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Rashomon: The Relativity of Truth, or Plain Old-Fashioned Lying?

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    Jon Hooper

    Rashomon is often taken as an exemplum of the relativity of truth and value, but to my mind the film does not lead us to such a conclusion. If two or more people witness an event, they often interpret it differently, perhaps with subtle variations. An extreme version of this is when people witness something but come away with substantially different accounts. In such cases, each person is telling the truth as they see it: the fact that accounts do not match up points to the subjective nature of experience. If we cannot agree on what we see, wherefore objective reality and wherefore truth?

    Lying, however, is another thing, because when lying individuals consciously and willfully distort the truth of what they saw to serve their own interests. It is not that each saw things differently, or that reality is filtered through their belief system, but in recounting what happened, they present a modified or even grossly false version of events. This is what I believe we have in Rashomon. If, for example, the wife had killed the husband with the dagger, would the bandit and the woodcutter have come away believing that a duel had taken place? In most cases, it is not the bare details of an event that cause disagreement but what they mean.

    Rashomon, then, points not to an existential crisis of truth and value (though of course in a world of liars the truth becomes harder to access) but to the self-serving nature of man, the darkness at his core. It is the essential character of man to lie, Kurosawa suggests. When people lie, our collective take on reality often breaks down, but this is not because of the limitations of our subjective response to the world, but due to the simple (and ancient) fact that people aren’t honest about objective truth. There is nothing particularly modernist about this realization.

    Tajomaru, for example, is not recounting what he truly believes happened in the glade, but what he wants others to believe about his artfulness and martial prowess. So too the woodcutter, who lies to protect his own apparent guilt, first by claiming that he saw only the aftermath of the events, later by presenting a first-hand version of events. Does he then present us with what he thought he saw, or what he’d have us believe? Surely it must be the latter. Were the discrepancies to be rooted in subjectivism, the meaning of the events would be at variance, but there would be general agreement about who did what to whom. The characters are plainly lying to serve their own selfish interests.

    So, just my thoughts on the frequent claim that the story is really about subjectivism and that it makes a claim that objective reality and truth are unkowable. For me, at least, it does no such thing.

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    Vili Maunula

    This is a very good point, Sanjuro. It seems to be also Kurosawa’s take on the film, based on what he writes in Something Like an Autobiography, i.e. that Rashomon is ultimately about egoism, or how human beings cannot talk about themselves without lying to make themselves look better. I don’t have the autobiography on me at the moment (I’m travelling), but the Rashomon book has this on page 116.

    Lying also seems to serve another function in the film, that of storytelling. For one thing, we don’t know to what extent we can trust the various accounts — not only the primary storytellers may be lying, but also the narrator of those stories (the woodcutter or the priest) may well be lying or at least remembering things wrong.

    But like the commoner, we as the audience aren’t watching the film so much to find out the truth, but to simply be entertained. What good, after all, would it do to us if we actually did know what happened in that grove? In the commoner’s words, we “don’t mind a lie. Not if it’s interesting.”

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    Jeremy

    Because the truth always sucks. If we could all live in a lie, everything would be grand.

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    Jon Hooper

    But like the commoner, we as the audience aren’t watching the film so much to find out the truth, but to simply be entertained. What good, after all, would it do to us if we actually did know what happened in that grove? In the commoner’s words, we “don’t mind a lie. Not if it’s interesting.”

    Indeed the film resists any attempt at such closure. I think Richie attempts to solve the mystery but still can’t quite make it all fit together (the dagger, if I remember, is the problem he is left with). What interests us is not who is lying, or what the bare facts were, but what it suggests about human nature. The thing to dig for is perhaps what is revealed about each character in the act of lying (especially if one assumes that everyone is lying). Yes, it entertains, but it also makes us think, perhaps more than several other of Kurosawa’s great films. Perhaps it’s just me and the baggage I bring to the film, but I do not think Kurosawa meant for us as an audience to look on things as the commoner does.

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    Vili Maunula

    Yes, it entertains, but it also makes us think, perhaps more than several other of Kurosawa’s great films. Perhaps it’s just me and the baggage I bring to the film, but I do not think Kurosawa meant for us as an audience to look on things as the commoner does.

    Actually, by suggesting that we are approaching the film with entertainment in mind I didn’t mean to say that we are not meant to or don’t want to think about what is going on. Perhaps “entertainment” has become something of a dirty word and I am not really using it correctly here, but at least I am personally best entertained when something tickles my brain and makes me think.

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