Truth, Honor, Redemption: Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashōmon”

[CW: sexual assault, suicide.]

In a sleepy university theater in northern Texas 35 years ago, my father watched director Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashōmon” (羅生門) for the first time. A psychothriller defined by its visual surrealism and nonlinear storyline, the 1950 film draws inspiration from the short stories of Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川 龍之介) and centers around a trial to determine who murdered a samurai in a forest. It became prominent for dividing Japanese critics while garnering Kurosawa acclaim among international audiences. By the time my father, then a newly arrived film student in the United States, saw it, “Rashōmon” was lauded as a cinematic classic.

Last week, my father suggested I watch it as a “lawyer in training” (Dear reader, I have somehow made it halfway through undergrad and would be pleasantly surprised if I make it to and through law school). Months into self-imposed isolation and days after the breaking point of police brutality in the United States, the increasingly abstract promise of justice sounded more appealing than ever. However, the film’s ending purposefully eludes traditional resolution and the trial’s conflicting narratives inspired an eponymously named effect. Instead, Kurosawa tests the concepts of justice, truth and redemption, while incorporating variables like gender, that humans still struggle to reconcile.

The film opens to rain falling upon the city of Rashōmon’s gate in eighth-century Japan. Beneath the gate’s dilapidated gable-and-hip roofs, its once-graceful wooden structure having collapsed completely in some places, a woodcutter and a priest seek refuge from the rain. They are then joined by a commoner who inquires about their solemn dispositions while building a fire from loose wooden panels. The two men then recount disturbing testimonies they heard earlier that day at a trial to determine who murdered a samurai whose body the woodcutter discovered in the nearby forest three days earlier.

At the trial, the main witnesses are Tajōmaru (多襄丸), a notorious bandit who appeared only after being captured; the samurai’s wife; and the samurai himself (albeit through a medium). The only common detail between the three was what ironically contributed to the differing reports: Tajōmaru’s rape of the wife.

A brutish figure prone to breaking out in sadistic laughter, the bandit professes to first noticing the wife after she rode through the woods in a dress of white, the samurai at her side. He remarks, “I caught a glimpse and then she was gone … At that moment I decided to capture her, even if I had to kill her man.” The bandit alleges that though he did not want to kill the samurai, they engaged in a duel after Tajōmaru violated the wife. She refutes this point, testifying that the bandit ran away after the attack and that her husband killed himself out of shame. The samurai claims that his wife agreed to run away with her attacker and asked him to kill her husband to preserve her honor. After Tajōmaru refused, they fled separately and left the samurai to take his own life.

Though it was not explicitly depicted, I was surprised by the repeated references to sexual harassment in a 70-year-old film. However, Tajōmaru is not indicted for the rape—his only confirmed crime—and the wife receives no sympathy from her husband. In her account, the wife notes, “Even now, when I think of his eyes, my blood turns cold in my veins. What I saw in them was neither anger, nor sorrow, but a cold light, a look of loathing.” Her tarnished honor victimizes the samurai, emboldening him to protect his masculinity and leading to his demise.

Conversely, by confessing to a duel that may not have taken place, Tajōmaru establishes that his concerns lie with machismo rather than morality. To preserve his honor and appear as the samurai’s equal, he brags at one point, “[The samurai] fought very well. We crossed swords 23 times…No one had ever crossed swords with me more than 20 times.” 

Either way, the samurai’s demise becomes a symptom of the situation rather than an individual event. Heteropatriarchal norms deflect much of the blame from Tajōmaru to the wife—who is never identified by a title independent of her marital status—and her alleged complicity.

Each witness offers a different account of the samurai’s demise, leading the woodcutter and priest to cynicism. The woodcutter asserts that the bandit, wife and samurai are all lying to preserve what is left of their honor. The commoner, amused by the events, remarks, “It’s human to lie. Most of the time we can’t even be honest with ourselves.” He then confronts the woodcutter lying for about his role in the crime—his conviction at each testimony’s falsehood meant that he must have witnessed the murder. Downpour continues to fall around the city gate, an allegory for the darkened state of the world, as the commoner’s interest in exposing man’s flaws emphasizes the priest’s anxieties with the state of the human condition. 

When the woodcutter relents, he admits to lying about discovering the body to avoid becoming involved in the trial and engages in the very self-preservation he denounced the witnesses for. He claims that the samurai told his wife to kill herself for the dishonor she had brought upon them. She retorted that both men were cowards, particularly her husband for failing to defend her, and challenged them to duel one another. In the end, under the cover of the foliage, Tajōmaru hesitated before stabbing the man. Afterward, the woodcutter took the wife’s pearl dagger and sold it for cash. As a man who viewed truth and honor as inextricably linked, the priest abandons composure and openly questions what would become of civilization after the woodcutter’s moral transgressions. Kurosawa masterfully uses the priest as a guide for the film’s arc, which is deeply rooted in Japanese philosophy.

The film’s reliance on conflicting narratives and moral ambiguity challenges the concept of absolute truth. A monk named Kūkai (空海), who lived during the 8th and 9th centuries, reconciled Japanese Buddhism with Chinese Confucian and Daoist influences on the subject. Kūkai wrote that one’s mindset is directly related to one’s actions and based his ideas on the premise of a unified mind and body, or “bodymind.” He also drew upon Shingon Buddhism’s esoteric teachings (密教) to present truth as a link between an individual’s bodymind, thoughts, words and deeds. Consequently, he believed that weaknesses in conflicting narratives or an individual’s perception of reality ought to be evaluated rather than dismissed, for they can reveal the mindset that produced them.

Although he was not invoked at any point in “Rashōmon,” Kūkai became a giant among Japanese philosophers and may have influenced the film’s resolution. Though the woodcutter’s narrative appears the least biased, he too seeks self-preservation and is impeachable. For this, he is denounced by the priest and ridiculed by the commoner for being no better than the witnesses.

The tone of the final scene shifts when the three men hear an infant, a symbol of innocence, crying behind splintering wood panels. The commoner reaches the baby first and takes its protective amulet and kimono, against the woodcutter and priest’s objections. He states that the parents could not have cared about the child much if they abandoned it, before leaving the two men with the child. The woodcutter reaches for the child and explains that as he has six children of his own, another one would not make much of a difference.

Though the film does not provide an answer to the samurai’s murder, it speaks to the main witnesses’ different mindsets. The bandit was driven by animal instincts and lacked moral restraint; the wife and samurai were failed by the social order they previously relied on; and the woodcutter, though a selfless man, had become hindered by worldly limitations. At the film’s end, as rain lifts from Rashōmon and the two men go their different ways, it is only the woodcutter who redeems himself.

In my life, I’ve seen society increasingly normalize conflicting narratives and misleading truths as the byproducts of free and fair speech. Upon finishing the film, I was tempted to come away with the conclusion that when we cannot truly determine all the details of a situation, it is impossible to give any one account greater value. To do so would suggest inherent bias. However, giving conflicting narratives equal weight relies on the assumption that every individual is capable of presenting a reasonable argument. It seems to me that whenever this society questions a narrative, it is often to quell the author’s threat to underlying hierarchies on the basis of gender or social status. This has stood true for women coming forth after being sexually assaulted or Black and Brown people protesting our radically unjust criminal system. Just as the woodcutter seeks to avoid becoming involved with the trial and the wife’s rape legally remained an act of irrelivent blasphemy, there are thousands whose narratives provide necessary context that may never be presented at an institutional level. 

I do not mean to suggest that we engage in censorship in cases of conflicting views—quite the opposite. However, we must be mindful of unequal power dynamics present in our system of free speech. Last week, HBO Max temporarily removed the 1939 film “Gone with the Windfor glorifying the Antebellum South and Confederacy while perpetuating stereotypes of the “grateful slave.” It will return sometime within the next few weeks, alongside discussions from African-American scholars on the film’s historical context. In an op-ed for the LA Times that ultimately sparked HBO’s decision, screenwriter John Ridley called on the company to reintroduce the film “along with other films that give a more broad-based and complete picture of what slavery and the Confederacy truly were.” Just as Kurosawa does in “Rashōmon, Ridley asserts that we should be weary of initial narratives presented as fact. By featuring additional narratives, we allow our society to reflect upon historically prevalent mindsets that gave rise to stories like “Gone with the Wind.” 

In another incident, the New York Times’ Opinions Editor resigned last week over his negligence after a Deputy Editor published an article from Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) calling for the militarization of American police. Cotton said that his words were taken out of context and that he called for military use only as a backup, despite having written that a show of force was “necessary to uphold the rule of law.” Conservative journalists called the paper’s decision to pull the article censorship and a distortion by the liberal media, even after columnist Michelle Goldberg outlined its various misleading statements and potentially violent ramifications for Black people. Here, “Rashōmon” provides another invaluable lesson: Though we do not know who murdered the samurai, narrative ambiguity pairs well with the film’s ending. The characters’ testimonies, which serve to reveal the origins of their bodyminds, are more representative of the characters themselves than their undisclosed fates. Similarly, there is no point in debating Cotton’s words—the actions inspired by his bodymind and the potential ramifications of his suggestions are self-evident. 

One’s actions may leave room for moral ambiguity and apologetic rationalizations, but they cannot conceal the initial mindset behind one’s actions. Mindset extends beyond what we consider intent to the material ramifications inflicted upon the bodymind. In the end, “Rashōmon” provides the promise of redemption in a world where conflicting narratives and unimpeachable individuals abound. And though it will require immense labor, I hope we may find redemption.

[Correction (Tuesday, June 23): An earlier version of this article described the city gate featured in the film’s opening as located in “the city of Rashōmon.” In actuality, Rashōmon was the name of the city gate.]

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