Faced with conflicting claims by victims of Bernard Madoff, bankruptcy judge Barton Lifland complained: “It’s a little like Rashômon.” Like La Dolce Vita, Rashômon is one of the few foreign titles that has entered into the English language, and the judge counted on the word to describe the quandary of choosing among multiple, contradictory perspectives. To the extent that life, like a trial, requires that we weigh the credibility of witnesses and advocates, all the world is Rashômon.
Malevolence did not begin with Madoff, and Akira Kurosawa, who adapted his film from two stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, sets it in a forest in 12th-century Japan. A notorious bandit (Mifune) encounters a samurai (Mori) and his lady (Kyô) traveling through the woods. Eventually, the bandit ends up in custody, charged with murdering the samurai and raping the woman. The 18th-century philosopher George Berkeley insisted that “Esse est percipi” — Being is a function of perception. To the question: “If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?” the Berkeleyan answers: “No.” A samurai falls in a Japanese forest, but what happened in the encounter with the bandit is impossible to determine absolutely, independently of a particular point of view. Kurosawa provides testimony from four contradictory sources: the bandit, the lady, the dead samurai (via a clairvoyant), and a woodcutter who happened to be passing by. And he replays the encounter through the eyes of each. To moviegoers accustomed to accepting as truth images present on the screen, the result is profoundly unsettling.
“I can’t understand it,” says the woodcutter in the film’s opening lines. “I just can’t understand it at all.” In what functions as a frame to the encounter in the forest, the woodcutter, a priest, and a commoner take refuge from a rainstorm under the ruined gate — named Rashômon — to the holy city of Kyoto. As the three strangers discuss the crime in the forest, the camera cuts back and forth between them and different versions of the violent events. For them, as for the viewer, storytelling becomes a test of trust. “My faith in man may be destroyed,” the priest laments.
When Kurosawa released his film in 1950, Japan was still occupied by American troops, after a devastating military defeat that ended with the leveling of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by nuclear attack. Shot in black and white, but mostly shades of gray, Rashômon reflects the pessimism and skepticism of a proud civilization forced to cope with deflated dreams. But the outside world, confronting the murk of the new Cold War and the revolutionary physics of Einstein, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger that emphasized relativity and perspective, also responded, and the film won an Oscar and the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion. Rashômon was the first Japanese film to gain international acclaim, and it energized the career of a cinematic master whose later work would include Seven Samurai, Kagemusha, and Ran and many more collaborations with the inimitable Toshiro Mifune. For the sophistication of its conception, the deftness of its camera work and editing, and the magnificence of its stylized performances, Rashômon might be enough to restore frazzled faith in human achievement.