Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) involves the rape of Masago, wife of the samurai Takehiro, by the bandit Tajomaru in a forest as the samurai was escorting his wife on the road from Sekiyama to Yamashina. The rape occurs in front of the husband who is, first tricked into, and, then tied to a tree by the bandit. Three accounts of this event given by the three persons directly involved in the incident and an independent eye witness account given by a woodcutter, differ in important details which make an unbiased determination of what actually happened in the jungle difficult to ascertain.
In a remarkable innovation, the audience is placed in the physical space of a judge (who is never seen on screen) to whom these accounts are being narrated in the court. As one starts analyzing the reasons for these differing accounts, one realizes that they represent a deeper conflict between human being’s primitive instinctual desires of lust and greed on the one hand and his social values on the other which seek to curb such instincts. The distortion of facts which each person indulges in is really the result of trying to make them appear to be better than what they actually are in the eyes of the society!
Rashomon thus provides us with important insights into the functioning of the human mind. The story, adapted from two short stories ‘In a Grove’ and ‘Rashomon’ by the author Ryunosuke Akutagawa, is set in the 12th century feudal Japan. It occurs in Kyoto, the capital of the then Japan, where the Rashomon gate, originally constructed in 789 ACE as a celebration of the kingdom, is in a state of considerable disrepair as Kyoto declines in importance by the time 12th century is reached.
Except for the scenes occurring at the gate, the entire film consists of flashback accounts of the different players which differ in important respects in the portions that overlap with each other. Our main aim here is to unravel the motivations that underlie the reasons underlying these differing accounts. The film contains the following sequence of events in the order of their occurrence: 1. A Woodcutter, a Commoner & a Priest at the Rashomon gate 2. Woodcutter’s first account 3. Priest’s account 4. Policeman’s account 5.
Bandit Tajomaru’s account 6. Wife Masago’s account 7. Samurai Takehiro’s account 8. Woodcutter’s second account 9. Theft of child’s clothes by the Commoner and the revelation that the Woodcutter had stolen Masago’s dagger 10. Adoption of the child by the Woodcutter We may discount the Woodcutter’s first account (viz. he had discovered a dead body in the forest and had immediately run to inform the police), the Priest’s account (viz. he had met the samurai and his wife on the road to Yamashina), and the policeman’s account (viz. ow he had captured Tajomaru) as being inconsequential. The really important description of the event starts with Tajomaru. He narrates to the court how he is tempted by the wife’s beauty and decides to have her without doing any harm to her husband, if possible. Accordingly, he tempts the samurai to follow him to the forest for getting swords at a cheap rate. Inside the forest, he ties him up to a tree. He then comes back and fetches the wife on the plea that her husband has suddenly taken ill.
When she realizes what has happened, she fights the bandit furiously with her expensive dagger but is eventually overpowered and raped in front of her husband. Since this portion of the account is not repeated in any other account – all the other three accounts take off from a point immediately after the rape – it may be taken as the basis for what follows next. It is, however, from the point of rape onwards that substantial differences start cropping up between the four accounts viz. that of Tajomaru, Masago, Takehiro, and the Woodcutter’s account.
Assuming that there could be only one truth about the event, the question is which one is it and why the others are telling lies? As already mentioned, the event is triggered by certain primitive instinctual desires which are then sought to be ‘covered up’ by individual descriptions that seek to ‘justify’ his or her action in the eyes of the society i. e. tries to appear as a better person than he/she actually is. Following is an analysis of these differing descriptions to understand why and how an ndividual ‘constructs’ the event to give a better account of himself/herself in front of the court. Account of Tajomaru, the bandit Despite being an outlaw, he tries to portray that he has certain very ethical codes of conduct. In the process, he seeks to gloss over his instinctual desires for lust and power which had triggered the whole unhappy incident. Primitive Instinct He tries to portray Description of the event 1. His lust He is a brave man He had decided to have the woman 2. Vicarious and not a mindless without harming her husband.
He tricks pleasure of a killer them to come to the jungle clearing. As he show of power embraces the woman, she willingly gives in front of two herself up. When he decides to leave after helpless lives. the deed, she says that she can’t bear to be disgraced in front of two men. She implores him to fight her husband. She will belong to whoever wins. On thus being implored, Tajomaru kills the samurai in a fair fight. However, the woman had by then disappeared. Commenting that all women are like that, he leaves after taking his own and samurai’s sword but forgets all about the dagger.
Account of Masago, the wife She makes the point that she is the real victim in the whole episode, both in front of man’s lust and the codes of conduct of a patriarchal society. It is difficult to say how much of her actions are borne out of her instinctual desire for survival and her love for her husband and how much of it is due to her desire to be seen as doing the right thing becoming of a faithful wife to appear as ‘correct’ in front of the society. Primitive Instinct She tries to portray Description of the event 1.
Save her honour It is difficult to say After her rape, Tajomaru keeps pleading 2. Help her husband how much of her with her to come away with him as she 3. Being unjustly actions are borne out now couldn’t go back to her husband. As spurned by her of genuine reasons she keeps sobbing, she ultimately replies husband, decides and how much of it that such things are not for women to to end her life is due to her desire decide. Feeling sympathy for her husband to appear as ‘correct’ who had to endure so much, she tries to in front of the crawl towards him but is stopped by the society. andit who now leaves after taking the swords. Even though she is shocked to observe a cold and cynical look in her husband, she does untie him and then offers him her dagger to kill her if he so chooses. Her husband, however, remains unmoved. She then faints. When she comes around, she finds her husband dead with her dagger sticking into his chest.
She then blindly runs away into the forest and seeks to end her life but fails. Account of Takehiro, the samurai The court hears Takehiro’s version by invoking it through a medium. He tries o portray that he had been a victim of his wife’s treachery and betrayal which forces him to commit hara-kiri to end his depression. In the process, he glosses over the fact that it is his greed for getting swords at a cheap rate that had made him leave his wife alone in the forest and fall into the trap set by the bandit. Primitive Instinct He tries to portray Description of the event 1. Takehiro’s greed 1. He is a victim of After the bandit had attacked her, he 2. Trying to save his his wife’s treachery cunningly starts pleading with her to come own life under one 2. In the true samurai away with him.
To Takehiro’s utter pretence or another tradition, he has disbelief, she not only looks very committed harakiri composed and beautiful but also agrees to go with him. As the bandit starts taking her away, she asks him to kill her husband since she cannot go away with him till her husband is alive. Even Tajomaru is shocked with her heartless talk. He pins her to the ground and asks the samurai whether he should leave her or kill her. In confusion, the woman escapes to the forest. Since she might reveal to the authorities and thereby incriminate Tajomaru, he runs after her.
However, he comes back dejected after sometime, cuts the samurai’s ropes and leaves with his own and the samurai’s swords. The samurai, who is totally depressed with his wife’s betrayal, ultimately commits harakiri with his wife’s dagger. His medium says that after lying in peace in his death, he feels that somebody gently removes the dagger from his body. Second account of the Woodcutter, the eyewitness Even though he is an impartial eyewitness not involved in the event, yet it is revealed in the end that he had hidden the fact of having stolen the wife’s valuable dagger with diamond inlays.
It is, therefore, difficult to say how much of his account is authentic and how much a construction to hide his own guilt. Primitive Instinct He tries to portray Description of the event The woodcutter’s greed He is sincerely sorry He sees Tajomaru pleading with the for his guilt which he bended knees in front of the woman seeks to atone by to come away with him. Since she, adopting the child. however, keeps sobbing, the bandit gets exasperated and pushes her. She ultimately replies that in a man’s world such questions aren’t for women to decide.
On being told that women are, by nature, weak, she starts laughing and says that, on the contrary, men are weak and that a woman belongs to a real man. She exhorts them to fight and decide who is that real man. The bandit agrees. The samurai, however, refuses to fight on the plea that his wife is a whore and that he values his horse more than his wife! The bandit admonishes him for such heartless comments and forces him to fight in which the samurai is killed. As the bandit now wants her hand, she runs away to the forest. The bandit finally leaves after taking his own and the Samurai’s sword.
At the end of the woodcutter’s second account, a child’s cry is heard who is found to be abandoned by its parents. As the commoner starts stealing the child’s valuable clothes, he is chided by the woodcutter. It is only then that the commoner accuses him of being a thief also since he has stolen the valuable dagger. After the commoner departs with the child’s clothes, the Woodcutter seeks to adopt the child. As the priest hesitates, the woodcutter says that he already has six children and that he would bring up the abandoned child in the same manner as he would do the others.
On hearing this, the priest says he is ashamed of doubting man’s humanity and gives away the child. As the woodcutter leaves Rashomon Gate with the child, we see that the rain has stopped and the sun has come out in the sky. It is quite clear that through the act of adopting the child, Kurosawa hints at a core of basic humanism in Man. This layer lies deep within human beings, hidden beneath the layers of one’s instinctual desires and the constructions that society puts on him or her. This humanism emerges when a traumatic event tears apart the selfish and the socially constructed layers of a person.