“I don’t mind a lie… if it’s interesting.” So says the skeptical commoner (channeling Fellini at his most sincere) on our behalf in the middle of Rashōmon. The skeptic (Kichijirô Ueda) is the unbiased spectator of the film, his questions anticipate the thought processes of the audience and propel the evolution of the narrative. The film itself is an interesting lie in that it’s fabricated for our curiosity. Kurosawa as usual is less concerned with the facts of what transpires or why than how it transpires. There may be sexual politics involved, but such considerations are only incidental while the exigencies of psycho-politics (the interaction between the viewer and the work of art) are constantly engaged.
The how is really the essence of cinematic narrative. Occasionally a filmmaker gives us an impression of something powerful enough that our minds don’t have to fill in the blanks; we can concentrate more readily on ideas. If a film spends too much time stating and extending ideas for us, it’s probably empty. We feel insulted. We’d rather be entertained than sermonized. In Rashōmon what actually transpires is that three men are engaged in telling and being told. The telling contains the confessions of three people directly involved in a past incident, so the nested narrative is told by those apparently uninvolved. If the commoner plays our surrogate, then the woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) is Kurosawa. As the woodcutter is engaged in deception, in the weaving of a tale, then so is the filmmaker.
Probably more important than thinking about this film is actually experiencing it. Some films are only philosophically satisfying, some are only a thrill to watch and few are both. Rashōmon happens to be one that becomes less satisfying to think about the more you watch it, but becomes more interesting to experience. The bandit’s (Toshiro Mifune) account of his first glimpse of the femme fatale is still thrilling to watch; a celesta plays, the wind lifts his hair (and her veil), a band of sunlight transfixes our eyes on his as his gaze is transfixed on her. The cinematography of Kazuo Miyagawa, particularly in the forest setting, is impressionistic and spellbinding; his penchant for multiple lighting and backlighting is well utilized here. The forest is a prominent setting and also an important psychological motif. Just as the rays of the sun are lost in the foliage, “the human heart loses its way in the shadow of the forest”1.
The forest feels less like a physical place than a montage of mental states. We also have the framing story of the gate and the court where the confessions take place. The confessional scenes are framed statically with the frame being used as proscenium, not uncommon to Kurosawa films. The characters are speaking directly to us; we are judge and jury. However, the other two settings are used metaphorically, their meaning being derived from the persons who occupy them. The gate and the forest offer Miyagawa an opportunity to frame characters in ways very particular, such as the myriad of abstruse triangles that are drawn by the eye throughout. The motif is obvious: the presence of a third point indicates conflict in a film that is hellbent on demonstrating that there can be no straight line between event and signal.
Adding to and multiplying Miyagawa’s splendid photography is Kurosawa’s editing. He sets up contrasting shots that repeatedly cut from Tajômaru the bandit to the husband to the wife and back again, simultaneously reinforcing Miyagawa’s triangular compositions and forcing a synthesis of planes. The cuts are often so quick and so numerous that they are hardly noticeable, forming a photo mosaic that, combined with a mobile camera—dollies and pans often in combination—produces a sensation of relentless action. The film features far more shots than normal, though you wouldn’t know it due to its pace and the way the shots are so fluidly connected and folded into the environment. Kurosawa almost had to do this because of the elliptical construction, some scenes being repeated multiple times. He was also concerned with time, with continuity of action and with the clear telling of a story, and the narrative of Rashōmon places unusual demands on these concerns.
Based upon everything we’re shown, there is no solution. It’s not that everyone is lying, nor that the priest (Minoru Chiaki) or woodcutter are lying, nor even that all truth is relative as in the original story, but that Kurosawa is lying. Kurosawa leads us to believe that there is truth somewhere in there, that all of the conflicting views can be reduced to an unbroken chain of actual events, but they really are irreconcilable. Everything and nothing happened. It’s a contradictory narrative, a structural conceit on the part of the writer/director.
One interpretation: Kurosawa is saying conclusively there is no truth in cinema, it’s merely an interesting lie. The film is a corollary to the original short story which asserts there is no truth in letters. Kurosawa’s biggest addition to the story is the woodcutter’s assumption of the infant at film’s end. To Kurosawa there may be no truth in film, but there is in real life. The ending can be seen as a Pirandellian affirmation of a humanist philosophy that asserts that art is an abstraction of life, not life itself. The woodcutter leaves the gate, the sole setting of the long ellipse and metaphor of the film’s construction, in long-shot. He might as well be leaving the film as a living being. The film ends and he is free. Again, the woodcutter as filmmaker.
The nice parallel here is that the woodcutter largely controls what we see through his own purposeful deceit and half-remembered recollections. He’s the only character that gives two different versions of his own involvement. This is a kind of exegesis that would seem to presume an awful lot about the artist and their intentions (not something I like to form suppositions about). But I believe intent can be divorced from interpretation, or at least placed under the mantle of subconscious intent. Kurosawa is a human being, thus complex and subject to a host of influences and experiences that have shaped his work in ways most of which the artist himself is unaware. Gender, politics, upbringing, libido and especially art are influences. As a consequence film is always synergetic and syncretic, never simply the sum of its parts or of its creator’s intentions.
For critics it’s simply easier to say, “the filmmaker is saying this or that” when what they mean is “this is what the film says to me”. It’s always simpler to cloak one’s subjectivity in objective language. Kurosawa’s own remarks about this film and others lack serious insight. Not surprising. He is an experimenter, a trailblazer. If he thought too much about narrative he’d risk doing nothing at all, or nothing at all interesting. But he doesn’t need to descry his own ideas for his films to iterate them. His films already say everything. As the man himself said, “if I could express myself any other way, I wouldn’t be making films”.
I think many critics these days are willing to shortchange this film because of its distance from the present and its theoretical simplicity. It’s only simple if you think Kurosawa is trying to say something, namely that all truth is relative. That seems to be the consensus these days. Relativism. Case closed. But what Kurosawa and his screenwriter are really much closer to, without totally confronting us with it, is the subtler notion that truth and actuality are separate ideas. Truth is made. A terse perusal of the great works on logic is enough to inform one of the irresolvability and just plain weirdness of the relationship between reality and truth, but Kurosawa wants to show us and, what’s more, play with the interiority of his characters in an external fashion.
I think Kurosawa had something more like Zeno’s paradox in mind when he wrote this. There is truth in our ideas and truth in numbers, but those are abstractions that are contained in logic. Our attempts at abstraction only systematize the external world without ever truly representing it. Some prominent abstractions are literature, sculpture, cinema, etc.. Those witness to the central events of the narrative lose the truth the second they try to recapitulate it; in expressing their experiences they lie. It’s interesting to note that ‘recapitulate’ means to summarize, while ‘capitulate’ means to surrender.
1 from “Akira Kurosawa: Interviews”, pg. 176