Thursday, October 01, 2009


Yesterday I saw a screening of Rashomon as a part of the Milwaukee Film Festival. It is a film I have seen numerous times and I am constantly amazed by the beauty and control of Kurosawa's directing. This becomes especially apparent on the big screen (the print was from a beautiful 2008 restoration). This time around I was especially struck by the philosophical import of the film, the way it combines ethical and epistemological dilemmas. The story is an early example of a director playing around with perspective and chronology in telling his story, showing us the rape and assault of a woman by a notorious bandit (played by Toshiro Mifune) from several different points of view. The film starts at an abandoned temple where three travelers seek shelter from the rain. Two of them, a Buddhist priest and a simple farmer, are returning from giving testimony at the trial of the bandit accused of killing the husband of the wife he raped. The farmer begins telling his story to the third man in the temple, revealing that he was the one who found the body and then ran to the police. Later on he is asked to testify at the trial after the bandit is brought in. Mifune then tells his version of the story, how he raped the woman and then fought her husband in a daring battle to the death "crossing swords 23 times," before vanquishing his enemy.

At this point it becomes clear that Kurosawa is playing very fast and loose with point of view, and deliberately so. He is telling us a story of a man (the farmer) telling us a story of a man (the bandit, Mifune) telling us a story. The verity of these stories remains a question throughout, making us doubt everything we see and hear, on every single level presented to us. To complicate matters, the wife of the murdered man appears and gives a testimony which is completely different from that of the bandit. Finally, the murdered man himself gives his testimony through a medium. The events and emotions of the characters change completely from one account to another. Finally, the farmer tells the Buddhist priest and the traveler that he had lied to the court, that he had come upon the scene before the husband was killed and that he saw yet another version of the events that took place (giving us, on last count, at least four different versions). What is interesting is that the farmer is so confused by the incongruity of these different accounts is that he is incapable of being sure whether his account (which he ostensibly saw with his own eyes) is what really took place.

Kurosawa's film works on a multitude of levels, touching on issues both philosophical and artistic. For one, he is making a fascinating comment on his medium. A director is, after all, a storyteller, choosing point of view and perspective to tell his story, choosing what to reveal and what to hide. Yet the form of cinema is such that we can never be completely removed from reality (what is actually there). After all, the film captures actual people and actual places, unlike a painting or a written story where the artist can completely control our perception. But is the verisimilitude of cinema not simply a smokescreen, a front for the greatest illusionary art of all? Is the filmmaker not free to limit our perspective to the imagination of a liar or a lunatic? Can a director not control the way we view a scene or empathize with a character? And if we cannot even trust what we see on film, can we trust our own eyes? This question becomes especially interesting in an age of computer generated special effects. When we view films today we can never be sure if what we see has any correspondence in reality, whether it is a beautiful meadow or a gigantic transformer robot.

On top of this consideration is the ethical/philosophical dilemma of relativism. Is our experience of reality relative? Are we reducible to a solipsistic point of view that is ultimately not translatable to other people? And if so, is knowledge possible? Do concepts such as good and evil (absolute terms) hold any sway in a relative world, or are they simply comfortable conventions to placate our conscience? The third traveler hiding from the rain takes the last position. He is the perspectival equivalent of Glaucon in Plato's Republic, a relativist and a nihilist, someone who believes that "it is in the nature of humans to lie" and that the cruelty and suffering of this world are the only realities we can be sure of. He represents a direct challenge to the priest and the farmer, both of whom want very much to believe in absolute truths and moral justice. At the end of the day, though, they find themselves unable to offer a theory or argument for such a view of reality.

Towards the end of the film, these three travelers find a small child that has been abandoned in the temple. The relativist among them decides to take the kimono the child is wrapped in, justifying it by pointing out that he is at least a much better person than the parents of the child who left it there to die (stealing being better than murder, at least relatively so). When the farmer protests the Glauconian traveler mocks him, pointing to how he lied to the court out of fear of getting involved and how he probably stole a dagger the woman used to defend herself (the farmer had comfortably omitted the fate of this expensive dagger in his retelling). Given that all people lie, even self-righteous moralists, our relativist friend sees nothing wrong in committing such a small crime as stealing the kimono, even if the child will be cold.

What follows is an incredible exchange, among the most powerful Kurosawa ever wrote and filmed. The relativist leaves the farmer and the priest, the latter holding the abandoned child in his arms. The farmer moves towards the child and extends his arms and the priest backs away in horror, thinking that the farmer is going to take whatever else the child is wrapped in (or, perhaps, thinking that the farmers intentions are even worse). The farmer humbly explains that he simply wanted to comfort the child and then goes on to add that he has six children of his own and that "one more won't make that much of a difference." The acting in this scene is simply astonishing. The farmer seems to have lost much of his pride and purpose through the course of the film, but he nonetheless doesn't think twice about whatever sacrifice he needs to make in order to keep the child safe. It is simply something he must do. The priest is astonished by this. As soon as he realizes that the farmer is serious he apologizes profusely. Then, in a moment both poignant and beautiful, he tells the farmer that thanks to him he will be able to keep his faith in humanity. This faith is then, after all, not dependent upon theories or arguments, but rather the loving humility of this simple farmer. It is a faith built on action rather than words.

This is not to say that Kurosawa is denying the possibility of offering a cogent philosophical theory of knowledge but rather that such a theory cannot be based on abstract reasoning but is rather the result of our observations of human nature. Kurosawa presents us three human beings who are confronted with a choice, namely the choice of who they truly are as human beings. They can choose to live in a relative reality where good and evil are simply conventions or they can keep their faith and comport themselves towards the good, no matter how confusing and corrupt the reality around them may appear. In doing so they make manifest something that is truly real, something that transcends all subjectivity and point of view, namely the inherent goodness of human nature. Kurosawa can then leave it up to the philosophers to develop a theory that explains this reality.

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