To claim that Akira Kurosawa is an enigmatic director would be an understatement. One of the greatest filmmakers in cinema history, but also a paradigm (and a synecdoche) of post-war Japan, he combines influences from Western literature (e.g. Dostoyevsky) and philosophy with distinctive Japanese aesthetics and tradition. After the American occupation, Japan found itself flooded with Western influence but also wanted to preserve its cultural heritage. This makes Akira Kurosawa one of the most interesting directors of the Japanese post-war era (other notable examples are Shōhei Imamura and Hiroshi Teshigahara, just to name a few).
Rashōmon begins with the conversation between a woodcutter, a local thug and a priest. The priest says: “War, earthquake, winds, fire, famine, the plague. Year after year, it’s been nothing but disasters… I’ve seen so many men getting killed like insects, but even I have never heard a story as horrible as this. Yes. So horrible. This time, I may finally lose my faith in the human soul.” The apocalyptic heavy rain that falls during the film gives the movie its somber tone but also sends a message to the viewer: The catastrophe is about to happen. This quote may very well be a paraphrase from The Book of Revelation attributed to John. This sets the tone and the viewer may most correctly anticipate the horrors ahead.
Albrecht Dürer, The Apocalypse: The Four Horsemen
Rashōmon tells the story of a murder and rape from four different perspectives. We can guess, almost with certainty, that they are all lies. A bandit (Toshiro Mifune) sees a noblewoman, considers her a goddess and wants to have her. He decieves her husband, dishonours her and then kills the husband. All of these facts are presented in all four stories so we can claim that the events unfolded in this manner.
The film draws heavily on Friedrich Nietzsche’s perspectivism. In his famous essay On the Genealogy of Morality, he writes: “There is only a perspectival seeing, only a perspectival ‘knowing’; the more affects we are able to put into words about a thing, the more eyes, various eyes we are able to use for the same thing, the more complete will be our ‘concept’ of the thing, our ‘objectivity’“.
Thus, paradoxically, the farther we are from the „self-evident truth“, the closer we are to the real truth at hand. For Nietzsche, there are no absolutes, no dogmas to believe in, no Truth. We can suppose that Kurosawa was familiar with Nietzsche’s work since in his Ikiru there are some lines that are straightforwardly Nietzschean. Keeping in mind these arguments, we can put the four stories by different characters into perspective and try to be nearer to the truth. This interpretation presumes that all these four stories are lies.
Note: This interpretation does not claim to be a definitive one, it is just that, an interpretation, one out of a thousand and one possible. Each character has his own motives to lie; the first three out of pride and desire to present themselves as strong or honourable, while the Woodcutter has his own motives that are the hardest to decipher.
Story A: Tajōmaru
By observing Tajōmaru’s erratic and uncontrolled behaviour and his vanity, we can tell that he considers himself a great warrior; in his version he is bragging about the way he killed the nobleman.
The reason why the story is a lie: Tajōmaru seems to project his proud temper and fierceness to the woman he is in love with.
Story B: Samurai’s wife
It is obvious that she feels shame because she was dishonoured and wanted to commit suicide. She fantasizes of killing her husband because she resents him for not protecting her and thus facilitating the violent end.
The reason why the story is a lie: It is obvious that in the court she manipulates the judges and talks of suicide in a manner that is too blunt.
Story C: The Spirit of the Samurai
He feels what Nietzsche termed as ressentiment (to look at someone with an „evil eye“, to feel resentment, to say it bluntly – the term is much more complex and far-reaching) toward his wife. He is angry because she let herself be dishonoured and then chose to live in shame.
The reason why it is a lie: His feelings and suffering in hell make him vulnerable to misinterpret himself and others: out of all the first three characters, he has the strongest urge to lie.
Story D: the Woodcutter
The story he presents seems to be in line with his concept of justice (both the Samurai and Tajōmaru are not virtous men), but is not the „real“ story.
The reason why it is a lie: Usually the interpretations tend to emphasize that he should not be trusted by the viewer because he stole the dagger (e.g. Donald Richie). That very well may be true, but also, his black-and-white moral beliefs (he simplifies morality in an almost Manichean form) cloud his judgment and he wants to believe that the world is a just place: Kurosawa suggests that it is not.
Well, we are only men. That’s why they lie. They can’t tell the truth even to themselves.
That may be true. Because men are weak, they lie to decieve themselves.
Annibale Carraci, An Allegory of Truth and Time
In his novel Light in August William Faulkner writes: „They say that it is the practiced liar who can deceive. But so often the practiced and chronic liar deceives only himself; it is the man who all his life has been selfconvicted of veracity whose lies find quickest credence.“
This quote from Faulkner’s novel captures the ideas Kurosawa presented, only with more psychological depth. The mechanism „works“ as follows: to mantain our positive image of ourselves we create lies about ourselves. Since we consider ourselves credible, we start to believe our lies and they become the „truth“.
Precisely that happens with Tajōmaru, the Noblewoman and the Samurai. Nietzsche used to highlight that illusions are necessary for certain types of living, with the truth at hand, we suffer pointlessly. Dostoyevsky once wrote that if we told the truth, the naked truth to others, life would be unbareable.