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Rashomon : Why They Lie

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    Jon Hooper

    No time for a lengthy piece so I thought I’d take a few specific aspects at a time that have got me thinking. This one may be fairly obvious to some but I do find it interesting.

    I’d like to start by examining something Donald Richie writes in The Films of Akira Kurosawa. Despite Kurosawa’s statements about Rashomon (“Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves” and the paragraph of explanation that follows in Something Like an Autobiography, p.183), Richie claims that the woodcutter is the only person with something to gain by lying (The Films of Akira Kurosawa, p.72). He says that with the other three there is no shifting of blame; each pleads guilty. Guilt, then, in Richie’s view, is the primary reason for concealing the truth.

    But does it all boil down to guilt? Tajomaru presents himself as clever and a skilled fighter. Moreover, he does not seem to suffer from any moral scruples – he is happy to boast about raping the wife and killing the husband (at the wife’s behest, according to him). He gives us the impression that the wife may even have enjoyed the experience (implied by the way she responds to the beams of sunlight, natural beauty standing in for eros). Then, afterwards in Tajomaru’s account, the wife puts her rapist on equal footing with her husband – both of them have known her intimately, but only one can continue to possess her, so there must be a duel. Clearly, Tajormaru does not try to exonerate himself. Why? Because he is already a wanted criminal, as we learn at the Gate, and therefore stands to gain nothing by arguing his innocence in this particular case; the best he can do is to go down with his pride intact, narrating his own exaggerated version of this particular exploit. He cannot escape justice, but he can write his own epitaph. Thus he lies, not to conceal his guilt but to be the hero in his own drama, twisted as his values may be.

    Through the medium, the husband presents himself as being “in darkness,” also a victim. According to him, his wife told Tajomaru to kill him. Thus he condemns her absolutely. He wants to be cast as the wronged one, the victim not just of murder but of betrayal. The wife, then, goads on the bandit, who does have some moral standards and who otherwise would not have thought about killing. The husband’s condemnation is so absolute that when the wife demands her husband’s death even the bandit is taken aback and asks him what he wants him to do with her. The husband says: “For those words, I almost forgave the bandit”. He kills himself with the bandit’s help because of his wounded pride, to save face. The dagger is the prime instrument because it serves his purpose; if he died in combat but does not want to admit it, the dagger provides him with the most noble death he can imagine under the circumstances. What is interesting is that the husband mentions, at the end, that he felt someone drawing the dagger out. This would suggest that the woodcutter did so, and indeed he appears disturbed in the courtyard scene. But there is another way of explaining this. Had the husband been killed by Tajomaru’s sword and then Tajomaru walked off with both swords, how could he then claim that he committed suicide? Only the dagger will do, but he has to provide some explanation as to why the dagger was not found in his body. What the husband gains, then, is a self-imposed and noble death, and the chance to condemn his wife.

    As to the wife – what does she stand to gain? She was presumably the victim, yet her account falls just short of admitting that she killed her husband. In the wife’s account, Tajomaru runs away with the sword after raping her. Her husband’s reaction is not one of pity but, as she terms it, “cold hatred” of her. It is obvious that he blames her for the rape. This accords with the traditional view of women’s implication in rape, at least in the west (I cannot say whether this specific antifeminist idea was present in Japan). After she faints, she sees the dagger sticking in her husband’s chest. One can certainly understand why in an anti-feminist society she might blame herself for the rape. But why would she lie about the dagger, giving the police reasonable grounds for suspicion that she killed her husband? The film provides no clear answer for this, but I do think it is suggested that she enjoys appearing miserable and wretched. If the woodcutter’s second account is true, she may be an immature girl whose romantic fantasy of being a prize for two suitors instigates the duel and ultimately results in her husband’s death. When faced with the consequences, perhaps she engages in melodramatic role-playing, heaping troubles upon herself without thinking of the consequences, and without seeing that a fact like the dagger can easily be verified. In the end, despite the difficulty presented by her admission of guilt, the wife’s story is an attempt to gain our sympathy by presenting her as wretched. Still, I am bothered by her account of her faint and discovery of her husband’s body. It seems to me that she could manage to elicit even greater sympathy if she invented a story that did not point to herself as being the guilty party in the murder.

    And finally to the woodcutter: he refutes the previous accounts with a claim that there was no dagger. The commoner then realizes that the woodcutter witnessed the murder and gets him to admit that he saw the events. In admitting his lie, the woodcutter says: “I didn’t want to get involved”. This is ironic, perhaps, if he stole the dagger. But beyond concealing his theft, the woodcutter has no reason to alter the account of events as they happened. All he need do is leave out his discovery of the dagger; after all, someone else could have chanced along and taken it. His lying, then, stems not from egotism but from moral weakness – a poor man’s recourse to theft. Still, it may be that in order to dispense with the discovery of the dagger he sees fit to invent a duel scene, perhaps using material from both the bandit and the husband’s accounts (the duel from the bandit, the wife’s manipulation of the scene from the husband). His lie, then, is to protect himself from being accused of theft.

    What do others think of the reasons the characters have for lying? The wife’s account, as I indicated above, seems to me the problematic one, because I find it surprising that she doesn’t try to avoid suspicion. Any thoughts as to why she does this, and any thoughts about the theme of lying in general.



    A good question. I pretty much agree with everything you say here, especially that the wife’s account is problematic because we cannot really point our finger at any simple reason why she would be lying.

    Something that I find curious about Rashomon is that although two crimes were committed in that grove (rape and murder), only one of them receives our characters’ interest (the murder). We have only one account of the rape, Tajomaru’s, and his account makes it ultimately very consensual.

    Why didn’t at least the wife give her point of view of the rape, to negate what Tajomaru had suggested? Or did she, and did our unreliable narrator simply disregard what she said about it?

    Her account of the husband’s death is also pretty strange. However, I think that her suggestion that she killed her husband might also be a way of her trying to get our sympathies. After all, she seems to make herself the real victim there, one more or less driven by her husband to kill him. The husband who, in the wife’s story, has refused to kill her despite of her requests, an who is instead simply mocking her with his gaze.

    If this is true, however, why she wouldn’t go far enough and actually say that she killed him is a puzzling question. For, instead of really admitting it, she talks about fainting and finding the dagger in his chest. Is this an attempt at both having the cake and eating it? She suggests that she was victimised to the point where she was driven to commit a murder, and at the same time she also suggests that she never actually murdered him because she wasn’t conscious of her actions?

    Another suggestion is of course one offered by Richie, in which the wife doesn’t murder the husband at all, but after the wife faints the woodcutter goes to pick up the dagger and kills him with it. I suppose that at this point the wife wakes up, sees the dagger in his chest but is too confused to notice the woodcutter (perhaps he is hiding), and then runs away horrified. The woodcutter then pockets the dagger and leaves the scene.

    As Richie himself notes, this is very improbable. But if it were true, the wife wouldn’t actually be lying about the husband’s death, just misinterpreting what she remembers.


    Jon Hooper

    But if it were true, the wife wouldn’t actually be lying about the husband’s death, just misinterpreting what she remembers.

    I find it hard to accept that the woodcutter would have killed the husband, mainly because the absence of motive. Of course, there is certainly reason to believe that the wife is telling the truth up to a point. If she really did kill her husband, she might have invented the faint as a way of excusing her actions. Or she might indeed have fainted and lost control of herself, in other words she might be telling the truth. Of course there is no way to know, but her reasons for lying and for not significantly shifting blame are, as I said, puzzling. Personally I find her account the most convincing, though, for one can easily understand why Tajomaru would invent a duel, and why the husband would concoct a story about suicide. Only the woodcutter’s tale would then present a problem – we’d have to accept that he invented the duel in order to conceal the detail about the knife.

    Obviously there is no “solution” to the mystery, but it is worth pondering the various motives for lying.



    The wife must explain, why she did not commit suicide to prevent the rape, or immediately after. In which case she would be considered a willing partner, and now must explain as to why she has not committed suicide upon public knowledge that she is no longer pure.

    To preserve herself, she must make herself out to a victim from every direction. If she can convince she had no clarity of her role in the actions, and no longer required to defend her honor of her husband, the public outcry for her death would be lessen or removed.

    If she outright admits to killing the husband, then not only has she dishonored herself and husband, but even killed him. This is also a admitting of her willingness. Under no consideration would the public allow her to live, and would be at least casted out. If however she can not recall what happen to the husband, then at the very least she give a sense of unclarity and a chance of maintaining her social status.

    She is floating on a thin line, to preserve herself and social status among her peers. In which as I mentioned in my post, they are all appealing to their peers more then the judge, as its them they must truly face.

    I think it out right wrong, to ever consider the woodcutter to be involved in any actions of the entire events or him have with evil intentions to hide the whereabouts of the dagger. He thief of the dagger was natural and honorable, its more or less fits under the old notation of a beggars right. (stealing merely to be able to feed himself and children and not for greed)

    This I believe is even roughly touched upon in Seven Samurai, but I’m not clear on this.


    Jon Hooper

    The wife must explain, why she did not commit suicide to prevent the rape, or immediately after. In which case she would be considered a willing partner, and now must explain as to why she has not committed suicide upon public knowledge that she is no longer pure.

    Would this then have been the attitude in medieval Japan? Would a woman who had brought dishonour on her husband by being raped have been expected to commit suicide?

    If she can convince she had no clarity of her role in the actions, and no longer required to defend her honor of her husband, the public outcry for her death would be lessen or removed.

    Her account of fainting, however, seems to be a way of covering her guilt in the murder (unless, of course, she is telling the truth). What of her role in the rape? Does her account of the aftermath in any way lessen the likelihood that guilt will be attached to her for the rape as well? In other words, whether or not she is innocent of the murder, does her account of her husband’s reaction and the discovery of his murder in any way mitigate her responsibility in the rape? If I understand you correct, this is the case, but I am not sure quite why this should be so.

    I agree about your judgement of the woodcutter’s action. However, I am not sure that he takes it so lightly himself. Either he has done more than simply steal the dagger, or else he does indeed have a problem with his conscience over this one theft. The way I see it, there has to be something that drives him to adopt the baby – some force of guilt or shame. If it really were something so casual, at least to him, I don’t think he would have made the decision to do so, and also I don’t think he would have been so upset by the commoner’s accusation.



    I,m writing on a tiny pocket pc at the airport. Its really hard to type fluidly and make much sense, giving the screen is 2.5″ big and I have to peck at the keyboard.

    My knowledge is fairly limited, and my ability to back any of it up in this area is a bit weak, as there is little information out there.

    From my limited studies in 10 century Japan.

    First to clear rape as a illegal act, Tajomaru mentioned that he raped the wife, because he could no stop his desire for her, this would be a legit excuse for the time period and completely legal.

    Women were expected to be completely submissive to a man, including being raped by one. It was the husband, responsibility to defend his “prize” at all cost, failure to do so was his weakness and loss of his “prize”

    The concept in which the wife, more or less says the winner of the battle takes her, is also legit. This is was fairly common for her to be neutral and submissive to both.

    Much like in Seven Samurai where the farmer’s wife is kidnapped by the bandits, his inability to defend his wife from a stronger man, has legally giving the bandit ownership of the “prize”. The woman was now cater to the new man in entirely and should never attempt to run away.

    However in a time period I’m not entirely clear on(I guess 1300’s) you start to seeing a more aggressive approach to women fighting male dominance and a new expected means in which they are to do so.

    If a woman loves the man she is with, and that man is unable to defend herself, it would expected that she do whatever necessary to prevent her thief, up to the point of suicide. If she do not take any actions, then it would be assumed she was desiring the other man by being submissive.

    At the same time, unlike in the past, the woman would be looked down upon for not taking a active role in maintaining her husbands honor, if she allowed herself to be rape, kidnapped,etc. If you get to the point where the woman, is raped, not wanting to be with her raper, and the husband has shunned her for this, she is to my understanding look down upon, it would be casted out from the village or required to commit suicide.

    I’ll look more into this later, perhaps Vili or someone else can fill in.



    I read some book from WWII when America was first trying to understand their new enemy, giving that Japan was largely a mystery.

    It focused a lot of Japan’s male dominance, and thinking looking back into Japan’s past. One chapter was entitled “the female code of conduit to the male dominance” (or something to that matter) in which I got a lot of information. To its accuracy I dont know.

    I also read the revised book about the Japanese commissioned by the US government, done after the war in which they started researching the mindset of Japanese male. It focused more heavily on militaristic principals, but it did go into a bit on the womens role in the male world from present day, to around 1200’s.

    Again giving that its Americans researching Japan, before,during and after the war, its hard to say just how much care was taken to represent the Japanese accurately.

    I’ve did a bit of Japanese history in college, this stuff was never mention, but I did obtain some translated old texts from Japan about medieval customs, it seem to giving things a brighter light, but did mention many things I read in the US military books.

    Like I said, I’m limited, but I do think I’m fairly accurate.


    Jon Hooper

    First to clear rape as a illegal act, Tajomaru mentioned that he raped the wife, because he could no stop his desire for her, this would be a legit excuse for the time period and completely legal.

    Pretty astonishing, really, isn’t it, that a man’s lack of control of his own desires could be offered as a legitimate excuse? I now see the logic behind your insistence that the wife is viewed as a “prize”. So it’s less about the rights given one by a marriage contract and more about might giving one ownership of a woman. Meaning, then, that one could come along and take another man’s wife by force?

    I’ve did a bit of Japanese history in college, this stuff was never mention, but I did obtain some translated old texts from Japan about medieval customs, it seem to giving things a brighter light, but did mention many things I read in the US military books.

    No surprise there; no writing is free of ideology.



    Interesting points.

    I have never actually previously studied what rape in Heian or Kamakura Japan stood for and what its legal status was, but the little that I can find online seems to partially agree with what Jeremy wrote.

    There are two articles that I found especially interesting, one called Forced Affection: Rape as the First Act of Romance in Heian Japan and the other Marriage, Rank and Rape in The Tale of Genji.

    There is also a brief article that discusses both of these — Sexual Consent in Heian Japan.

    Based on the above readings, it seems to me that in these idealised portraits of Heian court culture the concept of “rape” was quite different to ours. In a sense, it was a part of a courting game, and as such something that adhered to certain rules.

    As these are, of course, from literary works, one can but wonder what the actual reality was. Moreover, we are here talking about what was going on in court, and Tajomaru is obviously not a part of that scene and setting, so I doubt that his actions would be considered legal in the same way.

    Furthermore, although with no intention to in any way undermine Jeremy’s points, I think that there is also the question to what extent all this is actually relevant to Rashomon. The film, in the end, does not appear to be very concerned about being historical.

    For one thing it is not entirely clear what century we are in. According to the continuity script in the Rashomon book, some versions of the film had an insert at the beginning identifying the period as 12th century Japan, while Kurosawa in his autobiography talks about it taking place in the 11th century. Some critics place it to the 10th or even the 9th century, although that is a bit strange.

    At the same time, Richie (page 13 in the Rashomon book) notes that although the setting may be Heian Japan, the “people, and their way of thinking … are completely feudal” (which would mean post 12th century Japan). Richie doesn’t really give any support for this claim, but I have seen this pointed out elsewhere as well. I cannot at the moment produce another reference, though.

    I also think (but again cannot produce a reference) that Kurosawa explicitly didn’t consider Rashomon a historical film.

    Finally, there is the question to what extent an average 1950 Japanese film goer would know of Heian or feudal court manners and their approaches to rape. Or would also they be judging the events more in the manner in what our own contemporary interpretations of what rape is and how one should feel about it?



    I too recall Kurosawa mentioning he never intended Rashomon to be a historical film. And I would think a bit ridiculous to assume 50’s Japanese film goers would have a clue of the rituals from that far back. It would also be quite anti-Kurosawa to need a deep understanding of Japanese culture to understand his movies–that’s was Ozu is for. 😀

    I thought this over myself, and figured it not wise to put to much weight on the Japanese history in order to analyze the film. However for the sake of Sanjuro’s post, it would seem to me at least, a need for it, to give validation to the wife. Otherwise it seems the story breaks down in this area.

    I havent read anything that really gives much reasoning behind the wife to my liking. Everything, including my comments, seem to be weak at best.



    Of course you take into account modern views on fantasy rape in Japan, certain things sync, with what appears to be the past views on rape.

    I grant it, wrong to take into account fantasy rape scenarios presented in all things “hentai”(ju hachi-kin / ecchi anime) , and bring them into the real world. It does however follow similar ideals to some degree. Most forms of Japanese entertainment draw heavily on past customs. Of course this kind of openness towards rape, would be non-exist in the 50’s but it still doesn’t necessary rule it out. There is no different thinking of the people in the 50’s, then there are now, just everything is more open and no longer a taboo.

    I think don’t think I’m making much sense, just rambling, so I’ll end it there. This is really getting into something entirely else.



    I think this is a fascinating discussion, with lots of insight, and interesting information about attitudes toward women, rape, and even contemporary Japanese film.

    Jeremy, it only doesn’t feel as if the discussion has wandered off course, it feels as if this kind of forum is doing something so interesting and creative…building connections between areas of knowledge making a more comprehensive view of the topic. You should all give yourselves a pat on the back. Smart and thoughtful!

    I vote for pride as the reason everyone in Rashomon lies. After all, Kurosawa indicated this as a condition almost impossible to avoid in “Something Like an Autobiography”.

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