The plot in short: Torrential rain forces three travellers to take shelter. To while away the time, two of them (a lumberjack and a holy man) tell the third about a murder trial they recently attended. The bulk of the film is made up by a series of flashbacks within flashbacks: the woodcutter and the priest remember the testimonies of the accused murderer (a bandit played by Toshiro Mifune in a remarkably hyperactive, even monkey-like performance), the wife of the deceased, and (via a medium) the dead samurai himself. The audience gets to see all these statements (or arguably memories) acted out, giving the film a somewhat non-linear structure. Notably, the eyewitness accounts do not match up as to the circumstances of the crime.
There are spoilers below this line; or are there?
I was a bit surprised to find out that the crime at the center of the story is not actually “just” a murder (which it usually is in modern stories that use the technique, and in cinematic and televisual quotations of/allusions to Rashomon), but is accompanied by another crime, rape. Nothing graphic is shown, but still, it’s a difficult issue, and the 12 rating on my DVD seems a bit generous. Particularly since the account of the dead man’s wife is undercut by all the other (male) witnesses: the bandit claims she enjoyed being “taken”, her husband states she ditched him for the bandit, and the woodcutter’s testimony turns her into a hysterical harpy. An immature audience might have problems taking the woman’s claims as seriously as the others.
The sexual assault itself, corroborated by all the witnesses, adds special poignancy to her testimony, and it’s interesting that she all but accuses herself of murdering her own husband for considering her defiled. The latter would hold more weight in her favour (for the sake of verisimilitude) if the other participants in the crime didn’t also claim responsibility: the bandit admits to killing the samurai, if in an honourable duel that is most likely embellished, and the husband claims to have committed suicide after being abandoned by his wife. The fourth flashback at the end of the film is the most realistic, if only because all three characters come across as pathetic, but it must still be viewed with suspicion; the woodcutter has admitted to omitting crucial information before, and it’s possible he has done so again in the version of the truth he tells at the Rashomon gate.
I had heard of Rashomon before ever watching it, of course. One can’t be immersed in Western pop culture for over a decade and not know of the film’s existence or its central conceit. The storytelling mode used in Rashomon was not invented by Kurosawa; variations were used in Citizen Kane (1941), Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950), and I’m sure many even older films. But many people (including people who haven’t even seen the film, if I’m any indication) think of Rashomon whenever subjective flashbacks are used in a movie or television show. And why not? Kurosawa uses the technique well, giving no definitive clues which memory/story is false, and suggesting that maybe all of them are. It’s up to the viewer to decide which version of events he or she wants to believe, or which elements of each story are most plausible.
That’s not just an empty phrase. Except for a few camera moves in the scene with the medium, the trial is shot from generally the same angle: the witness sits in the centre of the frame and tells his or her story almost directly to the camera. No judge is ever seen or heard, even though the characters are clearly addressing him. Hence, the audience becomes the judge, via the camera.
Rashomon would be an important film if Kurosawa had simply gone with the vanilla version of showing a single scene from several differing perspectives. Many filmmakers today are satisfied with that. Kurosawa was not, and added to the complexity of the film by continually reinforcing the unreliability of both “the told” and “the seen”. Just so we don’t forget that even the testimonies in court are filtered through the memories of priest and woodcutter, they are never far away, sitting motionless in a corner at the edge of the frame. They are easy to miss, but clearly there for a reason.
The idea of the unreliable witness is introduced rather amusily by the competing stories of how the cowardly villager “captured” the dangerous bandit; once he has told his tale and the bandit angrily retorted that it happened quite differently, the villager is never shown again, as if to say it was too easy to expose his version of the truth as obviously embellished; he has also served his purpose and so is not needed anymore. The scene pulls double duty by demonstrating how important his reputation is to the bandit, giving viewers a reason to suspect his testimony about the murder later on. Kurosawa is telling us in broad miniature form not to trust anything these people say, and then proceeds to do it again in a more subtle and expansive manner.
The medium, too, serves a distancing purpose; it’s quite possible that the medium does not have a supernatural connection to the spirit world and is just making up a story that sounds good. The word itself suggests a middleman who may or may not be trustworthy, but is by necessity removed from the original source (I don’t know whether this holds true for the Japanese word for ‘medium’, unfortunately).
One of the comments the continually skeptical listener in the frame story makes while listening to the account of the trial is: “I don’t care if it’s a lie, as long as it’s entertaining.” My personal interpretation of him is that he is demonic, one of the creatures said to have once populated the area before driven away by the depths of mankind’s depravity; his aim: making the priest, the only inherently trustworthy character in the film, lose his faith in our species. The more common interpretation, I suppose, is that he, and his comment, represents the audience, and I’m fine with that as well. All the testimonies could be true, individually; the personalities of the characters involved are mostly consistent across versions and with what we see at the trial. The characters may even fully believe (or want to believe) the stories they are telling, and there are probably elements of the truth in every one of them. But in the end it doesn’t matter, because the truth is not the point, or at least discovering it is not. The point is that the truth is ephemeral, hard to grasp objectively even under the best of circumstances, and impossible to determine completely when human emotions like pride, guilt, and self-deception enter the picture. In the end, the worries of the priest are allayed not when he finds out the truth, but when he witnesses an act of kindness. Humans, it might be said, should be judged by what they do in the present, not by what they say they did in the past.