hope that while truth can be considered absolute, my understanding and knowledge of truth is always finite and subject to err, keeping me humble in spite of my chronic tendency to dogmatize things.

RASHOMON is the preamble to postmodernism. It prefigures the cultural zeitgeist that gave Derrida his career in deconstruction and resistance towards fixed-meanings. It portends Lyotard's argument against grand-narratives that boil truth down to a simplistic set of ten rules, along with those who would reduce meaning to a single set of objective truths owned by a single tribal family. It sets up Foucault to talk about power dynamics in relation to truth, and the discourses produced by those in power to justify the superiority of the dominant group. RASHOMON actually moves beyond postmodernism to our current age of post-truth and #FakeNews, a time when we're no longer just raising doubts over the idea of truth, but are actually obliterating the line that separates well-established facts from blatant, baseless falsehoods. 

The film is prescient as it is troublesome, enlightening as it is scary. It persists today because of how endless its permutations are, which led me to announce on Twitter before I began writing this review: "I think I finally found a film I can't write about. It's too big. You win Kurosawa." Now that I've written the review, I guess this statement is false, huh? Then again, depending on your perspective, the truth is that I'll never quite articulate how big this film really is. Don't believe me? Watch it and decide for yourself.


Kurosawa Ranked 

BrandonHabes liked these reviews

All