Rashomon is a fascinating cinematic masterpiece by acclaimed Japanese film maker Akira Kurosawa. On the surface what seems to be a simple tale of rape of a woman and murder of husband after they encounter a bandit in a forest becomes one of the most complex tales when none of the versions of the encounter and crime narrated by bandit, wife, dead husband’s spirit and eyewitness account match. It is one of the most extraordinary films about human mind’s inability to see and reveal truths in same way. The movie is seen as allegorical and is often referred in political and social essays. It is a tale of perspectives and how each perspective distorts reality more. Maybe it is true that there is no single reality or absolute truth but everything is relative.
The film opens with a scene at Rashomon, a gate of abandoned grove in the forest where three strangers have taken shelter from rain– one is wood cutter, another is priest and they are later joined by a passerby. The woodcutter and priest start talking about the recent crime in the forest and subsequent trial and they narrate all contradictory versions to the curious passerby.
Subsequently movie moves to the trial scene where bandit and the raped victim give contradictory versions. According to the bandit he is mesmerized by the cache of ancient swords shown by samurai and ends up tying samurai to tree and then seduces his wife. The shamed wife then entices him to fight a duel with her husband to death. The both men fight a duel and it is the bandit who wins the heroic battle by killing the samurai while the wife runs away. In bandit’s version he is not a killer but winner of a duel.
The film first runs through the bandit’s version and then through beautiful wife’s version where she demonizes both men for failing to keep her honor. The bandit raped her and her husband treated her with contempt and loathing after bandit left the scene. She freed her husband but was shattered by her husband’s changed attitude and in a moment of madness had picked dagger only to faint instantly so is unable to remember the moment of murder.
The priest then decides to summon the spirit of dead samurai to know his version since dead have no reason to lie. But husband’s spirit says that the bandit had asked the wife to join him and she had agreed on the condition that he killed the husband. The bandit was shocked by the request and was sympathetic towards samurai and had even freed him giving him the choice of either killing the wife or letting her go. It was wife who had fled in panic fearing she would be killed and samurai had killed himself out of shame and disappointment. So samurai doesn’t see himself defeated and killed in the encounter but he finds glory in suicide.
The passerby is confused by the versions and he seeks an account by third person who was not involved and had no reason to lie. There is an eyewitness account too and it is none other than the wood cutter who has witnessed it all but had avoided the trial. According to him bandit had indeed asked wife to travel with him after raping her but she had freed her husband instead and had asked the two men to fight for her love. Her husband was not keen to fight for a wife who had lost her honor and this had enraged the wife and she had criticized both men for being weak and they had fought reluctantly in which samurai got killed. The wife had fled but bandit could not catch her. Bandit had left limping with the sword of the samurai. There is a hint in the end that woodcutter had stolen the expensive dagger so there is a reason to doubt his version too.
Each version is equally convincing and true genius of Akira Kurosawa lies in not making viewers biased towards any of them. Viewers are left with the choice of accepting any perspective depending on their sympathy for the characters. The movie also reveals the nuances of human nature and the dark evil side of it. Kurosawa tries to redeem human soul by ending the film on an optimistic note when three men at Rashomon gate hear cries of an abandoned baby while the passerby steals baby’s kimono it is the wood cutter who takes baby home. There is hope in kindness.
Isn’t how things are in reality? We all have our minds and different perspectives. We paint a picture of ourselves for ourselves and the world. But what we perceive or express may not be the truth or reality. We live in a complex distorted human world where ego and self interest dominates and only rare act of kindness redeems human soul.