Rashomon (1950)

A great deal is written about what Rashomon says about the nature of truth. The four differing and contradictory accounts of a murder from four different witnesses have rightly made Rashomon a film that has transcended its field as a demonstration of an idea (The Rashomon effect) with applications for other fields: philosophy, literature, psychology and law just to name a few. But watching Rashomon again, that’s not what makes the film great to me.

Yes, it’s where my admiration and curiosity for the film begins, but the reason why it’s great, the reason I count it among my favorites, is what these different accounts tell us about ourselves. Writer/Director Akira Kurosawa explained the gist of Rashomon as “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves.” In practice, this makes for a lot of nuanced details in how the various stories differ.

For Tajômaru (Toshirô Mifune), the man who’s charged with murder, he is the hero of his version of the story. He gets the woman, Masako (Machiko Kyô), not through rape, but by seducing her, it’s consensual. And after the fact, as a matter of honor, he duels her husband, Takehiro (Masayuki Mori), in the longest glorious battle of his life and kills him. In his version, as much as his morality may be questionable, he comes out winning through his swarthy charm, cunning and mastery of the sword. It’s the most flattering portrait he could point of himself given the circumstances.

In Masako’s version, while she still is at the mercy of a bandit, she comes across as far more in control of the situation. It seems that she wants to be the main character in the story, it’s all about her ability to manipulate a bad situation and how she pits the two men against each other for the valuable object: herself. Likewise, when Takehiro speaks through a medium, it becomes a tale about how he is the victim in all of this, how everything conspired against him.

Each story highlights how each person not only sees the situation from their own eyes, but also as if each person is the center of the film’s tight universe. Perhaps even more than an inability to arrive at the truth of the event, the film is about the impossibility of escaping oneself. The individual is caught up in what Kurosawa calls the sin every human carries with him or herself from birth: egotism.

In a society that promotes individuality and self-expression, egotism has perhaps become our most celebrated sin. We’re told to toot or own horn, believe in ourselves, do what we love and treat ourselves before treating others. Perhaps not all of these are bad, but along the way we become so wrapped up in the egotism of individuality that we’re all left lost in the woods.

© 2013 James Blake Ewing