Rashomon: Framing Narrative and the Importance of Everyday Self-Criticism
“I don’t understand. I just don’t understand,” a woodcutter utters, stooped on the steps of Akira Kurosawa’s titular gatehouse Rashomon. His companion is a priest, the self-pronounced “renowned priest of Kiyozumi Temple” and he too has no solution “for a story as strange as this.” A third man approaches, his interest peaked by their reflections, and he beckons them to share their tale. The camera cuts to the words Rashomon hanging on a sign over the crumbling refuge, and with that the woodcutter begins recounting his trauma from three days past. Hence, from the very beginning Rashomon invites its audience to consider not only the story to be told, but implies that the solution will be found in the way its stories are told. Accordingly, as the film unfolds, it alludes repeatedly to the uncertainty of its own narrative and in so doing, demonstrates, rather than describes, the distortions in converting reality to report, and the essentiality of narrative to comprehension.
In the simplest terms, the plot of Rashomon is one about a rape, murder, and subsequent trial that occur from an encounter between a bandit named Tajomaru, a samurai, and the samurai’s wife. It tells its story retrospectively with the woodcutter, the priest and the third man sharing the account three days after the trial where each witness retold their version of the events. In unusual fashion it assumes the form not just of a regular framed narrative, but one of framed narratives within another framed narrative. The woodcutter recounts that three days earlier while he was out working in the forest he found a veiled hat by a mountain road. As he walked further along he finds a samurai’s cap, some pieces of rope, and eventually the body of a slain man, hands still grasped in the residual agony of his rigor mortis. He screamed and ran immediately to report the event to the local authorities who subsequently launched a trial into the death of the samurai, calling to testify Tajomaru, the wife, and the ghost of the samurai.
The general progression of events in each person’s account of their fateful encounter remains largely the same. In Tajomaru’s story, he attributes the death of the samurai first to a warm wind which lifts the veil of his wife as they rode by the spot in the forest where he slept. He catches a glimpse of her face and driven mad by desire began to plot how he could have her. He approached the couple again as they rest by a pond and deceived the samurai to follow him into the woods on the promise of some cheap swords he had discovered in a nearby ruin. As the samurai walked ahead of him now far from the main road, he launches an ambush from behind and manages to bind the samurai in rope before returning to rape his wife. A scuffle ensues, and the wife attempts to stab Tajomaru with a dagger, but ultimately he overpowers her, forcing her acquiescence to his advance.
From this point on, the subsequent retellings differ in the order of events and the motivations of each person leading up to the death of the samurai. Tajomaru’s own account claims that after he finished with the samurai’s wife, she runs to catch him telling him that she can’t have her shame be known by two men and either he or her husband had to die. Subsequently, he unbound the samurai and hands him his sword. The two fight courageously before Tajomaru gets the upper-hand and kills the samurai.
The wife’s version claims that after her rape, she runs to embrace her still bound husband but saw in his eyes only loathing and resentment for what she had done. She cut his rope and hands him her dagger asking him to kill her if he must, but spare o’ spare her from the hatred of his gaze. Still he persists, and so she inches closer, dagger in hand before the camera cuts back to the courtroom implying that she had committed the murder.
Finally, the samurai tells his story through the use of a medium and claims that after Tajomaru’s rape of his wife, she asked that he kill her husband so she could be his. Tajomaru refused and threw her on the floor, telling the samurai “I will do to her as you wish.” However, she managed to escape, and after a long pursuit, Tajomaru returns to unbind the samurai, leaving him alone in the woods. Unable to bear the dishonour of his wife’s betrayal the samurai stabs himself with the dagger she had dropped.
The central conflict of Rashomon is of course neither the death nor the rape, for these facts are established by all accounts, but rather in determining the truth of the events and which version to believe. Each witness in the trial claims the samurai died at their hands, and so the issue that concerns the woodcutter’s retelling is not the assignation of guilt. Each account contains flaws from which a conclusion of reasonable doubt may be drawn. Tajomaru’s character is established prior to his testimony as being boastful with his claim that after his capture by a river bank, writhing in pain he had simply become ill from drinking the water of a contaminated spring, rather than falling from his horse as the memory of his captor seems to suggest. In this light, doubt may be cast on his account of the battle fought between him and the samurai which stands at odds with both of the other versions, and which he has incentive as a man bound by honour and pride to embellish with details of his own valor. Similarly, the wife’s version in omitting her request, present in Tajomaru and the samurai’s accounts, for him to kill her husband upholds her image as a virtuous and faithful woman placed in difficult circumstances. Driven by the burden of guilt to kill her husband and hide her shame. The version by the deceased samurai likewise places him as the victim ultimately not only of Tajomaru’s ambush but of his own wife’s betrayal; the only path left to him being to kill himself and avoid disgrace. Not only therefore does the standing at odds of each account with each other likewise cast a collective doubt, but the characters themselves are portrayed as possessing incentives tied to the value they place on their own honour to misconstrue fact for purpose.
The problem is further reinforced when it is revealed in the film’s final act that the woodcutter had not merely discovered the body of the dead samurai in the woods but having heard a woman crying from afar, approached and bore witness to the murder. In his account, Tajomaru consoled the samurai’s wife after raping her and asked her to elope with him. However, she tells him a woman could not decide and that he and her husband must fight to the death, the victor winning her hand. Both men at first refuse to fight demonstrating cowardice in valuing their heads over honour. Their shame intensifies and eventually she goads them into conflict. A pathetic fight ensues before Tajomaru barely manages to get the upper hand, the samurai begging to the last to be spared. Despite stripping away the honour which each witness lies to preserve, Kurosawa gives us reason to doubt even this account of events as it omits mentioning the presence of the wife’s dagger, which at the conclusion of the film, is revealed to have been stolen by the woodcutter. Furthermore, while the samurai is deed and has arguably nothing to lose but his honour hence his incentive to preserve it Tajomaru is still alive and if he were, as the woodcutter claims, a coward then it is odd that in his testimony he would confess to committing the murder, and thereby condemn himself to execution, just to preserve an honour which he did not wish to fight for in the first place.
The resolution to Rashomon leaves all of its mysteries unresolved. Simple as this appears, it was a deliberate act that brings to light the problematic role of narrative in knowledge construction across fields of history, media studies, and the like. Kurosawa tells the story of the encounter between Tajomaru, the samurai and his wife in a roundabout rather than direct manner, what this article has established already as framed narratives within the overarching framed narrative of the woodcutter’s own retelling. Information is never relayed directly but always as one character or another’s account and thereby subject to their distortions. The cinematography of the film further reinforces the lack of clarity. In one of the most famous shots in the history of cinema Rashomon points its camera directly at the sun, an act that was previously considered taboo. However, just like the information relayed is always distorted, the sun is always shot behind the foliage of the forest, creating an image where the source of the light is obvious to all, but the light remains covered by layers of leaves, and always distorted. The use of the forest as a visual portrayal of the distortion of facts is further evidenced by the encounter taking place only after the samurai and his wife leave the main road. In their journey with Tajomaru into the depth of the woods each figure is never shot clearly but always with the forest in the foreground and background obstructing the sight of the audience, just as the accounts obstruct that of its onscreen listeners. In this light, the role of the woodcutter is particularly interesting as a man whose very occupation is to cut the obstructions to truth, but who ultimately himself is also incapable of separating his retelling from his motive.
The conclusion to be drawn from Rashomon pertains specifically to the relationship between individuals and information. In consuming media, history, and even in the basic act of listening to other people speak we receive information that is never true to reality. This is specifically the result of our imperfect methods of transmission which prioritize, distort, and as a result emplot narrative onto experience. As a result, depictions of reality always blur its details, as frames to narrative, and the leaves of the forest to the sun. However, Kurosawa does not spare his audience from introspection and asks us also to assume the role of the woodcutter who should cut down obstructions to truth but who in retelling his own narrative also succumbs to distortion, hence, he says “I do not know my own soul.” As Hayden White argues “We can construct a comprehensible history of the past… only by a decision to ‘give up’ one or more of the domains of facts offering themselves for inclusion in our accounts. Our explanations of historical structures and processes are thus determined more by what we leave out of our representations than by what we put in.” Since reality always contains more information than any possible account of it, our relationship to the past is narrative by nature. Likewise, as Rashomon never depicts the original instance of the encounter in the woods, the retellings we consume, and the memories we construct never are fully capable of encompassing all that once was but never can be again. Therefore, the brilliance of Rashomon is specifically in the uncertainty it breeds, for it brings to the attention of its audience to the unreliability of the information they consume as well as their own susceptibility to contributing to unreliable information that other people consume. The redemption of the woodcutter in the last scene of the film, which the priest describes as reaffirming his faith in the human soul must hence be viewed within the context of this incitement of self-awareness. As the woodcutter finishes his account of the events, the three men in the gatehouse hear the cries of a baby. The priest and the woodcutter want to shelter it from the rain, but the third man thinks only of stealing the kimono that keeps it warm. As the woodcutter calls out the third man’s immorality, he in response, accuses the woodcutter of lying in his account, and of being the one who stole the dagger. At this moment, the woodcutter has an epiphany and realizes that while he had spent the entire time judging the witnesses at the trial for lying in their accounts, he was in fact no different from them. As the rain dies down, he approaches the priest who is now suspicious of him being as much a thief as the man who took the baby’s kimono. However, he offers instead to take the baby into his home. This act reaffirms the priest’s faith in humanity and the last scene of the film shows the woodcutter walking off into the distance carrying the baby in his arms, a look of contentment and closure on his face. A redemption found in confronting his own character with full doubt.
The redemption of the woodcutter is an act of kindness committed in light of his own hypocrisy. At the end of the film does the woodcutter no longer obsesses over the lies of others for he becomes conscious his own likewise capacity and complicity. That is to say, he becomes aware of the previous faith in his soul being tied to his subjection to narrative. By distancing himself from his hypocrisy he achieves what Hayden White describes as the ability to “identify the ideological [as] the fictive element in our own discourse. We are always able to see the ‘fictive’ element in those historians with whose interpretations of a given set of events we disagree; we seldom perceive that element in our own prose.” While White speaks specifically of history, the point of Rashomon in the redemption of the woodcutter is a personal consciousness towards the artificial narratives which colour our conceptions of reality. History perhaps more than any other discipline affects the way in which we conceive of ourselves and our surroundings in relation to others since it is the collective story of the life of an individual, of an institution, a nation, or a whole people. Thus, the woodcutter’s redemption is his separation from allowing his beliefs to be clouded by the narratives of others as well as by his own narrative. It is his realization that even in his own case motive subverts itself into any account of the real.
Applied on a broader level, Rashomon is about a realization that what is taken at first glance to be true should always be scrutinized. The historical context of Rashomon as a film created in 1950 Japan under a state of American occupation lends further support to this interpretation. Two censor offices, one military and one civilian, were established in the occupation years 1945-1952. The military office was concerned with security, the elimination of subversive tendencies, and opposition to occupation, but more significantly, the civilian office was intended to inculcate the Japanese with American values, specifically a love for democracy. What ensued was a strict censorship of the Japanese film industry, so that films of this period were to promote specific narratives of the dangers of militarism, the sanctity of the puppet emperor, human rights, and the love of free speech. Paradoxically, the promotion of free speech existed in a climate of controlled content, where the presence of an indoctrinating influence hung over all films produced by Japanese studios. The intent therefore of each character in Rashomon in promoting a version of events in their own favour may thus be read as a metaphor for the imposition of hidden motives into contemporary films of this period. Just as the heat in another of Kurosawa’s films Stray Dogs, lends itself to being an indirect representation of a force always present (the occupation) but which none of the characters can talk about, the forest which obstructs the sun in Rashomon may be viewed as the barriers of censorship which obstruct the reality of what occurred. That is not to say, that the values imposed on Japanese society were to Kurosawa inherently bad. The unresolved nature of the plot in Rashomon merely encourages viewers to not accept everything that is presented exactly for what it is and thereby to become conscious of the ideologies which subvert all levels of information consumption.
The point of Rashomon is beyond the events which occur in the forest, beyond the redemption of the woodcutter, and beyond even the context of censorship in occupation Japan. It demonstrates in an hour and half the challenge at a later point in time comprehend the “truth” of the past. It portrays the constructed histories of each character in their varying narratives of what occurred, and illustrates the underlying motives each has to distort the truth. It reveals that often we do not know our own souls and are ourselves complicit in ordering our narratives around our own interests. The point of Rashomon is as the woodcutter first utters to not understand, or rather to not be too confident in our own understandings. To question history, to question the facts as they are presented, and the ideologies which motivate each interpretation. Narrative clouds the world as we interpret it, recognizing its presence perhaps will make us more conscious of the structures of society, and on a human level of each other. To achieve this, requires everyone to become everyday self-critics.