Although it’s been several years since I first watched Rashōmon, I’ve always avoided reviewing it, for the simple fact that this film, one of the most highly rated works of one of the world’s greatest directors, has been dissected and written about so frequently (and by people so much more capable of doing justice to it than I am), that the idea of reviewing it was always succeeded by the thought: what could I possibly write about Rashōmon that hadn’t been already written?
But after I reviewed The Woman in Question last week, I decided it was probably high time I did review Rashōmon. I have, after all, reviewed several films of this type: not exactly based on the Rashōmon Effect, but close to it, variations on the theme of multiple narratives. To not write about the film that gave this trope its name seemed like a gap that needed filling.
Rashōmon is based on two stories by the early 20th century Japanese writer, Ryunosuke Akutagawa: Rashōmon, and In a Bamboo Grove. While Kurosawa chose to name his film Rashōmon, the bulk of the film’s plot is taken from In a Bamboo Grove. Rashōmon (the story, not the film) is a brief and unsettling tale set in the ruined gatehouse named Rashōmon, in medieval Kyoto: war, famine and epidemic have devastated the city, and the gatehouse is full of corpses. A man, sheltering in the gatehouse, has a disturbing experience.
Not so in Kurosawa’s film, which begins at the ruined gatehouse, all right, and even has a a reference to ‘five or six corpses’ lying upstairs, but never indicates more than that. Instead, as the rain pours down, we see two people—a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a young priest (Minoru Chiaki) take shelter on the ground floor of the gatehouse. The two men are disturbed about something; the priest tries to be philosophical about it, but the woodcutter, who goes on insisting that he can’t understand it, can’t understand it at all, is less reticent.
Which is why, when a stranger comes along, also seeking shelter in the gatehouse, it is the woodcutter who ends up blurting out his part of the story to this man. As if to get it off his chest.
The woodcutter says that three days earlier, as he went into the woods with his axe, he came upon a woman’s hat, with an attached veil, caught on a low branch. A little further, and he came across other things that had no business in the woods: a samurai’s cap, lying on the ground; a leather pouch with a lining of red; a bunch of cut ropes.
A little further, and he had stumbled onto the worst of it all.
We do not see the face of the murdered man or anything other than those creepy hands clawing lifelessly at the air. The woodcutter ran immediately to the police, and today, three days since the corpse was found in the woods, an inquest was held at the courthouse. The scene shifts to the gravelled garden—very austere, very forbidding—of the courthouse. The woodcutter gives his testimony, and is followed by the priest. We do not see or hear the magistrate at any point.
The priest is at the inquest because what he had seen three days ago has a bearing on what the woodcutter found. Three days back, as he walked along the road to Yamashina, the priest had seen a couple moving through the wood. A samurai (Masayuki Mori), leading a white horse, on which sat a woman wearing a hat with a veil. We see them through the priest’s eyes, through his memory of that moment: the man looking up at the woman, laughing, his face alight with joy. We cannot see the woman’s face, obscured by her veil, but the man’s expression suggests (or is this just the young and idealistic priest’s perception, that colours our own?) that the happiness is not one-sided; she shares in it, too.
Next up at the inquest are two men, one a sneering and uncouth bandit named Tajomaru (house favourite Toshiro Mifune), the other a policeman who had found Tajomaru lying, nearly unconscious, on the riverbank. The policeman guesses that Tajomaru had fallen off the stolen horse grazing nearby.
Tajomaru nearly bites off the man’s head at this allegation. He, Tajomaru, falling off a horse?! Absurd. The truth, insists the bandit, is that he had drunk water from a stream in the woods, and that water made his stomach ache horribly when he reached the river. So he had dismounted and crouched in the grass when this fool came along.
Of his own accord, Tajomaru (who is bound) begins to talk about what happened in the woods three days back. He had been lying under a tree, half-dozing, when the samurai and the woman on horseback had passed by. If it had not been for a sudden gust of breeze that lifted the woman’s veil long enough for Tajomaru to catch a glimpse of an attractive face (that of Machiko Kyo), none of this would have happened.
‘She looked like a goddess,’ Tajomaru recalls. He could not contain himself, so he rushed up to the samurai, pulling out his gleaming sword from its scabbard as he reached the startled man. Tajomaru gave the samurai some enticing rigmarole about having found hidden treasure—mirrors and swords—nearby, this magnificent sword being one of them. If the samurai wanted to have a look and buy one for himself, Tojamaru would be willing to show him the place.
The samurai, though looking contemptuous of Tajomaru, left his wife and horse on the roadside, and followed Tajomaru up the mountainside, through to a grove where Tajomaru claimed to have hidden the loot. There, Tajomaru attacked him and tied him to a tree stump, before running back to the man’s wife and telling her that her husband was feeling ill.
At that, she let him take her hand and run with her towards the grove, ostensibly hurrying to get to the ‘sick’ husband; on the way, her hat caught on a branch and was left behind.
It was only when they reached the clearing and the wife saw her husband tied to the tree stump that she realized that something was wrong. She was a fierce woman, recalls Tajomaru; she pulled out a dagger and tried to attack him with it. That fierceness was what attracted him to her.
But fierce or not, she was overpowered by the bandit, who threw aside her dagger and kissed her. We see her hand, clawing at Tajomaru’s back, and then gradually softening, the violent self-defence turning into a passionate gripping.
Later, says Tajomaru, as he was leaving the clearing, the woman came running after him and threw herself at his feet. She would not be able to live with the fact that two men knew of her shame, she said. Tajomaru must untie her husband, so that they— Tajomaru and her husband—may fight it out. One man must die. She will go with the one who survives. Tajomaru agreed, and having freed the husband, crossed swords with him (“Twenty-three times!” Tajomaru says at the inquest, in grudging praise of the samurai’s swordsmanship. “Nobody has ever lived to cross swords with me more than twenty times.”)
The long and short of it is that Tajomaru finally managed to fell the samurai and stabbed him with his sword. But when he went looking for the woman, she had gone. At the inquest, he seems to be indifferent, if a little cynical, about that. Anyhow, he took the horse and the samurai’s weapons. The woman’s dagger? Oh, he forgot about that. What a stupid thing to do, it would have fetched a good price.
Back at the gatehouse, with the rain still pouring down, the priest, the woodcutter and the stranger huddle around a small fire. The stranger agrees that Tajomaru is notorious not just as a bandit, but as a womanizer too; this story doesn’t come as too much of a surprise to him.
But it’s not over, the others tell him. Because, you see, the woman too was brought to the courthouse to testify. Fierce? No, she was not fierce at all. On the contrary, she was a timid and docile creature.
And the tale she had to tell was nothing like what Tajomaru said.
We are now shown the woman’s side of the story, beginning with after Tajomaru raped her. He goes, bounding triumphantly out of the clearing, and the woman, her hair dishevelled and her clothing half-undone, comes crawling and whimpering to where her husband still sits, tied to the tree stump. She bursts into tears, wrapping her arms around his neck and weeping—until she becomes aware of the lack of expected consolation.
At the inquest, she recalls what she saw in her husband’s eyes. Not anger, not sorrow. But a coldness, a loathing. She pleaded with him, begged him not to look at her like that, to have pity; but no—he did not say a word, just kept staring at her contemptuously. Eventually, half-crazed with despair, the woman pulled out her dagger and slashed off the ropes that bound her husband. She held out the dagger to him, and begged him to kill her and be done with it. He did not accept her offer, and she, hands trembling, lifted the dagger…
Now, three days later, in the courthouse garden, she admits that she fainted. When she came to, her husband was dead, her dagger buried in his chest. She must have killed him in a daze that has wiped out that memory.
Tajomaru’s story, therefore, has—besides the fact of the rape—little in common with that of his victim. This isn’t the last of the witnesses, either: through a medium, the husband’s spirit too testifies—and his testimony is nothing like his wife’s (or Tajomaru’s). Who is lying, who is telling the truth? Who killed the samurai, what really happened in the grove near the road to Yamashina?
Comparisons, and what I liked about this film:
(Those two sections, which I usually keep separate, beg to be combined in this case, because there are several aspects of what makes Kurosawa’s film so admirable that have a direct bearing on its comparison to the story on which it was based).
As I’d mentioned at the start of this review, Kurosawa based this film on two stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa; the main inspiration, though, is In a Bamboo Grove. In a Bamboo Grove consists entirely of testimonies by people: the woodcutter, the priest, the woman, the bandit Tajomaru, the woman’s dead husband speaking through a medium, the policeman who arrested Tajomaru, and (this is the only one missing from the film) the woman’s old mother, who explains who the man and his wife were.
In the film, from the point when the woodcutter begins recounting events to the newcomer, till the point when the dead man’s spirit gives it testimony, Kurosawa pretty much follows Akutagawa’s story, down to small details like the number of times the bandit crossed swords with the man before felling him. Kurosawa, however, sandwiches that core story between two other sections. One, the setting of the gatehouse, with the priest and woodcutter telling the newcomer about the incident. Two, a completely different end, which introduces yet another eye witness and yet another perspective, which was not in Akutagawa’s story.
Comparing the story to the film, I can’t help but be impressed at Kurosawa’s adaptation of it. In a Bamboo Grove is a good story, but it is an ambiguous one; Akutagawa, far from providing a resolution to the mystery, leaves his readers wondering what happened. If you’re not especially perceptive, you may pretty well miss the point of the story and end up feeling a little frustrated at the seeming lack of even a message, let alone a resolution.
What Kurosawa manages to do so skilfully is give the story context, and provide a message (though subtly). A mere series of testimonies, as in Akutagawa’s story, may well have been somewhat disjointed: using the priest and the woodcutter as the narrators (and commentators) and the stranger as a listener (also a very perceptive commentator) gives it a form more acceptable to a film audience. And, by bringing in a fourth story, not the three main ‘confessions’ of what had happened In a Bamboo Grove, Kurosawa extends the story to a slightly more conventional end, giving us a relatively clear idea of what really happened.
In the process, he also drives home the cynical message that, unstated, lies at the root of Akutagawa’s story: that mankind is selfish and deceitful. It’s apparent even if you only examine the confessions of the man, the bandit, and the woman: each of them tries to present themselves in the best light. The bandit, by boasting of his prowess as a lover (the woman begged him to take her with him) and as a fighter (the samurai, though skillful enough to last twenty-three rounds with Tajomaru, still ended up being defeated by him). The woman, by focussing on her own virtue (she wanted her husband to kill her after she was raped). The samurai… well, that I will leave for you to watch for yourself.
The cinematography is excellent, the acting uniformly good. And Rashōmon is, all said and done, testimony enough to Kurosawa’s brilliance as a director. If you haven’t already seen this, do.