Rashomon (and not In A Grove)

What do you know about Rashomon, as filmed by Akira Kurosawa? – That it’s a meditation on the relativity of truth, I should think, an example of a post-modern questioning of objectivity and metanarratives: – four people give an account of the same “event”, but their accounts are inconsistent because a) people see things from different points of view and thus never agree about things; b) people’s memories are selective and they cannot recall “events” consistently.

Here’s a (paraphrased) quote from The Simpsons, to convince you of your cultural assumptions:

Marge (trying to persuade Homer to watch a subtitled film): You watched Rashomon and enjoyed it.
Homer: That’s not how I remember it.

Here’s another random quote, from an otherwise decent article I was reading recently about the Argentine writer Juan José Saer:

the other movement is repetition, at different speeds or from different angles, not to suggest subjective relativism, in the manner of Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, but rather an ecstatic response to the inexhaustible possibilities of reality and the infinite ways to communicate it

and here’s a quote I reference at the bottom of this post from Donald Richie:

[Rashomon is] a vast distorting mirror or a collection of prisms that reflect and refract reality. By showing us its various interpretations, Kurosawa has shown first that human beings are incapable of judging reality, much less truth, and, second, that they must continually deceive themselves if they are to remain true to themselves.

… except, here’s the thing: – Rashomon is not about the relativity of truth; and this is quite obvious if you bother to watch it, as I did again recently. It’s just another example of the lazy thought practised by our favourite cultural movers and shakers.

During the course of the film, it is stated about 50 times that the various narrators are “lying”. There’s no notion that they see matters differently; nor that their memories are deceiving them – you can claim it, if you like; – it’s just it isn’t anywhere stated in the film. (This reminds me very much of the much-loved “hubris” in Oedipus Rex). – In reality, the film is about the degenerate nature of human-beings, their egoism, mendacity and hypocrisy.

A clue to the basis and intent of Rashomon, I feel, is to be found in the title. – An obvious question about the film is, why – if it’s based on Akutagawa’s story In A Grove (which contains something more of this questioning of objective truth we believe is in Kurosawa’s film) – is the film called Rashomon. – Could a reading of Akutagawa’s story Rashomon help us in this regard? – Well, possibly. – The story Rashomon doesn’t necessarily seem to have much to do with the film – apart from the fact that they share the same temple. This is the story in brief: – a man, who has lost his position as a servant, is at his wits’ end and is thinking of turning to theft to support himself, shelters in a temple; – this temple is used as a store for bodies, since a lot of people are starving to death (I can’t remember why now); – the man encounters in the temple an old woman who is engaged in stealing the hair from these corpses in order to sell it; – he is so horrified by this that he steals the woman’s clothes and chases her out of the temple(?). – So yes, the story is about what people will do to survive (i.e. turn to theft etc) – their inherent degeneracy – and their hypocrisy (i.e. finding the theft of others despicable when it was precisely what they were thinking of themselves). – This connects with that part of the film Rashomon where the main (fourth) narrator chides the narratee for stealing the abandoned child’s clothing, only to be rebuked by the narratee for being a thief himself because he stole the dagger which killed the woman’s husband in the story (I don’t need to explain all this of course, since you remember the film so well – and you knew it wasn’t just about a couple of people giving differing accounts of something).

etc. etc. – You can research and decide for yourself, I’m ending this post here.

Just to demonstate how original Obooki’s thought is, here’s another article on the internet I discovered which points out exactly the same thing (and is better argued); and here’s another one which actually references Lyotard’s definition of post-modernism as an “incredulity towards metanarratives” (which is the definition I’ve always preferred), before laughing at the wrong-headedness of lazy theorists and then cutting off very suddenly.

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6 thoughts on “Rashomon (and not In A Grove)

  1. I agree, but would add that the film doesn’t portray human nature as something irredeemably degenerate (the priest says at the end that the woodcutter, by agreeing to bring up the baby, has restored his faith in humanity). The film is set during a particularly lawless and bloody period of Japanese history; when societies descend into violence, selfishness and chaos, it’s hard for the individual to act in a moral way – but if enough people try their best to do so, then the collective effort will eventually work to bring about a wider social healing. That’s my understanding, anyway. Critics hung up on the notion of an enquiry into the instability of truth have always found the ending of ‘Rashomon’ a bit puzzling, even embarrassing, but it makes a lot more sense to see it as a plea for co-operation and decency in the face of life’s difficulties.

    Donald Richie is one of the most dreary film critics I have ever read (not that I’ve read that many), but any Anglophone reader wishing to learn more about Japanese cinema comes across him sooner or later. He seems to have been the chief authority on his subject to the West for decades.

  2. Yes, that’s true enough – I seem to remember the priest hesitating to agree to the woodcutter taking the baby, because his view of humanity has by that time, what with all the proceeding, sunk so low, but then he realises that not everyone is inveterately evil.

    One thing I didn’t mention: – I think it’s also significant that the woodcutter’s version of events – i.e. the most objective version – is an invention of Kurasawa’s – it isn’t in the Akutagawa at all. Why add such a seemingly objective position – one which the audience can’t help believing is closer to the truth, since it explains all the other versions – if you’re trying to question the objectivity of truth?

    Yes, “a lawless and bloody period” – perhaps a little like the aftermath of WWII. There’s a marvellous film by Oshima I watched recently – The Sun’s Burial – about the trade in human blood carried on in Japan by people who have nowhere else to turn – and then there’s Suzuki’s Gate of Flesh which I watched last year. – All quite similar.

    I don’t really know Donald Richie. A lot of the recent editions of Mizoguchi on DVD have critic Tony Rayns on them; he seems quite good and interesting.

  3. One thought that occurred to me is that, during the war years, Kurosawa was involved in making propaganda films for the war effort. A lot of lying involved there, perhaps, during a bloody period when human beings were at their most degenerate. The woodcutter as a typical witness to barbarity who chooses to remain silent and even profit from it?

    Mikio Naruse made several superb films about the aftermath of WWII, portraying the poverty and struggle to live. Floating Clouds is particularly brilliant, a scalding romantic melodrama which treats human relations with a depth and maturity almost unknown in Hollywood films of the period. It has a great performance by Hideko Takamine, who died earlier this year (she starred in several of Naruse’s movies).

    Tony Rayns is excellent. I love his quote about The Big Combo (terrific 50s B noir with Richard Conte): “As heady as amyl nitrate and as compulsive as stamping on insects.”

  4. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything by Naruse. Nothing sticks out from the list of his films. I will look out for him. I’ve been discovering a bit of pre-Kurosawa Japanese cinema in the last year – how good it is (largely because there’s a lot of cheap Oshima and Suzuki DVDs about at the moment).

  5. Hey, you saw the same Rashomon that I did. No idea what movie those other people were watching.

  6. I’m not sure these others watched a different film. I think they probably watched the same film, and then five years later someone suggested to them that Rashomon was about the relativity of truth and they thought, “Yes, as I far as I remember, four people recalled an event differently; – no doubt then that’s what it was about”.

    Yes, I’m claiming that people’s recollection of an event is distorted by their imperfect memory of it, their relative stance on other issues and the suggestions offered by the society around them.

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