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Rashomon: The Baby's Function and the Identities of the Three Men (12 posts)

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Current forum section: Akira Kurosawa Forums » Theories & Interpretations

The topic Rashomon: The Baby's Function and the Identities of the Three Men was started 6 years ago.



#1


Vili Maunula



The coda in Rashomon, which is built around the foundling baby, is something that I have often heard being criticised. George Barbarow (1952, reprinted in the Rashomon book) for instance likened the ending of the film to "a cliché so wild that Broadway audiences were able to recognize it as a joke in Boy Meets Girl..." (145), and this is in fact a sentiment that I have heard from quite a number of people that I have watched the film with.

The ending is often also criticised for not seeming to be entirely true to the characters (especially the woodcutter's action here seems contradictory to what we assume about his earlier actions), as well as being something of a "deux ex machina" invention with which Kurosawa could force his sentimentalism and "simplistic humanism" (don't remember whose term exactly) into the story.

To be honest, I remember myself feeling slightly cheated by the ending on my first encounter with the film. Introducing the baby at the end just seemed like an unnecessary -- and indeed clichéd -- addition, and something that took focus away from the main part of the film.

There are of course those who go beyond the appearances and ask the question whether there might be more to the scene than first meets the eye.

Richie, for example, notes that the final scene is what actually crucially differentiates Kurosawa's Rashomon from Akutagawa's 'In the Grove'. In his words, whereas Akutagawa "is content to question all moral values, all truth", Kurosawa "insists upon hope, upon the possibility of gratuitous action". (71)

Goodwin, meanwhile, also points out that the scene appears to indirectly confirm that the woodcutter had stolen the dagger, (138 ) leaving us to question even the woodcutter's second account.

Over the years I have thought about this scene perhaps more than any other in the film, and no more do I consider it an unnecessary addition. However, while I think that both Richie and Goodwin have their points, I personally feel that the scene with the baby serves also another, and perhaps an even more important, function.

In order to explain what this function is, however, I first need to talk about something else. Which is the metaphorical identity of the three men at the Rashomon gate. (Don't be scared by the word "metaphorical", it ain't gonna bite you.)

You see, I tend to think of the three characters at Rashomon in terms of their functions regarding the narration of the testimonies. While these roles are not entirely clear-cut, I think that it is fair to say that the woodcutter is (largely) the storyteller, the priest the moral interpreter, and the commoner the one who the story is being told to. In other words, what we have are the source, the moral reflector and the observer. Which, if I may stretch this line of thinking even a bit further, could correspond to the woodcutter metaphorically standing for the story (the movie Rashomon itself), the priest standing for the interpreter (the director, or Kurosawa) and the commoner standing for the audience (us).

Now, I know that this is not entirely straightforward. For one thing, as Richie (74) points out, we don't know who really gives the second hand narration in Tajomaru's, the wife's and the husband's/medium's narrations. Richie in fact makes a case of the priest narrating at least the wife's story, as well as of course his own short account. But bear with me and at least for the sake of an argument think of the woodcutter as standing for "the story", or indeed the film Rashomon itself. At least he is as confusingly self-contradictory as is Rashomon itself, not only revising his own story, but also on a few occasions noting that all the stories (his included?) are nothing but lies, which has always felt somewhat strange to me.

In any case, I think that seeing the commoner as "the audience" or "us" ("you") is perhaps more easy to accept. He is, after all, the only character who is not directly involved with the main story as anything but an observer, and it is through his questions and remarks (the part played by an active observer) that the film evolves and moves forward. He is therefore the consumer of the story (which actually makes me think of the way he literally consumes the Rashomon gate by using pieces of it for the fire, but that is perhaps already quite far-fetched a connection to make).

As for seeing the priest as standing for Kurosawa, I am not the first one to think of this. For example Richie notes that if Rashomon has a spokesman for Kurosawa, it is the priest. He bases this on the general humanism that the priest seems to share with Kurosawa. (71)

Meanwhile, I myself first thought about the link between Kurosawa and the priest because of some of the short verbal exchanges between the priest and the commoner that are present throughout the film. For, on a number of occasions when the priest says something moralising, the commoner replies by saying that he is not the least interested in the priest's moral lessons. This reminds me very much of the relationship between a director and his audience.

In fact, right after the commoner has established what so puzzles the two others, i.e. what the story is about (the murder), he tells the priest that "I only wanted to know about this strange story of yours because it might amuse me while I wait out the rain. But I'd just as soon sit quietly and listen to the rain than hear any sermons from you." I would take this to be a direct statement about the film itself and the audience's typical reaction to it -- ultimately, we don't want sermons, but simply to be entertained.

I would also generalise a bit and say that it is in many ways what Kurosawa himself has often said about films, i.e. that they are, first and foremost, a form of entertainment. If there is more to them, then that is good, but they have to be entertaining first for anyone to bother seeing them at all.

The fact that the film nevertheless pretty much ends with a director's sermon (the baby scene) of course seems to contradict all this. Yet, note that the actual sermon itself comes only after the character of the commoner has left, i.e. after the metaphorical "audience" has taken its leave.

As such, you could say that the sermon is no more intended to the audience, but is something that is shared only between the artist (priest) and the work (woodcutter). It may even be the real reason why the work exists in the first place, the single aspect of it that has driven the artist to create it, but it nevertheless is not something to be force-fed on the audience. Well, at least so in our metaphorical construction of the three men, although obviously less so in Rashomon itself.

In this way, Rashomon becomes very much a narrative of itself, or a narrative of the act of narration, something that is clearly not a novel idea, but perhaps the above is at least in some ways a novel way of arriving to this conclusion.

What the baby therefore allows is for the meta-narrative to unfold and to be fully displayed. Also, keeping in mind the metaphorical identities I have argued for here, the fact that the commoner turns out to be a thief would also seem like some kind of a statement about the audience -- that when it all boils down we are no better or more honest than the characters portrayed in the film. Our realities are no more objective than anyone else's.

I know that I may at points have taken associative leaps larger than I am perhaps allowed, but this is one justification that I personally give for the final part of the movie. Any thoughts on this? Or, any other ideas regarding the baby scene in general?


 

#2


StoreHadji



Great analysis.

I'm a noob to AK and have seen Rashomon only once.

I thought the acting and cinematography were suberb and just about perfect, but a few things bothered me.

First was that I didn't find the woodcutter's story to be the most horrible thing I'd ever heard, though I can appreciate it was upsetting to him. I can't imagine many audience members who'd been through World War II could have found the story so horrible either. Maybe it was a controversial film story for the time in Japan; I don't know.

Second was that I've heard of the Rashomon Effect for years in psychology and law enforcement circles. I understood it to mean how different witnesses to an event have different accounts of it due to the imperfections of memory. So I expected the film to be looking at one event told with subtle differences based upon whoever was recounting it. I was not expecting huge and total differences in the story. It quickly became apparent that all the participants were lying to make themselves out as the hero or victim and to absolve themselves of guilt before the authority who was questioning them.

Third the presence of a Spirit Medium was rather too fantastical for me to buy into. My suspension of disbelief was already tenuous at that point, and I'm afraid the appearance of the medium sent it plummetting to earth.

So my first viewing of the film went astray due to my preconceptions. When I see it again I'll be able to avoid the distractions and view it in a different light.

But first I'll be watching the Postwar Kurosawa box which I'm picking up on Monday.


 

#3


Lewis Saul



Fantastic post, Vili!

It will take some time to soak it in and make any sort of coherent comments. But I will.

I'm working on my own post, but seem to be getting distracted by real world stuff! Annoying, but real.


 

#4


Jon Hooper



Same here, need a bit of time to chew over what Vili's written before writing a response. I do intend to post some of my own thoughts about Rashomon but I think it's a good idea to keep focused on one specific theory/aspect at a time in order to avoid going into long monologues. One thing I will say quickly is that I never had a problem with the ending. Will post more soon once I sort out my thoughts.


 

#5


Jeremy



I too ask for a extension on on my thoughts, I've been lazy to say the least.
I find Vili's post a great read, but have some differences in thoughts, I would enjoy talking about, as well as read others thoughts.
I also think unfair not to bring up the directing choices Kurosawa made, as they play a rather large but subtle role in how everything is presented, along with what I find to be some rather abnormal, confusing and brilliant choices in composition and blocking.
I always wanted to hear various takes on that regard, and hope to see a large active discussion soon.


 

#6


Vili Maunula



Take your time, everyone.

I have given some sort of a tentative response to StoreHadji's comment about the medium in a separate thread, as I would like to keep each thread more or less focused on a single topic.

I'd be very interested in a discussion regarding Kurosawa's choices in direction. I cannot claim any expertise in that area, so I think someone else will have to bring it up first for me to even be able to realise what I am really meant to be looking at.


 

#7


Vili Maunula



Oh yes, and one other thing. As I was re-reading what Yoshimoto writes about Rashomon, I noticed that also he makes the connection between the commoner and the audience and notes that his "presence reminds us that the film focuses not only on the question of human egotism and altruism but also on the problem of narration and storytelling". (187)

Yoshimoto, however, does not give the priest and the woodcutter the metaphorical identities that I did. In fact, he makes a point about the two again being substitutes for the audience in the courtyard scenes. (187-188 )


 

#8


Jeremy



Again I'll say great post Vili, in fact my post in another thread was only to reflect off this one. I had no original intentions of writing much, until inspired by this one and feeling this posted needed some proper feedback, even if its different.
From my post you should see my thoughts verses yours as I for the most part followed what you wrote as I wrote mine.

One thing I never got into and find rather interesting is this

As such, you could say that the sermon is no more intended to the audience, but is something that is shared only between the artist (priest) and the work (woodcutter). It may even be the real reason why the work exists in the first place, the single aspect of it that has driven the artist to create it, but it nevertheless is not something to be force-fed on the audience

I'm a bit confused. are you implying that Rahsomon could be considered a personal story for Kurosawa and not really indeed for us, the audience to witness?
I'll wait till you can elaborate further, before getting into it, but I do think in someways this my be true, and the metaphorical identity you give the people under the gate, would make great sense.


 

#9


Jeremy



Just re-reading what Vili wrote.

He is therefore the consumer of the story (which actually makes me think of the way he literally consumes the Rashomon gate by using pieces of it for the fire, but that is perhaps already quite far-fetched a connection to make).

Thats some deep stuff man, I dont think I would ever considered the fire more then a fire, but I like what your thinking :razz:

I always wondered how he started the fire in the first place--maybe he had a zippo lighter.


 

#10


Vili Maunula



As such, you could say that the sermon is no more intended to the audience, but is something that is shared only between the artist (priest) and the work (woodcutter). It may even be the real reason why the work exists in the first place, the single aspect of it that has driven the artist to create it, but it nevertheless is not something to be force-fed on the audience

I'm a bit confused. are you implying that Rahsomon could be considered a personal story for Kurosawa and not really indeed for us, the audience to witness?

What I meant was basically this:

If we take Rashomon to be some type of an allegorical narration about the medium of film itself -- one in which the commoner plays the part of the audience, the woodcutter the story and the priest the interpreter/artist -- then it would follow that we could read the final scene between the woodcutter and the priest to be taking place without audience (the commoner has already left).

Since this is in many ways the scene that ultimately makes the movie what it is, what I then suggested is that if you generalise the events (as you do with allegories), you get a thesis according to which the central meaning of a film or a piece of art can (and should or must?) exist outside of the presented work itself, and is only properly accessible to the artist (who has repeatedly been denied the right to force-feed his views on the audience).

What this line of thinking therefore suggests is that not only Rashomon, but all works of art are personal. They can be witnessed, enjoyed and interpreted by others, but ultimately the only reason that those works exist is to fulfil some need that the artist had.

The message itself, I think, is nothing too revelatory. It is the way that this is (according to this particular reading) presented, which I find interesting.

Yet, I am not sure if I haven't read too much into the allegory. I do think that it is both a fair and a justified observation to suggest that the commoner stands for the audience, the priest possibly for the interpreter/artist and that the woodcutter is in many ways the source of the story. Whether this, however, needs to influence our reading of the final scene is another matter. But I do nevertheless find it an interesting thought experiment which, on some level, would even seem to hold water.


 

#11


Jon Hooper



But I do nevertheless find it an interesting thought experiment which, on some level, would even seem to hold water.

I think the allegorical interpretation does make sense on a certain level, and I wouldn't refute what you say. I had thought on previous occasions of the significance of the groupings of three that seem to pattern the movie, but this particular reading had never occurred to me before and has given me much to think about. On the subject of triads (if that is the word), I did once think that it might be productive to think of the characters in Freudian terms as representing the id, ego and super-ego; in order, then: the commoner as id or inner desire, the woodcutter as ego or mediator (my interpretation of the woodcutter as standing for the ego is based on my view of the character who in many ways in the middle, who has to mediate and ultimately choose between the demands of the id and the higher responsibilities of the super-ego) and the priest as super-ego or moral/cultural regulator. This can be extended to the grove scenes themselves, where, perhaps depending on who is giving the account, the various characters stand for the same levels of the psyche. However, this would be shooting off in an entirely different direction and I do remember thinking that while it was fun to work through, the idea was ultimately a bit reductive, and one that has certainly been applied in film criticism often, for example in the characters of Quint, Brody and Hooper in Spielberg's Jaws.

So... to get back to the Rashomon characters as metaphorical figures, I think it works on the allegorical level, but as I member of the audience I'm not entirely comfortable with having the commoner stand for us. I do think that Kurosawa would have chosen a more neutral figure this being the case. I get the sense that Kurosawa wants his audience not just to be cynical but to reflect, to search for the truth, to examine ourselves with greater honesty. In short, I see the projected audience of Rashomon to be philosophical and self-examining. Of course, in doing this I may be straying too far from allegory in any case. But whatever... great analysis, Vili, and a superbly articulate post.


 

#12


Jeremy



What this line of thinking therefore suggests is that not only Rashomon, but all works of art are personal. They can be witnessed, enjoyed and interpreted by others, but ultimately the only reason that those works exist is to fulfil some need that the artist had.

Then I suppose the goal is to figure out how to make whats personal, entertaining to others. Is this not what the commoner was getting at, we he only asked to be entertained and not preached?

It was after all only the woodcutter and priest that it really got to, the commoner was happy and laughing the entire time, it never effected him.

So the artist must balance something he cares about, while not forgetting other may find it no interest. And what others enjoy, the artist himself must care enough about about it, to present it properly.


 

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