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Truth in Rashomon

Truth in Rashomon

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February 18, 2022

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon few facts can be established. As with most murder mysteries, the viewer sees a tangled web of evidence unfold before them. Unlike most murder mysteries, the audience begins to assume the role of judge and jury. Though we never receive an answer to the crime, the audience weighs details from each testimonial. The lack of an answer leads us into discussions of the meaning of truth. In the end, dissenting views have no resolution outside whatever the audience can glean from each testimony.

Though there is no solution to the story, per se, each testimony reinforces the following details. First, a man and woman had been lured into the forest by a thief. Second, a man is murdered. Next, a pearl dagger is missing. Also, according to each testimonial, the thief rapes the wife. A local woodcutter delivers news of the dead body to local authorities. And finally, a local priest is among those who listen to the testimony of the thief; the wife; the woodcutter; and the deceased through a medium, or spiritual interpreter. Each of these accounts shares a likeness to the others, but none of them agree on the major details. Most importantly, three of the four characters confess to murder.

The thief claims that he murdered the man for money and his beautiful wife. He describes a difficult sword fight, in which he bests the husband, who happens to be a samurai. It does appear to be true that the thief sets this whole narrative in motion. The woman testifies that she stabbed her husband because, after her rape, he looked at her with disgust. She asks, “What is a poor, helpless woman to do?” No longer clean enough to be his wife, she murders him and tries (though fails) to kill herself. Next, the medium speaks for the deceased samurai. During her testimony, she assumes an altered voice and awkward gestures. In this way, the samurai claims that his wife wanted to run away with the thief, even insisting that the thief kill him. In the end, he killed himself because it was the only honorable choice. Lastly, the woodcutter says that he found a body and rushed to tell local authorities. However, near the end of the film, he explains that he witnessed the whole fight, but did not tell the authorities because he did not want to “get involved.”

No matter the truth, the question remains: What does each character gain by lying? Are they, in fact, lying? If these aren’t considered lies, then what is the nature of truth? Each character presents a story that skews reality in their own favor. Is this a part of human nature? Can the viewer even trust our own account of events? Can the viewer trust their own emotions? If stories allow us to safely interrogate difficult emotions and scenarios, some of us may focus on the fear, others on greed, and others on empathetic responses to characters. While focusing on one aspect of the narrative, we may miss a detail of importance.

I believe that these questions comprise Kurosawa’s real intent. Rather than investigating a murder or solving a puzzle in the style of Sherlock Holmes, say, Kurosawa asks us to witness ourselves. In defying neat answers and clear conclusions, the film forces us to sit uncomfortably with our own questions and the driving needs behind those questions. It also demonstrates the prominent role of the ego. Each character (including the audience) desires something, and it appears that each acts more according to desire than anything else. For my part, I find it maddening that each person claims to have murdered someone, though (to me) it is clear that at least two people are lying. Why would they lie? In what world or scenario is it better to lie than to tell the truth?

After thinking about my reaction, though, I looked into the meaning of a lie. According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of to lie is: “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive” or “to create a false or misleading impression.” All of the characters in this drama embellish their version of the story, and for me, this further explains Kurosawa’s message. Embellish is such a beautiful word to depict the way in which facts take on their own life. The dictionary entry further states that “traditionally, it [embellish] has been used to imply beautifying an object with the addition of things unessential. That’s still true; however, it is equally appealing as an adjective for making statements or stories sound more entertaining.” Not only do the characters want their stories to entertain, they want to distract. And in a murder mystery where details matter, none of the embellishments can be swept away as trivial or “unessential.” Rather, investigating the details nearly replaces the importance of locating the killer.

Roger Ebert explains the audience’s dilemma after watching Rashomon: “Film cameras are admirably literal, and faithfully record everything they are pointed at. Because they are usually pointed at real things, we usually think we can believe what we see. The message of Rashomon is that we should suspect even what we think we have seen. This insight is central to Kurosawa’s philosophy.”

Regardless of where you land on ideas of truth, beauty, or cinematography, this exceptional film offers a puzzle for the ages. It brilliantly incorporates music, natural landscape, mythology, and stereotype which leads the viewer down a rabbit hole of questions. In this case, however, the questions center on the questioner.

Thanks to HMU Tutor Gary Schoepfel for leading us through this film discussion. Next up in HMU’s Winter Film Series is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Check out the HMU Events page for more information.

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