It’s weird watching Rashomon after seeing multiple films and episodes of TV shows that used the central narrative device of Rashomon after the film came out. On the one hand, it’s a film that did a lot of this stuff first, but on the other hand, it is still, in a way, somewhat old hat.
Probably what makes Rashomon work as well as it does is how the lies in the story are presented. We have the initial witness testimony, showing the discovery of the body.
Next, we have the testimony of the killer, which is clearly self-serving, as while he still admits to committing the rape and murder, he confesses to these things in a manner that makes himself look good – the woman he rapes falls in love with him because he’s so good at the sex, he’s a better swordsman (and generally more clever) than the samurai. He’s only bested because after his self-described daring deeds, he gets the shits. It’s testimony full of self-describing braggadocio, that immediately makes it questionable because we, as the audience, know better than trust this level of self-aggrandizement.
We then get the testimony of the samurai’s wife, and the victim of the rape. While having the victim of the rape be a liar is more than a little problematic, considering how even to this day women who are raped are treated by society – the falsehoods in her testimony are almost more telling about the society of feudal Japan than they are about the character. Her lies put her conduct into the proper roles expected of a woman in feudal Japan who has been raped – because she has been raped, she must kill herself or leave her clan. The closest we get to her breaking from those roles in any way is her demand that the rapist and her husband fight to the death, as aside from her, only two people know of this event, so if one of them (ideally the rapist) dies, then the secret is safe. When her husband dies, she describes herself as attempting to commit suicide, and not succeeding (as opposed to failing to go through with it) – thus making her still a proper samurai’s wife.
Then we go into the realm of the supernatural, with the testimony of the samurai’s ghost, by proxy of the Medium. The differences from the truth here could be described as much as the loss of information in translation (or self-deception) as opposed to a deliberate falsehood, as from my encounters with Japanese horror fiction, a ghosts’ perception of reality and the events of their death can be much more dramatically colored by their emotional state at the time of their death. In the samurai’s case, this was a deliberate betrayal by the spouse, leading to the samurai committing suicide in their sorrow and shame, instead of a duel.
Finally, we have the truth, once again given by the woodcutter, who actually witnessed the whole thing. Without getting into the truth of the situation, because I’d like to give you some reason to see the film – the reveal of the woodcutter’s falsehood in conjunction with the framing story, really works well with the theme – which I’d describe as being less based around reality being subjective, but more how societal place and social roles colors how the truth is presented.
In the courthouse, in front of his social betters, the woodcutter lies to preserve the status of the bandit who can terrorize him, the honor of the samurai class he must be deferential to (and who can also kill him), the woman who has been wronged (and he pities), and the judicial system which is prejudiced on behalf of the samurai class. However, in the shelter of the Rashomon gate, in front of the peasant who is his equal, and the priest who is a voice of theoretically neutral moral authority, the woodcutter feels comfortable enough telling the truth of the matter.
There’s also the character of the peasant who is worth mentioning. The peasant begins doubting and apathetic – a figure only seeking entertainment during the rainstorm that brings about this framing story. As the film goes on, the figure becomes more menacing, crass, nihilistic, and self-serving. By the end of the story, the peasant has become an antagonistic figure himself, representing and speaking on behalf of humanity’s baser instincts, our lizard-brain that makes us do anything to survive, no matter how base. The priest argues more on behalf of our better angels – that in our darkest hours, we can still be good people, and that the idea of being “good” is something worth protecting. Thus, the woodcutter becomes something of a surrogate for Kurosawa (as Kurosawa tends to put surrogates for himself in the film) – comprehending and recognizing humanity’s baser elements, but hoping that mankind can eventually do better, and be better, even if he recognizes that hope as being naive. The woodcutter as surrogate also is rather fitting, as for much of the film he’s the storyteller.
I’d put off watching this film for a very long time. I don’t know ifnow was the perfect time for me to watch and grok this film, but I’m glad I watched it, and I think whether you’re a fan of Kurosawa or not, or a fan of jidaigeki films or not, Rashomon is definitely a film worth watching.