Rashomon ☕ d. Akira Kurosawa, 1950

The celebrated eleventh chapter of Hebrews — the “by faith” soliloquy — opens with a delightfully simple and perfectly maddening definition of concept. “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”  The writer goes on to cite numerous examples of Old Testament figures that would have been familiar to his readers, asserting that their faith in the Almighty saw them through unimaginable hardships and miraculous blessings.  But then, in verse 39, he hits us with a sucker punch: “These [people] were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised…”  Ouch.  The author’s point is that they were looking forward to the incarnation of Christ, even if they didn’t know it.  What’s important to keep in mind, though, is that the religion of “Christianity” at this point was still mostly a small splinter cult of Judaism.  Not only did all the people whose faith the writer lauds not know to what, precisely, they were looking forward; it’s likely they might not have recognized it.  Faith, then, is something a bit amorphous in definition, even when it’s centered in a specific person or concept, like Jesus or the Messiah.  According to Hebrews 12, the God in whom we’re supposed to place unconditional faith might go out of his way to test believers and force them to endure hardships as a test of discipline.  Personally, I think it’s kind of a weak argument to make for the problem of pain and injustice in this world (God wants us to endure hellish torment so that we’ll be better people? What?), but I don’t think that’s the takeaway lesson from this bit of Scripture.

The lesson that emerges to me is that faith in itself does not compensate for the troubles of living life; it does not, in itself, explain pain and injustice.  Faith exists separately from and beyond the problems of what we might as well call “evil,” and it is in drawing a line between faith and worldly experience that a “person of faith” (as we’re often called) faces a great deal of spiritual difficulty.  In short, the nature of faith is dependent entirely upon the individual who possesses it.  It is human nature to look for evidence to support one’s faith paradigm.  Kurosawa may have approached the question of faith from a humanist perspective, but faith is faith, and Rashomon articulates its pitfalls brilliantly.

Three strangers take refuge during a rainstorm at a dilapidated city gate (“Rashomon”); the woodcutter and the priest tell the third stranger (a sardonic fellow who may, in my humble opinion, be something of a bandit, though he’s identified in the credits as “Commoner”) about the murder trial at which they’ve just been witnesses.  As the sardonic stranger jeers them into recounting their testimonies and the testimonies of the others, we learn that each person tells a completely different version of events.

By the end of the film, we learn that even the woodcutter lied in his testimony in order to cover up his theft of a dagger that plays a key role in (some versions of) the story.  The facts of the case: a man is dead of a stab wound, and his wife has been raped.  A bandit claiming to have done both deeds has been arrested.  The dirty deeds took place in a forest, far from the highway.  This, however, is the sum total of established facts.  Everything else is interpretation or distortion.  The priest and woodcutter have been hashing over everything in a fit of despair, questioning the state of humanity, that not one person in four can tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth… let alone the lamentable fact that murder and rape were involved.

As the three men argue about the meaning of the conflicting testimonies under the gate, they hear a baby crying; they find it secreted away, abandoned, in a distant corner of the gate.  The commoner steals the baby’s swaddling cloth and stomps off into the rain when he’s rebuffed by the others.  Ultimately, the woodcutter decides to adopt the infant as his own, an act of altruism that restores the priest’s faith in humanity.  As the rain stops, the woodcutter leaves the shelter of the gate for his home as the sun sets.

Kurosawa’s technique in the flashbacks is impeccable.  Each version is filmed in a style that complements the character of the person telling it.  For example, when the woodcutter is shown, in his first telling, walking through the woods, the camera tracks with him from left to right, but eventually, through subtle changes in setup, it ends up following him from right to left, even though he’s ostensibly moving deeper into the woods.  Clearly, it is easy to lose one’s bearing in the forest, literally and morally.  During the bandit Tajomaru’s testimony, we’re given a classic Mexican standoff — six camera setups that indicate tension and a gauging of power amongst the three participants.  It’s the kind of showdown a criminal with an inflated sense of his own legend would tell.  And so it goes with each of the stories.  Other critics throughout the decades have commented extensively on the cinematography in the film and how the use of light and shadow achieves a “dappling” effect that blends the characters into the textures of the trees and undergrowth, absorbing them and folding them into a throttling gray.  The thematic implications about uncertain morality and losing one’s humanity in a more primal natural setting are obvious.

The only events the viewer can be certain are “really” happening are those that take place at Rashomon: the conversation between the three strangers.  Everything else is a flashback, or a flashback within a flashback.  We’re intended to think of the flashbacks to the trial as basically true.  The testimonies are filmed with a framing that borders the austere, rectangular geometry of the courtyard, and for the most part, the camerawork is mild and stationary.  It is worth noting, however, that these events, which are supposedly related by the priest and woodcutter, are not seen from their perspective.  The camera mostly adopts the perspective of whoever is hearing the testimonies — probably a bailiff or other official.  This person is seated and calmly receiving the accounts that are offered.  In the background, sitting cross-legged against the far wall, we see the priest and woodcutter.  Perhaps the technique is meant to indicate something as close to objectivity as possible; after all, these are the only scenes in the film (apart from the closing shot) that take place in broad daylight.  The irony is laid on a bit thick, but the contrast works.

I think the blocking of the trial scenes suggests something else as well, though.  The focal point in each trial scene is the witness, and the three most important are Tajomaru, the bandit, Masako, the wife, and the medium who channels the husband.  The priest and woodcutter are present, but they are tertiary to the action of these scenes.  When we later learn the truth about the woodcutter, the style of the Rashomon scenes is not the same as the style of the court scenes, but the same interpretive technique of the flashback is consistent with the other witness flashbacks.  As before, the priest is present for the last testimony, but the commoner is his corroborative witness — not the woodcutter.  So it seems reasonable to argue that the flashbacks-within-flashbacks are not the interpretation of the priest and woodcutter, but rather the interpretation of the narrators’ stories by the filmmaker.  The fact that it’s a creative interpretation is therefore made explicit.

What Kurosawa does, rather than simply stage re-enactments of the subjective testimonies of his characters, is use the trial scenes to frame something closer in spirit to an authorial interpretation.  The flashbacks are not simply defensive self-flatteries of witnesses with a vested interest in making themselves look good; they are thumbnail sketches of the way that a more objective observer than the woodcutter and priest sees the characters.  In other words, the witnesses are not the narrators of their own narratives.  Kurosawa uses the details of their testimonies as a framework for his character sketches.  They collaborate, unbeknownst to them, with the filmmaker, who uses their flashbacks as little more than intricately constructed personality inventories.

Rashomon’s finale may have many hallmarks of a hopeful ending, but Kurosawa is careful to complicate even cautious optimism.  The last shot of the film is not of the woodcutter and the baby, but of the sign above the decrepit gate.  As much as we may want to rest easy in the knowledge that the priest’s faith in humanity has been restored by the redemptive act of the woodcutter in taking charge of the child, the emphasis is not on this act — it’s on the gate itself.  A gate symbolizes transition; in this case, perhaps the transition between light and dark, between morality and inhumanity.  Plus, the gate itself is in dire need of repair; it’s significant that even the site of much grave deliberation requires care and attention, but has received none.  It’s a remarkably ambivalent way to cap off a hopeful ending, but a perfect ending for a film that spent the majority of its time plumbing the dark potential of human nature.  The final shot is one of balance, but that balance can still shift one way or the other.

The probable direction of the shift has nothing to do with Kurosawa’s personal standpoint and everything to do with the viewer.  Rashomon is plainly about the fact that it is impossible for humans to know the whole truth, because their own perceptions will twist their understanding of it.  The film doesn’t deny that whole, objective truth exists — it’s just that we as a species are incapable of comprehending it all.  The conflicting eyewitness accounts at the trial obfuscate the search for objective truth — but it’s not the spiritual problem.  The priest isn’t troubled by the fact that he can’t know the whole truth; he’s troubled by the prospect that people are so rotten and twisted that even an open-and-shut murder case is rendered inoperable to the surgical investigation of law.

There’s no indication in the film that the liars are deliberately trying to mislead everyone; only the woodcutter is shown to have any self-awareness about his venal motivations.  It makes more sense that each character who gives an alternate, differing perspective on events does so because that’s the way that he or she believed the events to have taken place.  The priest is right to question the soul of humanity if people can be so twisted as to genuinely disagree on fundamental facts of such a serious nature.  They are essentially psychopathic.  The way they consciously (or unconsciously) understand what happened is a hermeneutical problem — they can’t help interpreting facts according to their own individual natures.

Acknowledging this, the priest is forced to rely entirely upon what he personally witnessed, and the only thing he witnessed was the passage of the husband and wife on the highway.  Firsthand knowledge is unavailable and secondhand knowledge is unreliable.  A classic Cartesian quandary.  The only reliable observation (and interpretation) that could have been made is that people have a near-infinite capacity to deceive themselves and, as a result, each other.

Which is why faith is of the utmost importance.  The optimism of the ending is colored by a grievous logical error on the priest’s part.  When the woodcutter offers to take care of the child, the priest says that this act restored his faith in humanity.  Based on events just in the last several minutes, the priest should know that the woodcutter is not entirely trustworthy.  Based on his experience at the trial, he knows that even normal people can be deceptive to the point of psychopathy.  The sardonic commoner (who enters with the rain and leaves in it, a character of perpetual darkness) is obviously devoid of compassion.  Apart from the official who arrested Tajomaru, there is literally not one person in the film who has not proved him- or herself to be corrupt.  And Kurosawa takes great pains in his aesthetic to show us a world that gives free reign to mankind’s worst impulses, muddies moral clarity, mocks civilized law and order, and illustrates — with the crumbling Kyoto gate that gives the film its name — the entropy of even the greatest civilizations.  Just because the rain has stopped falling doesn’t mean the world has stopped turning.

The priest’s testimony is so brief and inconsequential as to be beyond suspicion, if only on the grounds that even if it is corrupted by some sort of self-deception, that corruption is immaterial to the case.  But it’s not his trial testimony that’s important.  It’s the journey he takes during the informal tribunal at the gate that is important.  With utterly no reason in the world to place any faith in the woodcutter, the priest hands over the innocent, defenseless babe.  By any measure, this is an irrational act.  It ignores all evidence to the contrary.  It does, however, prove that the priest’s character — his outlook on life — is intrinsically optimistic.

In this way, the priest is no different from the wife, the husband, the bandit, or the woodcutter.  His faith is dependent upon his interpretive worldview; the way he wants things to be; the way he needs things to be.  Empiricism is useless, so he makes a choice based entirely upon a leap of faith.  The woodcutter doesn’t restore the priest’s faith; the priest reconfirms his own faith.  The baby is witness to this before being taken away by the woodcutter.  Only the unknown future will confirm whether the priest’s leap of faith is justified.

As we see in Rashomon, the primary conflict of the film is not between characters or even between competing versions of the truth.  The conflict is within a man of faith; he must decide whether to abandon his faith or to reaffirm it.  The abandoned child serves as our surrogate witness to this drama.  As we’ve already established, the only events to which we know we’re given an unfiltered viewpoint are the events that take place at the gate.  The only individual present for the entire rainstorm is the child — the sardonic commoner leaves before the film’s end.  The final shot tracks with the woodcutter, leaving the priest in the background at the gate… but the baby is being cradled by the woodcutter, so it is arguable that the camera is not just following the woodcutter, but the baby. The fact that the mystery of how exactly the husband was murdered is never solved parallels the fact that the reasons for the priest’s affirmation of his faith are also not resolved.  We the viewers are no closer to solving the mystery of his faith than the three strangers who met at the gate were to solving the mystery of who killed the husband.  The priest’s faith is as closely bonded to his perception of himself and the world as the testimonies of the witnesses were bonded to theirs.

I would characterize Kurosawa’s viewpoint on this as one of wary agnosticism.  Clearly, this postwar film is drenched (quite literally, given the apocalyptic downpour that strands the travelers under the gateway’s arch) in cynicism about the past and uncertainty about the future.  As far as his representation of the nature of faith goes, I think the ambivalence suggested by the final shot is intellectually honest and creatively intuitive.  The only interpretations he allows himself are of the characters, but not the nature of faith itself.  The farcical tragedy of the conflicting testimonies reveals insight, if not objective truths.  The behavior of the commoner bespeaks a deeply felt pessimism that is mirrored by the torrential rainfall; similarly, the emergence of the sun and the generosity of spirit shown by the priest bespeaks a deeply felt optimism.  If the viewer chooses to believe that the film is a humanist parable, that says a lot more about the viewer than the truth of the film.  Similarly so for anyone understanding the film as a misanthropic, postwar jeremiad about human depravity.  My own opinion — that the film is far more noncommittal — might lead you to believe that I’m a bit of an agnostic myself.  This is not the case.

I don’t think Kurosawa could grasp the fundamental contradictions of being a person of faith so well if he had no faith himself.  Anyone who has ever lived by faith understands the frustration of attempting to reconcile irrational belief with the propensity to evaluate meaning entirely in the light of empirical evidence.  The difficulty in doing so can lead to some pretty dark places.  A dogmatic adherence to one’s own point of view is often confused with having a religious belief-system — people who do this wind up like the Kanazawas or Tajomaru.  We can even hold out a bit of hope for the woodcutter, because the power of faith is in its ability to transform the outlook of individuals, if not the world around them.  The woodcutter at the end of the film seems genuinely ennobled by the faith of the priest.

Kurosawa doesn’t get carried away by the priest’s infectious optimism; he may share it, but he does want to remind us of how fragile it is.  Faith is fragile because people are fragile; we are a mess of contradictions.  The faith of Rashomon isn’t in its characters, or even in the dark, gray world it portrays.  Its faith is placed in its viewers to make the right call; to make better decisions and to have the right kind of faith, the kind that believes the sun will rise, even if we know nothing but the cold, inky storm front.  We’re asked to know ourselves better, to know where we stand, and to know why we stand there.  By showing us how faith works, it aims to help us realize the fruits of each believer’s faith more effectively, whatever that faith may be.  We may not be able to see much good in the world, but if we believe in it, and if we’re certain it exists, then — by faith — it must be real. ☕


About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

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