Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 33, October 2003

 

 

Robert Castle

 

The Radical Capability of _Rashomon_

 

 

_Rashomon_

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Japan, 1951

 

In Akira Kurosawa's _Rashomon_, a bandit named Tajomaru apparently commits two crimes, a rape and a murder. Only the second crime comes under contention. In fact, all four accounts of the husband's death in the forest resolve themselves differently. Tajomaru's and the woodcutter's, the first and fourth, nearly coincide in terms of the husband's death coming at the end of the great sword fight. The second and third, the wife's and the husband's, also coincide -- although at first glance this might not seem so. The wife passes out and assumes she had impaled her husband with a knife; her husband, through a medium, declares that he had committed harikari. This pair of accounts shows the event from outside and inside the marriage, with the greater distortion apparently coming from the inside.

 

_Rashomon_ creates doubt for both its characters and audience. From a legal standpoint, taking only the court's testimony, Tajomaru gives the only direct evidence that he had killed the husband. The woodcutter said that he had happened onto the scene after the episode. It seems fitting that a film that has given its name to testimonial unreliability for eyewitnesses of the same event should have a doubtful confession from the alleged murderer. We, like a jury, can grasp disparate facts, like the actual murder weapon or the state of mind of the participants, and it certainly is possible to piece together the actual events from the four major and two minor accounts. The fundamental uneasiness about _Rashomon_ arises from the extreme disparity of the accounts by its participants. At the same time the film does not want us to dismiss the accounts.

 

At the film's start, the priest and the woodcutter look upset, unhinged. They have sought shelter from a torrential rain under the ruined Rashomon Gate leading to west Kyoto. The woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) repeats several times: 'I don't understand it at all', and 'I've never heard of anything so strange'. The priest (Minoru Chiaki) says that he heard it with his eyes and ears and has seen hundreds die like animals but 'never heard of anything as terrible'. What is so terrible? Something worse than plagues, earthquakes, and bandits! A third man, the commoner (Kichijiro Ueda), arrives at the shelter and, noticing how chagrined the other two are, induces them to tell him what has happened. In a flashback the woodcutter and priest alternate giving accounts of testimony before a court of inquiry. The woodcutter later delivers a second account of the incident, under pressure from the commoner, who had sensed that the woodcutter knew more than he was telling. The commoner exposes the base motives behind the narratives but only in the sense that he expects men and women to lie to protect their self-worth. Upon such cynical principles, he will feel no compunction later on to steal a cloak from an infant's back.

 

However, the commoner's indifference in the matter of the rape-murder doesn't prevent him from missing the point, just as the woodcutter misses the profounder meaning of what he has heard at the court. What distresses the woodcutter when the commoner arrives? He initially explains that he had stumbled upon a dead body in the forest, and the camera follows him in a scene famous for its long shot of him walking through the woods with his axe over his shoulder. There's a long-take deep into the forest, and point-of-view shots with branches banging into the camera; the camera looks up and sees the long limbs obscure the heavens. In a sense, the viewer is literally commuted into the woodcutter's path and lost in what will be a forest of truths.

 

Yet the woodcutter, as we will eventually learn, may be more deeply worried that he had lied to the court and not really suffering from the shock of having witnessed the rape and murder. He may even be distraught over not having the courage to intervene. In his book on Kurosawa's films, Donald Richie suggests in one of his scenarios that the woodcutter himself may have killed the man. As a human being, the woodcutter should have risen above the commoner's baser standards and resisted being (completely) a coward or a liar. For the safe world of humanism and traditional standards has been shattered by the bandit Tajomoru's actions. Any doubt concerning the resolution of the episode dissolves the apparent ruins with which we are left to deal, when the woodcutter finds an abandoned baby and decides to take it with him, despite having six children already, and restores the priest's faith in humanity.

 

In fact, what's in ruins, and the cause of the woodcutter's cry 'I don't understand it at all' and the priest's 'I never heard anything so strange', is their (and by implication, our) conception of reality. The matter testified to and witnessed in court has shattered their basic understanding of the scheme of the world. Shattered not by the rape and murder but by the unreliability of the accounts of the incident themselves. The narratives of the three participants have obliterated the faith of the two men. The audience is spared their particular despair, even after we have had the incident deconstructed; our faith is more sophisticated and can stand the rain of narratives. Our protective gate is the movie _Rashomon_. We're sheltered but not unaffected. We must overcome the feelings of the commoner, that everyone lies or has some hidden motive to lie; we must have more than a good feeling about mankind because the woodcutter saves the baby. One imperative of a work of art should be that the level of our realization and understanding of the meaning of events must exceed the characters'.

 

Besides the four major narratives, two minor testimonies by the priest and the constable support the general frame of events. The priest passes by the husband and wife, and the constable tells how he captured the bandit, who has a set of arrows that belonged to the murdered man. Everyone is surprised by the number of versions being told, especially the woodcutter. Hearing the accounts of the bandit, wife, and husband, he must be wondering what these people are experiencing. After the recounting of the testimonies to the commoner, the woodcutter insists that they're all lies. The commoner then suspects the woodcutter knows more than he was telling during the first account and pressures him to say what really happened.

 

While I don't want to record each story, I must mention several well known details to focus on each story's balance. _Rashomon_ can play tricks on your memory and provoke one to misplace a detail to another narrative. It's also necessary to emphasize the factors guiding the narratives, if only to counter the commoner's suppositions that humans are motivated solely by ego, but I do not want deny the importance of each character's sense of their own self and welfare. Appropriate to the mentality of the Japanese culture, it would seem each major narrative has a compunction to hide the truth because the reality of their actions is too shameful to bear. The western interpretation of shame, in relation to the narrative accounts, imposes a selfish incentive. One could interpret the respective storytellers' view of themselves as 'ego protection' in a normal sense.

 

Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) describes his actions cavalierly and, broadly speaking, romantically. I'm thinking of one illustrious gesture: was it not for a sudden breeze he wouldn't have bothered with the man and his wife. By this observation, he leaves to chance the catastrophe to come. As if one arbitrary action of nature created an internal hurricane of emotion to possess her. At the woman's behest, after the rape, he must conclude the matter honorably and struggles mightily against the husband. In court, Tajomaru deliciously details the number of times he had crossed swords with samurai; in fact, it's the greatest struggle of his life. During the confession, he starts and punctuates his words with a hideous laughter; one exaggerated so much that several commentators have mildly disapproved of it saying that Mifune goes too far. Indeed, the mocking laughter both expresses his contempt for those who dare try to comprehend his actions and would be silly were it not for the gravity of his prior actions. Indeed, his laughter softens our feelings for him, inducing pathos, precisely because his actions were so horrible; his narrative must resist our prejudice against him for committing the horrible crime and retain validity. Mifune's performance strengthens the romantic aspect of his viewpoint. Further, it helps that it appears that he has no reason to hide anything from the court. When we find out the truth, we can see clearly the reason for his compunction to lie to himself.

 

The wife, Masago (Machiko Kyo) appears most equipped for psychological autopsy. Her feeling of social banishment permeates her account of her husband's reaction to her rape. Her shame is most apparent, but what is shocking about her story is that nothing like this occurred. What do we make of her 'lies'? She says she can only survive the humiliation if her husband accepts her. Nothing stands out more in her memory than her husband's icy stare. A stare of hate. It drives her mad. The cold stare of society. Not just 12th century Japan but every society. For men, rape destroys the illusions to which our love for women is attached. While the woman's body is violated, it is the men's whimsical affections to her that are violated.

 

The husband, Takehiro (Masayuki Mori), represents men as his stare personifies the intense betrayal a man feels when his wife or girlfriend is raped. At least the wife expects her husband to feel this betrayal, which reflects her own socially conditioned guilt. There's little good or much worthy of respect in his response, however. He's accusatory and hateful. He wants all ties severed. At least, this is how the wife recalls the aftermath of her degradation. Then she asks him to do the humane thing and kill her. Before he can act, she collapses unconscious with the dagger in her hand and upon waking finds her husband with it in him. She's convinced she had murdered him and hides. Her need to be cleansed of her dishonor fits admirably with the bandit's sense of honor. A test for any _Rashomon_ viewer would be to explain instantly why we believe hers or the bandit's account of the episode.

 

Takehiro's story radically opposes the bandit's and seemingly complements his wife's; he could have taken up the knife after his wife fainted and killed himself. Indeed, it seems miraculous to hear him through the medium. The priest maintains that dead men tell no lies, which may be the key statement in the film. Not so much because we're going to know what really happened, but it definitely establishes his story as truthful. The entire testimony is haunting. The man is trapped in the darkness and bewails his pitiful state. Honor and shame become factors again. Duped by the bandit, and made to watch the rape of his wife, he then bears the final indignity when his wife, who is willing to go away with the bandit, insists that Tajomaru kill her husband. The bandit partly redeems himself in the husband's eyes by abandoning the woman. She runs after him, and the husband takes up the dagger and plunges it in his chest. He adds that during his last breaths, he felt the dagger being pulled out by an unknown party.

 

*

 

_Rashomon_ is a type of film that effaces an author/director. The original story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, 'In a Grove', holds strictly to the testimonies of the three participants in the rape and murder: the priest who discovered the dead body, the constable who captured the bandit, and, in addition, the wife's mother. Akutagawa's other stories have remote air, especially 'Rashomon', which was the other source for the film. 'In a Grove', more than its filmed counterpart, leaves one feeling the utter futility knowing what will happen because Kurosawa adds the woodcutter's second story, which alters everything regarding the search for a truthful account, or as near as we'll ever get to one. However, the lessons taken from Kurosawa's _Rashomon_ have tended to be those which could have been elicited from 'In a Grove' alone.

 

The most thorough reading of the film appears in Donald Richie's book. Much of his exegesis preoccupies itself with reconciling the different stories; [1] However, he finally concludes that the main theme of the film is that no one lied: 'They all told the story the way they believed it, and they all told the truth. Kurosawa therefore does not question truth. He questions reality.' [2] He goes on to say that the film is about the reality of the events: 'Precisely, it is about what five people think this reality consists of.' [3] Here's where Richie and I diverge, nor am I satisfied with the conclusions of Parker Tyler, in '_Rashomon_ as Art', which attempts to place _Rashomon_ in a modernist context by comparing its many narratives to modern art. Parker directly compares _Rashomon_ to Picasso's _Guernica_, stressing the idea that we are watching a social cataclysm. The analogy to art is useful, especially when Parker likens the total psychological space of the film to Picasso's _Girl Before Mirror_:

 

'The mirror of the movie screen is like the mirror in the painting as telescoped within the image of the total painting; successively, we see people as they think of themselves and as they are to others; for example, at one point during the woman's story, the camera substitutes for the viewpoint of her husband toward whom she lifts the dagger: we see her as conceived by herself but also as she would have been in her husbands eyes'. [4]

 

In conclusion, he writes:

 

'As gradually accumulated, the sum total of _Rashomon_ constitutes a time mural whose unity lies in the fact that however different are the imaginations of the four witnesses, whatever harsh vibrations their mutual contradictions set up, the general design (as the film-makers have molded it) remains and dominates the work's final aspect of great beauty and great truth.' [5]

 

_Rashomon_ attempts to deal with reality's chaos, people trying to make sense of the chaos. Yes, there can be no final objective understanding of reality. Human perspectives are pathetically limited. Truth is relative to the individual's understanding of what happens in reality. The film's four basic accounts of the rape and murder reveal this clump of truth startlingly and disturbingly so. Further, self-interest and the peculiar psychology of the participants affect each account of the episode. More lessons can be extracted: each individual view of the world is unique, undeniable, and must be respected; hence these views perpetuate a rash of excuses to save individual egos from the prospect of ever being wrong -- especially when it comes to interpreting _Rashomon_. I want to move outside perspective and relativist readings without displacing their importance. Further, Kurosawa's film supports a more profound view whose implications are larger than have been given to it thus far, and is capable of a philosophically metaphysical reading with respect to the reality of life.

 

The film's multiple perspectives are the basis of the film's international notoriety and artistic immortality. Its renown has spilled over such that an event having several contrary eyewitness accounts of the same 'facts' is called 'the Rashomon effect'. It has become a truism that eyewitness testimony is less reliable than one might suppose. Elizabeth Loftus has made a career of debunking eyewitness testimony and, in her book with Katherine Ketcham, _Witness for the Defense_, they chronicle many episodes of faulty observation and memory. Two of their examples involve bad memory and the misperceiving of an object. In the first case two witnesses, out of sixty interviewed, reported that a plane had crashed straight down into the ground when, in fact, it hit flat and skidded. They explains that mistaken details are 'not the result of a bad memory but the normal functioning of human memory' (22). [6] In the second case two men were hunting bears and fired at what they thought was a bear but turned out to be a tent with two people inside making love. They killed the woman. The importance of the episode for us is the example of a reality of an event connected to states of mind. According to Loftus and Ketcham, it wasn't the men's psychology that had caused them to see a bear but because they had for hours been talking thinking about bears. For the former I would stress the normal malfunction of memory of witness not under stress to emphasize that the narratives of the bandit, wife, and husband were not extraordinary or exceptional.

 

Many films have had _Rashomon_ elements, the most obvious being the numerous films that deal with testimonies in court, as well as two conspicuous films, _JFK_ (Stone, 1992) and _Courage Under Fire_ (Zwick, 1996). The latter was called a 'Gulf War _Rashomon_' and contains several accounts of a military engagement during the Persian Gulf War from which one man, with psychological and bureaucratic pressures, must determine the truth. In this case, the truth refers to the actions of a potential female Congressional Medal Honor nominee, Capt. Emma Walden (Meg Ryan), who died during the fighting. The fact that the film's primary agenda dramatizes the political fallout from the controversial nomination dilutes the analogy to Kurosawa's film. Ignoring this for the moment, we would still see cracks in the narrative structure when Manfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips) lies and when he gets Ilario (Matt Damon) to lie. Finding out the lies, Lt. Col. Nathaniel Sterling's (Denzel Washington) job creates a satisfying closure antithetical to the ethos of _Rashomon_. Superficially, Mafriez's lies might seem to match the three principals' accounts about the rape and murder, especially to those who characterize the plot of _Rashomon_ as the search for truth or reality. The stories in _Rashomon_ defy easy categorization and their implications, as the woodcutter attests, are infinitely troubling.

 

_JFK_ proves the more interesting possibility for both aesthetic and historical reasons despite director/writer Oliver Stone's didacticism and factual paroxysms. Additionally, Stone himself, via his movie, stands as one of the 'witnesses' to the historical event of John Kennedy's assassination. Unlike Kurosawa, who distances himself from all versions of the story, Stone apparently sides with one of the narratives. Why else would he spend two distinct parts of the film, first with Colonel X (Donald Sutherland) and then with Garrison (Kevin Costner) in court, detailing the 'hit' on the President? In a _Cineaste_ interview, Stone defends the 'truth' of his project by saying that his is one of the many valid views (only more valid) and skirts accusations of his own distortions, as if it has no relevance to the fact that he criticizes the Warren Report for its many inaccuracies. He wants his counter-myth to the Warren Report to serve as the catalyst for opening up a new investigation -- an investigation heavily weighed down by the conspiracy apparatus. In a sense, his work wants to supplant the Warren Report almost by sheer will; emblematic of this wish, I believe, is his sardonic gesture to have Jim Garrison play Earl Warren.

 

_JFK_ ultimately simulates Akutagawa's 'In a Grove'. Not so much that the search for the truth is abandoned or deemed fruitless, but that the film teaches us nothing about the truth. Stone's narrative presents many conflicting witnesses and becomes another story about the assassination. Furthermore, _JFK_ offers evidence of its own deconstruction by trying to supplant the Warren Report's view.

 

It has been noted that the Kennedy assassination has all the elements of a postmodern event, starting with the innumerable conspiracy narratives and the concurrent diminution of the assassin's identity and reality (e.g. his multiple aliases and the spotting of many Oswalds). In critical works of deconstruction the 'official' versions of western life -- capitalism, patriarchy, Christianity -- are broken down to oppressive components of conspiratorial proportion and supplanted by the 'new' official versions. Deconstructionists enter their projects as did Stone _JFK_, with a narrow cognizance of the reality of their operation; the temptation to believe oneself right is inevitable. However, Stone's work has an aesthetic sensibility that allows its own deconstruction. One can see this working when one analyzes some of the choices he made. Foremost, the choice of Jim Garrison as his hero defies all logic, starting with the utter absurdity of prosecuting Clay Shaw. How can anyone walk away from the movie and not wonder why the jury took forty minutes to acquit Shaw? It makes one question the disparate evidence thrown at the viewer during the three hours of the movie and examine where Stone's narrative itself relies strictly on guilt by circumstance -- remote circumstance at that. What he doesn't produce is something analogous to the woodcutter's versions of events, which alone doesn't clear up everything, an impossible task, but gives us a plausible version to examine the other versions critically. Stone's Garrison is a romantic blur compared to the real thing and never acquires palpable authority; _JFK_ doesn't offer a moment of clarity. I'm not arguing that the film wants to do this, but neither does it earn _Rashomon_'s sense of the truth.

 

*

 

The more we hear, the less we can put together any of the pieces of _Rashomon_'s narrative. But also remember that the woodcutter agonizes not from uncertainty but from the apparent impasse because all three participants had thought they had told the truth. How can we reconcile these separate truths?

 

Here, Kurosawa has established an exemplary philosophical dimension that deserves examination. _Rashomon_'s conundrum strikes at the heart of our perception of human reality and, implicitly, makes a statement about reality in terms similar to the metaphysical arguments of Jose Ortega y Gasset. Ortega y Gasset is best known for _The Revolt of the Masses_, but his early and most important book, _Meditations on Quixote_, can be used to clarify not only how we can deal with the different versions of the events but also explain the source of the woodcutter's anguish. Ortega's metaphysical innovation rests on his overcoming of philosophical idealism, specifically Cartesian idealism, which places the essence of our individual self in the mind (*Cogito ergo sum* claims that our self originates in the ability to think). Ortega does not necessarily dispose of idealism so much as show that it is simply the flip side of realism. What is real is situated outside the individual. His consideration of reality becomes germane to a discussion and understanding of _Rashomon_ because the film dramatizes the Ortegan view of the individual in the world: 'I am myself and my circumstances.' It dramatizes what an Ortega scholar calls 'the transparency proper to the presence of life', one that has made it 'difficult to notice or 'see' life as the originary and 'non-mediated' radical reality it is'. [7] The events of _Rashomon_ correspond to life; however, its participants mediate those events and we cannot exclude as part of the reality their narration of events. Reality is the film itself with all the stories about the rape and murder. No interpretation can grasp what actually happened. Julian Marias, Ortega's favorite student, amplifies this point and goes a step further by saying that: 'Human life is not possible with perception alone nor with description; it needs the apprehension of reality in all its connectedness'. [8]

 

Kurosawa could have tormented us, left the film in the approximate state of Akutagawa's short story, and not offered the second narrative by the woodcutter. This story casts into the fullest light the absolute vanity of human affairs. But Kurosawa doesn't stop with this Biblical insight. Nor is he going to make _Rashomon_ a game of connections leading to a satisfying resolution. Our task is to apprehend the meaning for his unfolding of these particular events.

 

I am not saying that Kurosawa intentionally dramatizes Ortega's metaphysics. Yet, the film displays essential Ortegan principles and imagery. The aforesaid trek into the forest finds a parallel to Ortega using 'the image of an 'intricate forest' in order to characterize' life's complexity. [9] The events in the forest as narrated by the characters are necessary for our understanding of reality because, according to Ortega, 'reality, just because it is reality and exists outside our individual minds, can only reach us by multiplying into a thousand faces or surfaces' (_Meditations on Quixote_, 171). [10] Our civilization has dealt with perspectivism since the Renaissance, and, as was pointed out by Tyler Parker, _Rashomon_ has much in common with modern art. Moreover, there are many films that have dealt with diverse and contradictory perspectives. Yet, more than attempts like _Citizen Kane_, _Rashomon_ 'opens our minds to the conviction that the ultimate reality of the world is neither matter or spirit, is no definite thing, but a perspective'. [11] Kurosawa's framing device of putting together the three men seeking shelter under the Rashomon gate enables the viewer to transcend the confusion of the conflicting stories, to understand the circumstances of the events and the participants' stories, and, ultimately, to glimpse the radical reality of life. This reality could be called the 'complication of everything', [12] only Kurosawa's film doesn't allow the complication to remain a muddle.

 

*

 

Why the title, _Rashomon_? It was one of the two stories, 'Rashomon' and 'In a Grove', that Kurosawa used to create the film, and a footnote in 'Rashomon' tells us more about that gate to Kyoto, more than anything mentioned in the film version.

 

'[It] was the largest gate in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. It was 106 feet wide and 26 feet deep, and was topped with a ridge-pole; its stone-wall rose 75 feet high. This gate was constructed in 789 when the capital of Japan was transferred to Kyoto. With the decline of West Kyoto, the gate fell into bad repair, cracking and crumbling in many places, and became a hideout for thieves and robbers and a place for abandoning unclaimed corpses.' [13]

 

A samurai's servant seeks shelter there from a torrential rain. Besides the name, location, and the rain, little else from the story 'Rashomon' survives. Only once in the film is there a mention (by the commoner) of corpses in the upper portion of the gate. In effect, the ruined gate stands for nothing else but the place where the stories and stories within stories are narrated. Having it as his title, Kurosawa accentuates its importance over the story that contains most of the film's content, 'In a Grove'. From this cue, the final (thought not the only) meaning of the film rests here.

 

We stressed the woodcutter's state of mind at the film's start, saying over and over that he doesn't understand. It can be inferred that his distress relates directly to the reality of the events he witnessed and the utter dissimilarity of that reality for the event's participants. At some level (a social level), the woodcutter feels the potential upset of what he had witnessed in the court; namely, the apparent basis for social order seems to have been compromised. There is no absolute reality or absolute truths. At the level of the woodcutter's soul, he has seen a world fall apart in late 12th century Japan and the experience has unnerved his faith in believing he knows what's right. He can't say what really happened anymore. Possibly, his confusion reflects the Japanese world falling apart after World War II; Kurosawa uses the present conditions for an entire world lost in a metaphysical crisis. Once this truth seeps into the woodcutter, like a heavyweight's punch to the solar plexus, he or anyone would lose his bearings. Thus, it seems appropriate to locate the film amidst ruins and death. The gate despite its dilapidation still offers protection. Moreover, what may be ruins in the present will become the gate to the future. An uncertain future, yes, but one built upon a more solid foundation. For human beings, this means a foundation that lessens our instinct for destruction of others and ourselves. Ortega's philosophical innovation tries at an elemental or radical level to undermine the uncertainty associated with the call for the end of absolutes in thinking and morality, while _Rashomon_ dramatizes this innovation.

 

*

 

The incapability of distinguishing fact from fiction in _Rashomon_, brings us no closer to understanding Kurosawa's radical representation of reality. To discern this radicalism within the film, we must understand the film's framing devices. The woodcutter's second story doesn't end the film. The commoner says that he can't be expected to believe another version, then a baby's crying interrupts them. The commoner wants to take the wrapping and amulet left to protect the child from evil spirits. The woodcutter attacks the commoner, who then accuses the woodcutter of being no better than he is for taking the amulet; the knife with a jewel inlay was unaccounted for and the most likely thief was the woodcutter. The commoner leaves and the woodcutter tries to take the baby from the priest. The priest recoils, thinking the man was going to kill the baby, and then feels badly when the woodcutter says that he will take care of the child. The cycle of stories and the apparent lowly behavior of all the people in the film have had their noxious effects on the priest. He then states a plainly optimistic if not humanist statement that his faith in mankind has been restored.

 

And so the saving of the baby might have meant something to these characters in _Rashomon_. The significance of the baby's sudden appearance at the end primarily has cinematic intentions and explaining its sudden arrival (why hadn't they heard it earlier or seen someone put it there?) will need cinematic logic.

 

The presence of the baby can be misleading when viewed or interpreted as a message of hope, humanity, and sentimentality. It may even appear to be awkward and tacked on, a humanistic *infans ex machina*. However, we might take its appearance, cinematically, to be a continuation of events previous in the film, in particular, the bandit's rape of the woman. Logically, the baby couldn't have been born three days after the forced sexual intercourse. Symbolically, or better, swiftly within the course of cinematic time, the woman, who had initially disappeared from the scene of the crime and wasn't found until two days later, delivered the baby. Born out of pain and despair, this baby awaits to live or die. And if you think this too farfetched, we would draw your attention to the amulet left with the baby and taken by the commoner. The woman is seen earlier in the film with an amulet case. Again, the causality is purely cinematic but reasonable and marks an optimistic note for the future; a new and open future based on new premises for life.

 

Indeed, this baby cinematically resembles the Star-Child at the end of _2001: A Space Odyssey_ (Kubrick, 1968), who is also not easily explained on a literal level. Yet, _2001_ amply prepares the viewer for this baby who, significantly, gazes at the world, and symbolically represents an attentive viewer. Throughout the film, _2001_ refers to birthdays and birth imagery: Heywood Floyd's daughter; Frank Poole's parents and HAL wish Frank a happy birthday; Bowman jettisoned into the ship from the space pod; in the Star Gate sequence appears the trail of sperm as well as the fertilization of an egg. There are also many images of *eyes* and *seeing*. Just as Kubrick's entire cinema is devoted to mindful approach film, rejecting passivity in the theater, so too does _Rashomon_ demand a radically new focus upon reality. Likewise, both movies spawn multiple viewings because their content lends itself to multiple and unresolved interpretations. The Monolith's four appearances in _2001_ are matched by the four main stories in _Rashomon_. Watching these films pulls us futilely toward deciphering monoliths or the stories of the rape-murder in the hope that we will find an ultimate truth.

 

_2001_, especially, invites more interpretations than it can handle. However, should we take the invitation to interpret seriously, we could come to terms with the film, just as we can take all the narratives of _Rashomon_ seriously. By 'seriously' we mean that no interpretation is right exclusive of other interpretations; no interpretation is a lie except, possibly, to itself.

 

That's exactly where _Rashomon_ takes us.

 

The baby in _Rashomon_ represents the birth of a new consciousness of the radical reality of life, explicitly spelled out in Ortega's metaphysics; the Star-Child in _2001_ serves a similar purpose. To echo the priest's affirmation of the woodcutter's action of taking the baby, I want to affirm the burden for mankind, symbolized by the child, resides in a new order of life that shakes the foundations of civilization. Again, we go back to the basic fear and confusion inhabiting the priest and the woodcutter at the beginning. _Rashomon_ offers, albeit in swaddling clothes, life beyond absolutes, beyond ancient objectivity and Cartesian idealism. A perilous path, but what alternative is there? It's not enough to praise individual visions and still cling to the absolutes of morality, law, and God; yet it is the very fear of losing these absolutes and plunging life into chaos which finally blot out _Rashomon_'s radical capability.

 

Collingswood, New Jersey USA

 

 

Notes

 

1. See ibid., pp. 71-76, especially pp. 72-74.

 

2. Ibid., p. 75.

 

3. Ibid.

 

4. Tyler, '_Rashomon_ as Art', p. 208.

 

5. Ibid., p. 210.

 

6. Loftus, _Witness for the Defense_, p. 22; my emphasis.

 

7. Huescar, _Jose Ortega y Gasset's Metaphysical Innovation_, p. 94.

 

8. Marias, _ Philosophy as Dramatic Theory_, p. 88.

 

9. Huescar, _Jose Ortega y Gasset's Metaphysical Innovation_, pp. 97-98.

 

10. Ortega y Gasset, _Meditations on Quixote_, p. 171.

 

11. Ibid., pp. 44-45.

 

12. Huescar, _Jose Ortega y Gasset's Metaphysical Innovation_, p. 95.

 

13. Akutagawa, _Rashomon and Other Stories_, p. 26.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Akutagawa, Ryunosuke, _Rashomon and Other Stories_, trans. Takashi Kojuma (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1952).

 

Huescar, Antonio Rodriguez, _Jose Ortega y Gasset's Metaphysical Innovation: A Critique and Overcoming of Idealism_, trans. and ed. Jorge Garcia-Gomez (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).

 

Loftus, Elizabeth, and Katherine Ketcham, _Witness for the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness, and the Expert Who Puts Memory on Trial_ (New York: St Martin's Press, 1991).

 

Marias, Julian, _ Philosophy as Dramatic Theory_, trans. James D. Parsons (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1971).

 

Ortega y Gasset, Jose, _Meditations on Quixote_, trans. Evelyn Rugg and Diego Marin (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1961).

--- Some Lessons in Metaphysics_, trans. Mildred Adams (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1969).

--- _What is Philosophy?_, trans. Mildred Adams (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1960).

 

Richie, Donald, _The Films of Akira Kurosawa_, 3rd edn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

 

Tyler, Parker, '_Rashomon_ as Art', in Julius Bellone, ed., _Renaissance of the Film_ (New York: Collier Books, 1971).

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

 

Robert Castle, 'The Radical Capability of _Rashomon_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 33, October 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n33castle>.

 

 

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