In Japanese, with English subtitles.
In the opening shot, the temple Rashomon looms starkly outlined against the sky during a torrential downpour. Built once as an expression of faith, the fact that it now lies in ruins serves as a metaphor for the human condition. As the rain continues unabated, three men pause in their separate journeys to seek shelter inside. One is a Buddhist priest, who staunchly refuses to give up on the inherent goodness of man in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. A second, whose occupation we never learn (if indeed he has one), is cynical to the bone and ever eager to point out man’s weaknesses to anyone within earshot. The third man is identified by the subtitles only as a “firewood dealer”. To pass the time until the rain lets up, they discuss the local gossip surrounding a murder which occurred three days earlier.
The event in question concerns a man and his wife who are accosted by notorious bandit Tajomaru as they travel along a backwoods road. Tajomaru ties up the husband and forces himself upon the woman, and the husband eventually ends up dead. Unfortunately, the undisputed facts of the matter end there – all the participants relate a different version of the details to the police:
The bandit protests that the wife initially rebuked his advances, but then submitted willingly. Afterward, she insisted the two males fight to the death because she “couldn’t bear to be disgraced before two men”.
The wife claims that after she was attacked and the bandit ran off, her husband glared at her with such accusing hatred that she fainted. When she awoke, her husband was dead with the dagger in his chest.
The husband’s version of the story is recounted through a medium channeling his spirit (and you said such things weren’t possible). He relates how after his wife is raped, she pleads with Tajomaru,”Take me away with you!”, and begs him to kill her husband. As the husband laments,”Even the bandit was shocked.” Although Tajomaru declines the offer, the husband is so shamed he commits hara-kari with his wife’s dagger.
As the three men inside the temple argue the veracity of each version of the story, the woodcutter confesses that he saw the events firsthand, but declined to go to the police. He claims that after Tajomaru raped the woman, the bandit was overcome with love for her and promised to reform his ways if she would run off with him. She insists the men fight to settle the question, at which her husband initially refuses while calling her a “shameless whore”. Eventually, the two do mix it up (although the fight is more of a mad scramble than the dignified sword fight of Tajomaru’s version), and the bandit emerges victorious.
Each person’s version of the story reflects their personal world view, or more accurately, how they desire to view the world. The bandit concedes he is no saint, but rationalizes his misdeeds as being caused by circumstance and the irresponsible actions of others. And in the end, he is an excellent warrior, as he underhandedly implies by stressing the good swordsmanship of the man he defeated. The husband, for his part, views dying by his own hand as more desirable than being vanquished by another. Under such circumstances, he’s still the master of his own fate. He fears his wife’s disloyalty more than he fears any threat from the bandit, which manifests itself in focusing the blame on her as the true cause of his death. The woman’s story perhaps makes the least sense of the four (you’re surprised by this?), since it’s the only one lacking a cause-effect relationship for the husband’s murder. Her concern is whether she shares the guilt for Tajomaru’s rape of her, and these inner doubts are reflected back by what she perceives as her husband’s accusing stare. So her version of the story acts to exonerate her from the shadow of guilt – whatever happened, happened without her conscious participation. It’s interesting to note that the questions of blame and guilt surrounding rape as portrayed in this 1950 Japanese film are the same ones still being debated in our own modern-day society.
Of the four stories, it would first appear the only objective viewpoint is that of the woodcutter. It might therefore be tempting to view his version as the truth. In your dreams. Even his version is tainted, for under heavy questioning from the others in Rashomon he reluctantly admits he purloined the wife’s dagger from the scene, and hence had a motivation for deleting all references to it from his story.
The men’s arguments inside the temple are suddenly disrupted by the cries of an infant, whom they discover has been abandoned. The woodcutter takes pity on the child, and vows to the priest that he’ll accept him into his family. The concluding shot shows the woodcutter emerging from the temple with the baby in his arms, and the incessant downpour has now stopped. All men are weak, but in their occasional acts of selflessness lies the hope for humanity.
Several techniques are used here worthy of mention. During the testimony of the woman and Tajomaru to the police, the police are never shown. The scenes are staged so that the witnesses testify toward the imaginary police who reside somewhere behind the camera. The effect is an interesting one – on the surface it seems as though the witnesses are testifying directly to us the viewers. But underlying this is the feeling it creates of faceless, all-knowing beings sitting silently in judgment of the weak people before them. And isn’t that the role Kurosawa is asking us to play?
The bandit’s attack and the subsequent events take place in the forest. Kurosawa gives much emphasis to the scenery of the countryside, often filming the action in longshots. Camera movement is used frequently and with flourish, whether following the woodcutter as he treks through the trees or trucking around the woman to reveal her face when she first realizes Tajomaru’s intentions are evil. Much of the staging of the scenes is rather stilted; as the actors move from one carefully composed shot to the next, fluidity of action is often sacrificed for artistic composition. Frequently during arguments, one actor will turn away from the others and stare off at some imaginary distant object, although I’m not sure whether this is an idiosyncracy of Kurosawa’s staging or a cultural phenomenon of the Japanese.
The man and his wife are attired in expensive silks, while Tajomaru is of the earth – a fact additionally emphasized by the actor’s frequent scratching and swatting of mosquitos, which never seem to bother the other two. As previously noted, the bandit’s attack leads more to the husband and wife blaming their fates on each other than on the bandit, so if you’re plagiarizing this article for a term paper you might want to mention something about Tajomaru symbolizing the realities of the world (or its darker side, represented by the husband and wife’s inner doubts and insecurities) splitting apart what appears from the outside to be a happy marriage.
I’ve heard it said that Rashomon is about the subjective nature of truth – that the existence of an absolute truth about any event is impossible. While everyone is, of course, entitled to their own interpretation, after finally viewing the film I have to disagree about its meaning. I think its message is more that people knowingly alter the truth to hide their deficiencies, than that a single true version of events does not exist. The various versions of the story given in the film are so different from one another that the differences cannot be attributed merely to differing points of view; someone must know they are lying. The reason I bring this up is because I think it would make an equally interesting film to indeed explore that first notion; portray a traumatic event and then show how each character’s interpretation of the exact same order of events leads to differing conclusions.
One more thing before I shut up here. The television show All in the Family had an episode apparently inspired by Rashomon where Archie and Mike give opposing versions of what happened when a refrigerator repairman and his assistant made a service call to their home. But unlike the film, in the show the real truth was eventually revealed, by Edith’s retelling of the events. Both Mike and Archie’s versions were shown to reflect their own prejudices more than what really happened. There was even argument about whether one of the repairmen had a knife, perhaps a further nod to Rashomon.