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Rashomon: Is the Truth Out There?

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    lawless

    I realize that the title of this topic is similar to Ugetsu’s and that there are whole prior discussions I’m ignoring, but what I want to raise is the main reason why I disliked Rashomon on first viewing: Unlike The X-Files, which told us “The truth is out there,” Rashomon suggests that there is no such thing as objective truth. Not only is the tone of most of the film cynical (to my mind, more cynical than any other Kurosawa movie I’m familiar with other than Ran, which is entirely bleak), but no one’s version of the facts makes sense or can be reconciled with another’s version.

    This threw me the first time I watched the movie because I went into it expecting one version to be objectively accurate. When it became clear that none of them were reliable, I felt tricked. We rely on at least some of what is depicted in a visual medium like film or TV to be what actually happened. For me, being unable to do that undermines the whole point of using a visual medium. (I’m ignoring movies that are mostly about dreams; that’s a different issue.) I agree that it’s an artistic masterpiece, but its content doesn’t really work for me. It’s a movie I admire but don’t particularly like.

    I am particularly taken aback by the woodcutter. I think he’s treated far too positively. There are a few facts to be had in the movie, one of which is that the woodcutter stole the wife’s knife.

    In the Western legal system, or at least the US one, dishonesty in one matter (stealing the knife) can be used to suggest dishonesty in another (lying or perjury). The woodcutter has already admitted to lying about finding the husband dead, which would lead any competent lawyer to attack his overall credibility. In addition, he had to have been in hiding during the events he described. How is it that he was able to see exactly what was going on?

    With this in mind, why does the priest immediately believe the woodcutter and praise his taking the baby? He has no way to know if the woodcutter actually has six children at home or how he treats them. For all he knows, he’s taking the baby for more nefarious purposes. Knowing what he knows, he should be far more skeptical of the woodcutter’s motives. I know I am, and were I part of a foster care agency, I’d be leery of placing any child in his care.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    Unlike The X-Files, which told us “The truth is out there,” Rashomon suggests that there is no such thing as objective truth.

    I know that its a common interpretation of Rashomon to say that it says that there is no objective truth, but my interpretation of this (and I think, from what he says in his interviews about the film, Kurosawas view) is it is not saying there is no objective truth, but that there is no objective truth when what happens is filtered through the human heart. Something happened in that grove, but we will never know, because none of the observers were objective, and they cannot even be truthful to themselves.

    I think that a further interpretation, which seems to be slipping into common usage when Rashomon is referred to in comparison to other films, such as current releases Dreams of a Life and A Separation, is that there is both truth and falsehood in all four of the stories. That the ‘truth’ is maybe something beyond what any of the four characters saw or described. In other words, while a ‘literal’ truth of what happens is unachievable without objective evidence, a broader truth can be revealed by hearing all the stories.

    I am particularly taken aback by the woodcutter. I think he’s treated far too positively. There are a few facts to be had in the movie, one of which is that the woodcutter stole the wife’s knife.

    I think you are right that the films treatment of the woodcutter (or to be precise, the Priests opinion of the woodcutter) is a weak point. I would agree that the theft of the knife significantly weakens his story. But I think in the films context, for a poor man with a large family to take a knife in such circumstances would be seen as quite understandable. It was to all intents and purposes abandoned and nobody lost or suffered from his theft. I think the episode strengthens the notion that the ‘truth’ of what happened is not in any one testimony, but in fact there are fragments of truth in all of them. They build up to a greater truth (which may be that the absence of an objective truth is in many ways more terrifying than the reality of a murder and rape).

    With this in mind, why does the priest immediately believe the woodcutter and praise his taking the baby? He has no way to know if the woodcutter actually has six children at home or how he treats them. For all he knows, he’s taking the baby for more nefarious purposes.

    That interpretation never occurred to me. I think that it might be a question if the woodcutter had immediately volunteered for the baby, but the fact that he so vigorously tried to stop the man from stealing the childs clothes indicated that his motive was originally just to protect the child – when he later realised he could only do this by taking the child himself, this is what he did. I don’t think that there was anything in his behavior which would legitimately raise a concern for the child.

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    cocoskyavitch

    I think the woodcutter is shown to be a stinker redeemed, lawless. He certainly starts our kinda sketchy, dontcha think? And his redemption comes in caring for another. That’s probably Kurosawa’s simple message.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu

    it is not saying there is no objective truth, but that there is no objective truth when what happens is filtered through the human heart. Something happened in that grove, but we will never know, because none of the observers were objective, and they cannot even be truthful to themselves.

    I don’t disagree that the movie’s point may be the impossibility of arriving at the objective truth through the medium of human consciousness instead of there being no objective truth. The problem for me then becomes that the movie itself undermines the idea of objective truth. In the past, we were able to rely on what we saw in a movie as being either one character’s POV or truth or a bird’s eye (or God’s eye, if you wish) POV.

    Maybe I’m wrong about this, but this is such a radical departure from the way movies traditionally conveyed POV that it undermines the veracity of the movie itself. If all I’m seeing are four slightly dodgy and irreconcilable viewpoints, then what is the point of viewing the movie? Why should I care about the story when no one really knows what it is? That’s what leads me to classify the film as cold, intellectual, overly precious, and unsatisfying.

    My legal training is probably affecting my view of the movie as well, though I was still in high school when I first saw it. I consider the testimony portions some of the most effective of the movie and Kurosawa’s decision to film them from the POV of the judge(s) inspired, but in my mind, once someone’s credibility has been undermined, as happens with the woodcutter, without additional markers of his sincerity, I am skeptical about everything he says and does.The movie doesn’t give me enough of a sense of him. Yes, he stops the commoner from taking the clothing the baby’s wrapped in, but is he sincerely being kind or is he being a hypocrite and applying a higher standard to the commoner than he would to himself?

    I might be able to come to some conclusion about him were I to see and meet him in person without the mediation of film, but as mentioned above, between the movie’s undermining the reliability of any POV and the woodcutter’s lack of credibility, I am left with no way of assessing his actions. Thus, even though I think the woodcutter is supposed to be a stinker redeemed, as Coco describes him, Kurosawa has undermined my reliance on him and the movie enough that I can’t make that leap.

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    cocoskyavitch

    lawless-you are right-the film wants it both ways-to illustrate a slippery relativism AND to indicate there is objective truth/good. I have no doubt that we are meant to accept the woodcutter’s redemption as a stand for GOOD. It just might come out of the blue and too late, and seemingly contradictory to the entire film.

    I also completely understand your point that the film undermines the “documentary” truthfulness we expect from at least one viewpoint. I have some of the same thoughts you have about the trustworthiness of the goodness of the woodcutter flitting through my mind. But, I end up thinkng that the woodcutter is a stinker (it seems likely that he stole the knife)…not a sociopath like Tajomaru-and the degree of stinkerism is what matters.

    Me, I’m a sucker, and I am willing to believe in the woodcutter’s last-minute redemption. I might even go so far as to say that all the horrible events leading up to that moment make the woodcutter grasp for the baby as a way of cleansing the ugliness away. Hey, and that bum who wants to steal the baby’s things? He’s just awful, isn’t he…in the petty way sometimes self-involved people are…(familiar in contemporary life, no?) I think the example of his small-time stinkerism makes the woodcutter NEED to distance himself from that guy with his 11th hour adoption. So I believe it. But, I also have this feeling that the woodcutter might sometimes get cranky with his many kids and might give this baby a slap upside the head, in the future. In other words, the woodcutter is likely a person with an admixture of the good and bad, sometimes a stinker making this one very big, very good act.

    Is it possible that everything that happens under the Rashomon Gate is the “documentary reality” and that everything else is the slippery relativist stuff? I mean, then, it really would be a constant, that the reality is the telling of the various stories- not the stories themselves (all people lie-) and that the “believing our own eyes” documentary can only happen under Rashomon Gate. What about that?

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    Vili Maunula

    lawless: the tone of most of the film cynical (to my mind, more cynical than any other Kurosawa movie I’m familiar with other than Ran, which is entirely bleak), but no one’s version of the facts makes sense or can be reconciled with another’s version.

    While most of the film is, I would say, deliciously cynical, the added frame story and especially its ending is enough in my books to turn Akutagawa’s original story upside down, and make Rashomon quite a hope-filled story. I must also say that the lack of a solution to the story’s puzzle really works for me.

    I agree with you that the film is a little soulless compared to some of Kurosawa’s other works, and I also think that he tackled the subject of subjective vs objective truth much more subtly in some of his other films, but I think that Rashomon is still is very much one of his best works. In fact, I was a little surprised how much I liked it this time around.

    lawless:We rely on at least some of what is depicted in a visual medium like film or TV to be what actually happened. For me, being unable to do that undermines the whole point of using a visual medium.

    I’m actually not sure if Japanese post-war audiences would agree with you here, having first lived through a period of war propaganda films (including “news broadcasts”) and at the time of Rashomon still watching films censored and mandated by SCAP.

    lawless: I am particularly taken aback by the woodcutter. I think he’s treated far too positively. There are a few facts to be had in the movie, one of which is that the woodcutter stole the wife’s knife.

    While it’s impossible to say exactly how he took the knife, I assume that he picked it up after the wife left. Like Ugetsu, I don’t really have a problem with this, even if I would not have done the same. Throughout the scenes under the Rashomon gate, the woodcutter also seems to be bothered by his lie(s), so he does show some conscience, which I think is an important point, and which is also why I am ready to believe that he has six children of his own and that he will be taking fairly good care of the foundling, especially now that he has the dagger to sell.

    Indeed, maybe had he not confiscated the dagger for himself, he would not have the means to take a seventh child under his care. What goes around comes around. Or something of that nature.

    Finally, to answer your question lawless, I certainly think that the truth is out there in Rashomon. It’s just not very interesting or important when compared to what that truth has made the people involved do and say.

    Coco: Hey, and that bum who wants to steal the baby’s things? He’s just awful, isn’t he…in the petty way sometimes self-involved people are…

    Actually, he is probably the character I like most in the whole film. 🙂 Of course, I don’t agree with his decision to rob the baby, but he’s got a point in that the real evil there are the parents who abandoned the child in the first place. And elsewhere, he seems the most rational of the characters.

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    Ugetsu

    It may not be related to this topic (its also relevant I think to the discussion we’ve had on the thread on ‘the Priests Problem‘, but I’ve been reading through again Keiko MacDonalds essay on symbolism in Rashomon (in Richies book on the film) and she does I think have a very interesting take on the importance of the baby in the end, and the reason why the Priest is so happy and relieved that the woodcutter took the baby.

    In her interpretation (if I understand it correctly), the most important symbolism in the book is represented by the constant juxtaposition of light and dark. Throughout the film, we see scenes cast either in deep shadow or direct sunlight, or a dappled combination of the two in the grove itself. The film is contrasting not just issues of objective truth, but also notions of good and evil.

    She sees the importance of the baby as indicating that while what people say can never be objectively confirmed, peoples ultimate nature can be objectively defined by their acts. This is a theme we’ve seen over and over again in Kurosowa. In this way perhaps, we see the Priest as being so confused and disturbed because what he has heard has undermined his faith in being able to see the world in terms of right and wrong, truth and untruth. His happiness at the Woodcutters decision to take the baby can be seen as his delight in finally seeing an objectively truthful action that can be objectively assessed as ‘good’ or positive. He is judging the Woodcutter on his ‘act’ (taking the baby), not at any words he uses.

    MacDonald points out, however, that it was originally Kurosawa’s intention to show ominous clouds over the Gate in the final scene, casting just a tiny piece of doubt in the audiences mind as to whether the act really makes for a happy ending.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: [McDonald] sees the importance of the baby as indicating that while what people say can never be objectively confirmed, peoples ultimate nature can be objectively defined by their acts. … [The Priest] is judging the Woodcutter on his ‘act’ (taking the baby), not at any words he uses.

    My problem with this interpretation is that surely speaking is also an act. Furthermore, stealing the dagger was also an act, and although the priest is not able to confirm its truthfulness, he must by now be quite certain that the woodcutter did it.

    Most importantly, the priest has no objective evidence that the woodcutter’s final act is “good”, apart from the woodcutter’s words. The woodcutter may well toss the baby into the nearest ditch and take its clothes home for his other kids, for all we (and the priest) know. We must trust the woodcutter, and that is only possible by trusting his words, not the act.

    I would say that as the priest cannot objectively assess the act of taking the baby as “good”, this is not what he is happy about. Instead, he is happy that should the act be good — and this we must believe — it may be enough to counter all the “bad” acts that the woodcutter has been accused of doing, which in the end are the result of a single act: him stealing the knife. As I suggested earlier, the money from the dagger will help to pay for the extra child. Therefore, through some sort of a strange reverse causality, the act of taking the child (and assumingly caring for it) can be seen as making it ok that he took the knife earlier.

    But Ugetsu, could I bother you as much as to ask if you could give a pointer where in her essay McDonald mentions this? I tried looking, but failed. It may well be that it’s because it’s late and I’m quite tired after my weekly soccer game.

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    lawless

    I agree with Vili’s perspective on the commoner. He’s the most down-to-earth and logical of the three of them, pointing out the holes in people’s stories. He seems to be both Everyman and the surrogate for the audience. His attempt to steal the kimono the baby is wrapped in (he doesn’t try to steal the clothes the baby’s wearing) may be motivated by a sense that the baby doesn’t need it or isn’t going to survive anyway, just as characters in police procedurals are often depicted stealing money, watches, or other items from the dead.

    It’s probably my legal training, but I still have qualms about the woodcutter. Isn’t it possible that he not only stole the knife, but was the one who killed the samurai? Or took the knife out of a dead (or dying) samurai? Removal of the knife from a living person might well cause his death.

    Without watching the movie again (I still need to finish listening to the commentary, but that doesn’t lend itself to careful rewatching), I can’t tell if any of the stories completely scotch the possibility, and it may not even matter if one or more does. The theory underlying using one lie to impeach credibility is that someone who lies in a small matter is more likely to lie in a larger one. It may be that the woodcutter’s act at the end of the movie is intended to undercut that, but from my perspective, once the movie shatters the possibility of arriving at what really happened, it opens the floodgates to any and every possibility, including the woodcutter’s complicity.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    But Ugetsu, could I bother you as much as to ask if you could give a pointer where in her essay McDonald mentions this? I tried looking, but failed. It may well be that it’s because it’s late and I’m quite tired after my weekly soccer game.

    To an extent I’m paraphrasing McDonald, or to be precise my interpretation of what McDonald is saying (to be honest, I didn’t understand some of her arguments). But I think she encapsulated it at the end of the second last paragraph on page 185 of my edition:

    ‘Kurosawa seems to say we must probe the question of man’s nature by playing he various accounts of the murder against one another. The existence of the conflicting stories implies that if man is put through the ordeal of life, the way he acts will reveal his inner nature’.

    In that paragraph, she doesn’t explicitly refer to the act of the Woodcutter saving the baby, but in subsequent pages, up to 191, she indicates that she sees the final scenes as summing up the conflicts between light and dark, rationalism and primitivism. The true conflict in the end is between the Priest and the Commoner, with the Woodcutter indicating the ‘third way’ of compassion.

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