“L'auteur est mort.” (Barthes, 1967)
There is a frustratingly funny contradiction when viewers of the 1950 Akira Kurosawa classic Rashomon end up confining their discussions within the theme of perception subjectivity. Funny, because their notions, while remaining subjective, are practically the same – that the film takes on a pessimist view of the human nature, that it reinforces the idea of relativity of truth. Frustrating, because you would know that these people have further been socialized into the dominant-hegemonic position (hence their expected interpretations) by a film whose plot is inherently counter-hegemonic. Indeed, many have spoken of Rashomon and its non-conformist elements, but only a selected few has taken the path of deviance in trying to deconstruct the film.
In his post-structuralist essay The Death of the Author, Roland Barthes critiques the manner in which readers attempt to extract meaning from a certain text by basing it on various aspects of the author’s identity such as political views, historical context, religion, ethnicity, and other personal attributes. He argues that such a means of interpretation “[imposes] a limit on that text.” Mikhail Bakhtin (1981) follows by claiming that “meanings are constructed through dialogue,” and needless to say, the experience of watching films is a dialogic activity between the producers and consumers. In a useful analogy of V.N. Voloshinov (1973), he explains:
A word is a bridge thrown between myself and another. If one end of the bridge
belongs to me then the other belongs on my addressee. A word is a territory shared
by both addresserand addressee, by the speaker and his interlocutor.
The dominant hegemonic discourse on Rashomon heavily relies on Kurosawa’s explanations in Something Like An Autobiography. Clearly, there is an obvious contradiction when a film preaches about subjectivity and relativity of truth yet the director/writer provides the audience a perspective on how to interpret the film. It is therefore unsurprising that people would think along the lines of these themes, and consequently fail to notice the other agenda it may contain. The discourse, however, is altogether different yet subsumed under the bigger dominant hegemonic position which ultimately defines the way people read the messages. This process is more familiarly known as depoliticization.
In the four mutually incompatible accounts of what people so often refer to as “rape” and murder presented in the film, a common theme – equally explicit as the central subject – can be found. For lack of a better and forgiving term, let it be called women discrimination. The only female character was portrayed as a weak, submissive, deceiving, adulterous, cunning, and basically evil individual. In the bandit’s narrative, the woman still ended up failing to protect herself, although it was made clear that she struggled to fight with all her might. From the husband’s recollection however, she immediately left the woods with the bandit after having slept with him. And then there is the woodcutter’s version, where she was able to successfully manipulate the two men to engage in a sword fight, with the winning party taking her home as a prize. Finally, even in her own account of the incident, it was depicted that she rather dies than suffer from the glaring stares of her husband, as if to say that the judgment of a man is more important than the life of a woman. It does not take a genius to arrive at this observation. It is far from subtle, and needs no deciphering. Why then does it appear to be so?
The norm dictates that generally, men, in most if not all respects, are stronger than women. This is the dominant hegemonic position that has accustomed people to think that it is logical for a man to defeat a woman in a battle of physical strength, or it is sheer common sense that necessitates a man to walk a woman through a forest by letting her ride on a horse. Some would argue that this is a manifestation of culture – but it is precisely the point! After all, culture is a contested space where various social forces struggle to achieve “political, intellectual, and moral leadership” (Gramsci, 1971), and film is but one of the many areas where such battle happens. Thus, adopting Barthes’ approach, Japanese culture is irrelevant in making sense of Rashomon. The point is once a film is produced and released, it goes beyond lifetimes, and whatever idea it seeks to permeate will continuously politicize or depoliticize the minds of its audience. There are no fair and unfair judgments – only judgments which would either strengthen or challenge the dominant hegemonic position where most films are juxtaposed.
Much has been said about how grand of a masterpiece Rashomon is – the stunning visual experience, the innovative style and techniques of filming, the groundbreaking concept and its eternal influence to the industry. This post does not intend to add up to the all-praise list. If only for the technical aspects and the buzz it created accordingly which led to the introduction of Japanese cinema to the world, Kurosawa deserves much credit. Everything else is debatable. But since its content is essentially political – exploring the philosophy of justice and exposing conventional power-relations, among others – Rashomon still rightfully deserves the attention and importance it has been receiving. It should definitely be included in the bucket list of someone who claims to be a film buff.
On a more personal note, I would like to emphasize the idea of deconstructing a film beyond the boundaries of how it is packaged. For instance, when we talk of James Cameron’s Avatar, do we talk about the future of technology, or the potential of humanity to destroy the world? Or do we ask why it lost to Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker in the bid for Best Picture at the 82nd Academy Awards and eventually discover for ourselves that it was due to the fact that it takes on an anti-imperialist stand, while the latter depicts the struggles and victories of American soldiers in the Iraq War – as if saying that they are part of the unspoken heroes of the world. The bottom line is deviant perspectives, aside from being refreshing, may in the end prove to be more critical and useful. Then again, my interpretations are as sensible and valid as someone else’s, because as Roland Barthes puts it, “the author is dead.”
Bakhtin, M. (1975). Epic and Novel. The Dialogic Imagination, 1, ---.
Barthes, R. (1967). The Death of the Author. Aspen, 5-6, ---.
Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Hoare, Q. and Smith, G. N.
(translators and eds). New York: International Publishers.
Voloshinov, V. (1973). Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Matejka, L. and
Titunik, I. R. (translators and eds) Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Mico Quijano
A woman is allegedly raped and a man is found dead in a grove in the woods. This might just be the most accurate summary of the incident around which the film Rashomon revolves. The rest of the details form an intricate tangle of testimonies that mismatch, and as the story unfolds the audience is led, more often than not, to utter the very same line with which the film opens: "I don't understand."
That is not to say, of course, that the film is a failure. Directed by Akira Kurosawa, Rashomon (1950) is an internationally-acclaimed Japanese crime/mystery film that tells of a supposed murder and a rape incident mainly through the testimonies of four different people: the bandit Tajomaru (the rapist and possibly the murderer), the Samurai’s wife (the raped woman who also claims to be the murderer), the Samurai himself (who, through a medium, instead claims suicide), and a woodcutter who later claims to have witnessed the entire incident. Closely based on the short story In a Grove by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the film is groundbreaking in its use of the narrative device of contradictory flashbacks from multiple points of view to expound on what had happened.
What makes Rashomon so compelling, however, is that it doesn’t expound on what had happened, because the reality of “what happened” depends on agreement. Rather, the film boldly raises the question: what if there is no agreement on what happened? By reviewing the same incident over and over again, through different perspectives, the film cleverly depicts how subjectivity is injected between an act and how one perceives the act, creating entirely different meanings. Thus from four different viewpoints, was the rape really rape, or was it consensual? Was the death of the samurai the result of a valiant duel, or a pathetic attempt to save the last of one’s dignity? Yet, despite the absurdity of it all, Rashomon is a film that deals uniquely with the idea of reality. Rather than presenting a single, solid reality, the film comes up with a surprising, and sometimes disturbing premise - that the truth of one’s reality is actually as subjective as one’s personal opinions.
And it is indeed disturbing, as Kurosawa expresses through the monk who sits shivering by the Rashomon gate. If there is no consistent truth to speak of, if all reality is colored by egotism, self-interest and motive, lies become the lot of humanity, and earth becomes, as the monk and the commoner put it, “a living hell.” Tracing the root of such subjectivity to our being human, Rashomon is thus also an exploration of human nature, delving into the darkest recesses of humanity – or inhumanity, in this film.
Kurosawa masterfully brings these themes to life through the various, well-coordinated elements of the film. The black and white of the film, for example, seems to heighten the interplay of darkness, shadows, and light – visual representations of how what we perceive to be the truth can sometimes be obscured by grey areas. The same can be said for his extensive use of the forest foliage and the contrast it creates with the sunlight. The torrential rain in the opening scene was not merely used to distinguish the present from the very sunny flashback scenes; it highlighted the divide between physical reality and the transformative power of the meanings we attach to it. The Rashomon gate serves as another metaphor for the threshold that we have for physical reality, while the scene of the woodcutter’s long, silent walk in the forest is somewhat reflective of how we sometimes lose our grasp of reality in the midst of meanings and interpretations.
More than the visuals, however, it is the portrayal of the characters that truly bring out the film’s themes. The stark contrast of the flashbacks are easily tangible through the performances of the actors: the samurai is cold and hateful from the woman’s point of view, while from his own viewpoint he was dignified and even pitiful in his sorrow. From the bandit Tajomaru’s point of view, the woman was weak and easily subdued, while from the woodcutter’s, the woman was extremely manipulative and calculating. It was also interesting to see how the theatricality of the acting in this film brought attention to the extremes of human character. Tajomaru is loud and boisterous, callous and unapologetic, easily and unabashedly giving in to his passions and fancies, while the samurai is quiet, restrained, dignified yet cold and even cruel, and in contrast to Tajomaru he seems to have no passion at all. And yet, even with four different viewpoints on hand, there is the insight that there will always be something beyond what these characters do. Tajomaru might have had true feelings for the woman, or the woman might have hated her husband, or the samurai might not have seen the woman as anything but his “beautiful wife,” but who knows? The film does not tell.
It is exactly this sort of speculation this film generates which makes it so riveting. As it looks into the subjectivity of our perceptions of reality, it ingeniously forces the audience to do the same, leading the audience to examine the characters and the complexity of their actions, and ultimately, to the conclusion that the truth is only as good as how we see it.
Produced after the war, the film is certainly political in many ways. For one, Rashomon may actually serve as an allegory for post-war Japan. After experiencing such tragedies, Kurosawa might be putting across a message of hope and redemption through the film’s final scene, wherein the woodcutter who initially lied and thieved exhibits some nobility of heart by adopting an abandoned baby.
Yet the greatest political issue in the film is one that is easily missed. The film, as much as it is an exploration of human nature and human reality, is also a vivid portrayal of how women’s issues have long since been depoliticized and reduced into mere context, that is, a function of history. Set in 10th or 11th century Japan, portraying women as weak and subordinate to men is of course understandable. Thus the woman in Rashomon sits by the river while the two men make their way through thickets and brambles; much like her horse, she was nothing more than the samurai’s property, and it is but appropriate that it was a bandit – a thief – who tried to “steal” her from the samurai. Even she sees herself as helpless (“what is a poor woman like me to do?”), and in the film she did nothing but weep or faint or stumble as she ran away. At some point even the bandit who raped her was deemed more honourable by her own husband, but of course these are all perfectly consistent with the setting.
It is rather ironic that such a dilemma can be found in the film Rashomon – a film that as a work of art has itself broken the conventions of its time by creating new contexts in film-making; even more so because the film challenges people to review how they agree to perceive reality. There is nothing wrong in the film’s portrayal of women; historians would even deem it accurate. What is disturbing, however (so much so that even today, it remains neglected even by top movie critics), is that much like the resignation of the commoner to the evil nature of human beings, the issue is treated as not an issue at all.
- Therese Buergo