Rashomon ★★★★★

Lashes of rain, spouts of water. A deluge, a torrential spray. All sliding over roof, sluicing down timbers, around pillars of wood, splashing into muddy puddles on the ground. It is a dissected tour; an intro sequence of close images, weather against architecture. Then— we get an image of the edifice as a whole. Rashomon Gate. All the parts together, the complete structure: it is a ruin in the rain, half-formed, jagged with its bones poking out, and degraded by time. This is truth: an ostensible shelter from the chaos outside… but never completely whole, never entirely intact.

Two people— a priest and a woodsman— sit under the shelter, confused, despaired, frustrated. They are shaken and distraught by a story they’ve just heard. The first words of dialogue are spoken by the woodsman, and he says, simply— “I don’t understand.” And it mirrors my own own reaction the first time I watched this film. Like the woodsman, I too was impressed, disorientated, certainly a bit frustrated. The reaction, I think, is completely intentional. There are some events that expose a fracture of reality, a glimpse into the messiness of being human… and how does one react to that?

Amid disasters, war, famine, and ceaseless bandit attacks, this story in particular stands out to the priest. “I have never heard a story as horrible as this,” he says. Then the camera slowly zooms in on him and he tells us what is at stake in the film: “This time, I may finally lose my faith in the human soul.” In Rashomon, nothing less than the nature of the human soul is at stake. That is— the forces of despair and the forces of hope are duelling, and the fate of the soul is at risk.

And what does that come down to? The telling of a story. It is that primeval, fundamental force that drew us to paint cave walls, to give names to thunder, to gather by the campfire, and to stay up far past midnight, lost in the pages of another world. Story-telling draws us together, shapes us, impacts us, challenges and changes us. We witness its personal effects right at the beginning, in the powerful dejection of the priest and the woodsman. And we see it again in how the whole film is framed as the telling of a story, when the two share the experience with a newcomer, who also comes to seek shelter from the rain.    

The story is of a bandit attack, a rape and a murder. But each time the story is recounted, it is vastly different. For the moment that stories are expressed, they are also an expression of the teller; consciously or unconsciously they immediately betray intent, belief, emotion. The person telling the story is not impartial. It is simply human nature. We want people to think like we do, we want people to like us, to approve of our actions— and so we try to cast them in a favourable light. In telling a story, or in any creative venture, right down to a review on Letterboxd, the storyteller is putting themselves at stake. They think of how they will be perceived, of their audience’s reactions. They shape their words with that reaction in mind. And this crucial way that the audience is integrated can also be seen in the shots of the trial. The camera is aimed squarely at the people testifying, without any glimpse of jury or judge. It is almost explicit enough to be a fourth-wall break— a direct address to the viewer— and is certainly pointed enough to suggest a meta-angle to the film, a way that it doesn’t just tackle the nature of stories, but the very way they are told and digested.  

Although the callous crimes aren’t disputed, the rest of the details are shifted and re-arranged to a dizzying degree. The differences are so marked that it makes the various stories impossible to reconcile, converge, or make sense of. The film consistently has us question the truth of its own images. It asks us: who are these images mediated by? How does justice function amid so much uncertainty? How can it hope to navigate human bias? Who is embellishing, and to what degree? Why? What do they gain or lose? At a point, it seems like all we have are questions. Yet they’re all gesturing towards one, larger question: what is truth? A fact, an equation— perhaps even a myth? This is the sort of question is even more relevant in our current culture of polarization and extremism, when algorithms can shape the realities that people live in, and when the same event can be interpreted in wildly different ways.   

But this labyrinth of irreconcilable questions doesn’t mean that there is no truth to be found. As Brandon says in his review, “If you walk away from this film believing everything is up for grabs you've missed the mark.” This conglomerate of bias, deceit, and mistrust doesn’t pave the way for a nebulous relativism. Facts exist, but they are cast under shrouds by the telling of our stories. They are always present, but half-seen; able to be more fully explored, or re-shaped to one’s will. In Brandon’s words: to delve into 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.” 

This vision of exploring and questioning truth is at the heart of the postmodern spirit. Postmodernism itself also often gets maligned for suggesting there is no truth, and so ‘anything goes.’ Its critiqued for ushering in our current era where people are suspicious of authority, and where any perspective must be considered, no matter how uninformed. And Derrida’s method of deconstruction is critiqued as too much of a negative force, not positive; leaving nothing in its wake. But these arguments miss the intent of the philosophy. Deconstruction doesn’t mean to erase facts, but to re-examine them. It isn’t just about being pessimistic— in fact, it is actually rather hopeful. It tears down the building blocks of our assumptions, yet it also gives us the opportunity to build them back up. Better, stronger, mortared with hope. It is the same with the Rashomon: it dismantles its character’s faith, and then, in the aftermath, it gives them the chance to raise a new sort of hope. 

The importance of this conclusion can be seen in Rashomon’s cultural context. Although set in feudal times, the film still carries forth the postwar themes that have been brewing in the background of Kurosawa’s early films. From No Regrets for our Youth to Scandal, Kurosawa’s films have examined various angles of postwar pain: the struggle for freedom, socioeconomic strife, and the places of people who’ve been tossed out by the cruel machine of war. But the reaction to World War II comes to a thematic head in Rashomon. The story of the cruel bandit attack and the uncertainty of how to proceed in its aftermath can be read as a microcosm for the uncertainty of how to proceed after the visceral devastation of a world war.

Postmodernism was also largely influenced by the meta-narratives of WWII. In a way, it emerges from all those unfathomable wells of chaos— those dark, tangled blots of utter meaninglessness. How does one come away from that? How does one pick up the pieces? And what else might have been damaged as collateral? Might truth itself have been irrevocably changed? In the face of an unthinkable event, things fall apart. And afterwards, it can sometimes seem hopeless to press forwards, to find right and wrong. It might even leave one despondent and still, just waiting and watching the pounding force of a rainstorm.

Both postmodernism and Rashomon are not about abandoning truth. They are about interrogating it, and knowing that although one can never see truth wholly, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. Rashomon cracks open what we think is truth— and it asks us to look closer, not to ignore it. And so how does one react—? With hope. With a sense of hope that is tempered by the knowledge of evil, but also softened by the goodness of a new beginning.

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