Unlike the epic sweep of the other Kurosawa films I’ve recently devoured, Rashomon hones in on one specific event, an alleged murder. The dialogue is poetic — the demons of the Rashomon gate have fled because they fear the cruelty of humans and human nature. Images of heaps of swords and mirrors. Human life as fleeting as morning dew. The cold light of a husband's gaze. A warm hand drawing a pearl inlayed dagger out of a man's heart.
During a theatrical (as in, a grand theatrical stage) murder trial, in which the witnesses address an invisible, off-camera, and/or offstage judge who may as well be the film's audience, the dead man speaks this disembodied voice through a whirling and writhing, tormented (androgynous?) medium, and this is like, nōh or kabuki theatre, all wind and silk kimono, jangling charms and branches tied with prayer. As ever, Toshirô Mifune, the bandit, is the swaggering and spitting, leaping, teeth gritting, hysterical laughing madman, utilizing every piece of his entire body, every muscle in his face. His eyes are stunning, for one minute, as he sits, roped like an animal, his eyes are gazing vacant at cloud formations, then as he begins to speak, his eyes, his whole face is calculated, predatory.
I haven’t been able to sort through this all, except to say that I am especially interested in the many layers of storytelling, and the subjectivity of “truth.” The woodcutter, the monk, and the stranger who’ve all sought refuge from torrential rain beneath the half-destroyed Rashomon gate, their accounts of others’ testimonies — the bandit, the husband, the wife. During these testimonies, which flashback to the murder in question, this same murder scene replays over and over, three different versions, a different killer in each. So Rashomon is ultimately about the subjectivity of “truth,” but it is also about, as the monk says, whether faith in the human soul is possible in such a world that is so cruel, it breeds such deceitful, such cunning men and women.
In the final version of the murder scene, the only sound we hear is Mifune’s chest heaving labored breathing, and this is disturbing, not only because wehave come to believe he is the unconscionable predatory madman, but because now we see how his entire body trembles with hesitation. Even a murderer’s motives are not clean and deliberate.
Lord. How crazy is this movie.
posted 20 July 2006, Thursday
On story. I’ve previously blogged about “truth” in Rashomon, and am still thinking hard about the motives one has in telling story. Here, each party involved (the bandit, the woman, the samurai) admit their own guilt, that is, the killing of the samurai. So here, story, i.e. testimony, is not told/given to absolve oneself of the act of murder (or suicide, as the testimony of the dead man is given via the whirling medium). Rather, it seems testimony is given to maintain one’s position within the social order. So, does agenda determine one’s memory of an event, for I do not think any of those who give testimony believe they are being deceitful; they seem to be all assuming their roles and fulfilling societal-class-gender expectation. I think, in the places where they can be said to be “lying,” it is because they have acted in ways which transgress their roles. Thing is, with the story here, everyone has agreed upon the basic events/actions, and their basic order. So, the story is the same in this way. The bandit comes across the couple. The woman is violated. The man dies. But knowing the order of events does not suffice in telling the story. If each party is “faithful” to his or her own memory, hence rendering, then can there be multiple “correct” versions of this one story?
Also, I want to go back to the gate of Rashomon itself, and the stories it knows, having been a witness to humankind’s (willing?) descent into “moral chaos,” such that even the demons of Rashomon have fled in fear of humankind. I want to know how to make sense of this, and the faith which the priest insists upon having for humankind. This faith seems to hinge upon individual acts of goodness, the woodcutter taking into his home an abandoned child. How does this all fit in with the testimonies being given and the motives behind them?