Wednesday, June 2, 2010

On "Rashomon"

Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” (1950) is a cinematic gem. There is a lot to chew on and mull over after watching this film. I could devote this post to the moral ambiguities of mankind symbolized by the motifs of darkness and light or rain and sunshine; however, I might also choose to consider the minimalist approach to set design or the riveting performances of the actors. And before I get lost in the minutiae, I better not forget to mention the avant-garde use of flashback and its consequent philosophical import relative to the characters’ conflicting perceptions of reality. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the wonderful allegory of the human condition that Kurosawa crafts into this movie.

What struck me most about the film, surprisingly enough, was the beginning and the end of the story, not the middle with the flashback technique -- that almost seems hackneyed to me today in light of so many subsequent films that have borrowed the technique-- but I know that is through no fault of Kurosawa’s, because for its day “Rashomon” was on the cutting edge of cinematic innovation. Despite the technical achievements and rich symbolism of the film, I found the allegory of the movie both raw in its realistic assessment of our varying and often confused and contradictory perceptions of reality and uplifting in its ultimate affirmation of man’s fundamental value.

Kurosawa’s film begins with the woodcutter espousing to a priest the classic mantra of modern philosophy regarding reality, “I don’t understand. I just don’t understand.” This is a loaded statement, for as we learn over the course of the film, the woodcutter witnessed the whole scene of a bandit raping a wife and killing her samurai husband in the woods. His story does not mesh with the stories told by the bandit, the wife, or the ghost of the slain samurai, told through flashbacks to the scene from each character’s point of view. This leads to a discussion of truth and lies and the difference between the two, not to mention whether an individual can truly know him or herself if he or she cannot perceive reality correctly.

The storytelling builds a compelling case for a skeptical viewpoint based upon the seemingly contradictory narratives posed by the various participants in the crime in the woods. However, a closer examination of the narrative unravels the seeming quality of these contradictions and demonstrates that while the stories do literally conflict they make sense within a psychological paradigm. Each story is a kind of subjective truth through the lens of the participant who is not just observing the events but affected by them and responding to them.

Now, up to this point, the film seems pretty straightforward modernist in its philosophical bent. The end of the film doesn’t quite turn these philosophical reflections on their head per se, but it refuses to acquiesce to a kind of nihilistic quagmire as you might expect. When we learn that the woodcutter who saw everything and purported to tell the whole truth left out the important fact of swiping a dagger for profit, we begin to suspect even his supposedly pure motives. He admits to the theft thus proving himself a hypocrite since he just chastised the bandit for stealing a kimono from a crying infant in the final scene. If the movie ended there, the modernist allegory would be complete. And it nearly comes off that way as the priest almost falls into despair about the human condition.

Kurosawa to his great and enduring credit, though, is not such a pessimist. The flawed woodcutter accepts the forlorn child as his own despite his petty theft or his difficulty in comprehending himself or reality (“I don’t understand my own soul”). The priest is profoundly moved by the woodcutter’s charity as was I, and he rightfully praises the woodcutter for assisting him “I think I can keep my faith in man.” Kurosawa’s greatest achievement, then, with “Rashomon” is giving us a story that captures the deep complexity of man’s heart and mind without compromising either in terms of realism or annihilating either in a maelstrom of pity or existential despair. Bravo, maestro!

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