Thanks to Eden Tesfaslassie, a 2022 Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.
May 20, 2022
The main themes the audience sees explored in Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashōmon are death, truth, and losing faith in humanity. The story conveys this message with the frame of a murder trial, but even by the end of the film, the audience still does not definitively know what happened or who committed the crime. Justice and truth do not prevail. Instead, the ending focuses on the entry of a different character, an abandoned baby. This child is meant to represent innocence and restored faith in mankind but not in the way we expect.
Throughout the film, the audience is given bleak, yet accurate, depictions and observations of the world: “[it] is hell,“ “people are weak,” and being “good is make-believe.” These statements are only reinforced by the murder trial where all of the witnesses admit to committing the murder. Even at the end, with the forgotten newborn, one of the men’s first instincts is to rob the defenseless baby of its amulet and fine clothes. It is only with the two remaining characters in the last few minutes of the movie that we get a tonal shift from this cruel and unyielding world to something more optimistic and hopeful.
Although children are meant to represent purity and a fresh slate, having not been tainted by life, the baby’s introduction in the film is not the entire reason for the tonal shift. Eventually, the child will grow up to be an adult in this hellscape world and that innocence will be long gone. How is this an optimistic ending? It’s not. It is the action of the woodcutter adopting the orphan child that the audience is meant to focus on. In those final moments, the woodcutter’s act of charity leaves a profound impact on the viewer. While the child reminds the audience that people are born without sin, the film clearly demonstrates it is the world that molds them as they grow older. It can even have people stray from their core values and beliefs, sometimes to the point of corruption as evidenced by the horrid events of the film. However, as cruel as the world may be, humans are not irredeemable and one act of kindness is all it takes for there to be good in humanity.
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