As Michael Crichton once wrote, “Truth finds a way.” Michael Crichton was wrong.
The Film: Akira Kurosawa’s statement on imperfect justice in light of human self-interest
The Potable: Three Narragansett Lager tall boys
In terms of cultural impact, Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece is a behemoth. The “Rashomon effect” has become academic shorthand for epistemology, the movie is referenced in courtrooms as an example of self-serving witnesses, and, of course, it’s impact on film has been enormous. At the beginning of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz’s character points his gun at a fleeing Mélanie Laurent, grins, and shouts “Au revoir, Rashomon.”
How does one earn such a critical spot in the cinematic canon? By shooting about 20 minutes worth of footage and reusing it four times, evidently.
We begin with an old lumberjack seeking shelter beneath a ruined archway. Who owns the archway? What happened to it? The answer to both, I assume, is the government, but thank God we don’t stay here long because the setting is pretty dour. The focus shifts to the forest, and while I wasn’t loving the urban environment, there is such a thing as too much nature. Neck be damned, Kurosawa’s cinematographer keeps the camera aimed at the treetops. Leaves obscure the sunlight, a motif the director finds endlessly applicable.
The legendary Toshiro Mifune delivers a suitably manic performance in the role of Robin Hood. A lecherous bandit, he leads a samurai and his wife to a secluded grove, slashing and giggling his way through the brush. Why anyone would follow this hysterical creep into the woods remains one of the movie’s great mysteries, but the couple soon regrets it. He knocks the husband unconscious, “seduces” the wife, and engages in a thrilling sword fight with the samurai once he wakes.
The samurai is killed, evidently not the top of his class.
If you stopped watching now like I almost did, you’d leave the theater thinking Mifune’s character was guilty as fuck, except apparently you’d be missing something since the movie keeps going. Mifune is guilty, for sure, but it’s a matter of degrees, and the wife has her own version to tell.
According to her, Mifune’s character wasn’t a murderer, there was no sword fight, and in fact it was she who killed her husband, unable to face his judgement? Entire chunks of this plot would be eliminated with a good defense attorney. A proper counsel would advise his clients to plead the Fifth, but I guess then we wouldn’t have a movie. Anyway, the wife comes off bad in every account, even her own.
Of course, there was a third party involved in the crime: the deceased husband. Dead men tell no tales, but that doesn’t mean you can’t hire a drunk psychic to impersonate him. The mystic flails her sleeves around the courtroom, reveals that the samurai honorably took his own life out of shame, and I found myself unconsciously mirroring her movements in my living room. This version must be the truth. What could the dead samurai have to gain by lying?
Turns out he’s covering for that limp-dick sword fight. The lumberjack saw the whole thing, and watched as the two men cowered behind trees, tripped over roots, mistakenly stabbed their weapons into the dirt, and generally flailed about like a couple of drunk psychics. A legacy is an important thing to maintain, and in his final moments, the samurai’s reputation took quite a bruising.
Nothing’s ever simple with Rashomon. The lumberjack’s story is also suspect, but having already checked out of the story three interpretations ago, I can’t tell you why. We’ll never know for sure what happened in that fateful grove.
I’m not sure what one is supposed to glean from the film. As I said, it was clear after 30 minutes that Mifune was guilty of the crime, and any American court would have given him 20 to life and let the appeals process work it out. Any larger moral Rashomon attempts to offer even seems lost on the characters. Once the rain stops, the lumberjack steals a random baby and runs toward the horizon, so assured is he that he’ll never face punishment under this lax, feudal judicial system.
Give them an inch and they run a mile with a kidnapped kid. Rashomon in a nutshell.
Verdict: need to rewatch