Acknowledging Inevitable Subjectivity: Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950)

Photo: Akira Kurosawa info / The Akira Kurosawa Community

I decided to use the Akutagawa “In a Grove” story, which goes into the depths of the human heart as if with a surgeon’s scalpel, laying bare its dark complexities and bizarre twists. These strange impulses of the human heart would be expressed through the use of an elaborately fashioned play of light and shadow. In the film, people going astray in the thicket of their hearts would wander into a wider wilderness, so I moved the setting to a large forest. … Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings—the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are.

—Akira Kurosawa on Rashomon, Something Like An Autobiography (1982)

We live in a time of crisis, and in times of crisis people seek certainty. The German cabaret artist Volker Pispers broke this down years ago to the simple formula: “Once you know who the enemy is, the day has structure.” Day after day, the media and politics offer us certainties: a looming climate catastrophe, a pandemic, a war. Often these replace old certainties about cultural roots, the relationship of the sexes, and indeed the inevitability of the uncertain. But certainties are deceptive. Those who seek objective truths will not find them in people’s hearts. The danger of such self-deception must not be underestimated. Recently, with the COVID pandemic, a side of human nature emerged once again that had slumbered in secret for decades, anesthetized by prosperity. Man’s proclivity for frenzy was reawakened, willingly accepting all half-truths that confirmed its legitimacy.

It is precisely in such times that a corrective is needed. While many artists in times like these contribute precisely to the hardening of positions, one may also find that art which—surely influenced by the thought of Rilke—”always wants to warn and defend” without lowering itself to constant commentary of day-to-day politics. One of the most successful examples of such a corrective is a masterpiece by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, his film Rashomon, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1952. Kurosawa, who became an inspiration for many Hollywood filmmakers in the 1970s, intertwines two short stories by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, namely In a Grove and the eponymous Rashomon.

The plot of the classic, set in 11th century Japan, can be briefly summarized. A samurai is crossing a forest with his pretty wife when they encounter a bandit in the heat of summer. When a breeze lifts the woman’s veil, the bandit is transfixed, and he decides to attack the couple. He lures the samurai into a trap, ties him up and then rapes the woman, who after a short struggle surrenders to the robber, in front of her husband. After this, Rashomon unfolds, as the subsequent events leading to the samurai’s death differ dramatically in their accounts in court. It is noteworthy that the differences in the accounts do not stem from the question of guilt, but from the question of honorability. The captured robber does not deny the crime; on the contrary, he boasts of having defeated the samurai in a fair fight. In the robber’s version, the disgraced woman challenges the two men to a duel, since she could not continue to live honorably if both were alive.

The woman’s account, however, paints a very different picture. In her version, she had given herself to the robber to save her husband’s life. But her husband had only contempt for her afterwards; he even refused her offer for him to kill her in accordance with tradition. In despair, she lost consciousness and found her husband’s stabbed corpse when she regained her senses.

With the help of a medium, the victim, the stabbed samurai, also comes forward. He (or rather, his spirit) claims that his wife wanted to join the robber and asked him to kill her husband, otherwise she would not be able to live honorably. The robber was horrified by this demand and scorned the wife for this suggestion. The woman fled, and the samurai, after being freed by the robber, committed ritual suicide because of the disgrace done to him.

Last but not least, there was a witness, a woodcutter. He had observed the events and while elements of all three narratives are present, his version differs in that all three actors act dishonorably and fearfully—one might also say, ‘like humans.’ The woman evades taking her own decision by demanding that the two men have a duel, but they have no interest in fighting each other. The samurai demands the suicide of his wife instead. She does not comply with this demand because she says that her husband must first defeat the bandit before he demands her death, and the bandit should fight for the woman who was willing to join him. The reluctant duel is characterized by cowardice and ends clumsily with the death of the samurai. The whole event is not honorable for any of the participants. Even this version is far from objective, however, because the woodcutter stole the dagger after the deed was done, and did not testify in court that he might preserve his honor as well.

The principle of honor as expressed in Rashomon is remarkable in many ways. First, it is a reminder that this concept, which seems so foreign to modernity, actually once had meaning. Likewise, it is worth considering whether the story’s setting at the end of the Heian period, an era often used in Japanese storytelling to evoke general cultural decay, presents to us imperatives of honor that none of the characters in Rashomon were capable of fulfilling anymore. The film’s use of the concept of honor can be transferred to our age, specifically to the desire to appear virtuous and moral. 

All versions of the deed in Rashomon seem plausible, and in fact the variations are not so much lies as expressions of honest blindness and interest-bound selective perception. The humble self-denial that would be necessary for true objectivity is not even mustered by the dead man from beyond the grave. In Rashomon, the viewer is taken on a journey of self-reflection. If the first (and most detailed) account still seems like a factual, cinematic retelling of the events, the woman’s version raises the first questions, which, however, can still be explained by the unconsciousness (and the associated memory gap). But, with the versions of the dead samurai and the woodcutter, the viewer is led to question whether he, too, has been misled into hastily confusing the plausible with the factual. The question about the actual course of events, even about the possibility to understand them at all, remains unanswered. What remains is only the echo of this narrative, which reminds us in our everyday lives to accept the uncertain and unanswerable as part of human existence.

How difficult is it in our time to resist the lure of quick judgment? Images and narratives often seem so unambiguous to us, because they do not necessarily lure us into a world of lies, but into the world of limited and seemingly plausible views. Modern man may turn up his nose at the notion of honor in medieval Japanese culture, whose people even in death embellished the truth in favor of their honor, but how many of us question not only the views of others, but our own
A world that has become increasingly polarized over the years is now constantly demanding a commitment to one side or the other, and is thus visibly destroying the space in between where reasonable doubt and the courage to ask open questions can be found. With every crisis, this space becomes narrower and those who live in it become pariahs. Rashomon exhorts us to widen this space, because it is where sensitivity to the richness and complexity of human life is cultivated.

David Boos is an organist, documentary filmmaker, and writer for The European Conservative and other publications.