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A Cleansing of Human Kind

A Cleansing of Human Kind

Akira Kurosawa's film Rashomon is the story of the death of a samurai. Set in twelfth century Japan, the film relates the events surrounding the death of this samurai as recounted by various witnesses and participants. Each character's account contradicts that of the others. The story comes to be told by the meeting of three characters--a priest, a commoner, and a woodcutter--at the Rashomon gate. The "frame story", the action involving these three characters, contains the central events of the film. I believe the "frame story" develops and emphasizes the moral dilemma faced by the priest and the woodcutter when confronted by the various accounts of the murder. Thus, the problem of justice is diminished and the film becomes a social critique.

The three "frame story" characters each represent a different view of life. The priest is somewhat idealistic. He believes in the ultimate good of humanity and he is especially distressed by the multiple versions of the samurai's death he hears, all of which contradict each other. He wants to believe that there is good in all men's hearts, but all he sees is lies and this causes him to doubt human kind. The commoner is the opposite of the priest. He sees all of the evil around him and he accepts it and uses it as an excuse for his own actions. He feels that this evil is a basic feature of the human animal. The commoner is more than willing to become a part of the society which has spawned this evil. The woodcutter is in between the priest and the commoner. He also sees the evil that surrounds him. However, he tries to reject it, even while he is forced to become a part of this society when he steals a dagger in order to feed his family. The woodcutter does not want to become a part of this evil society, but he sees no alternative. I think these characters represent the three basic attitudes present in Japanese society during the twelfth century and probably in Kurosawa's time, with that of the commoner most likely being, well, the most common.

The "frame story" relates the events surrounding the death of the samurai through the flashbacks of the priest and the woodcutter. These two characters have heard the testimonies of the principle figures involved in the murder and were, to some extent, witnesses themselves. If the story had been presented as a trial in the court yard, the emphasis of the film would have necessarily had to have been the search for justice and the punishment of the samurai's murderer. Then, it most likely would have ended with the execution of the bandit, the probable killer of the samurai. However, the movie stresses the dilemma facing the priest and the woodcutter as they see several versions of what should be the same event completely contradict each other. The priest especially cannot understand how people can blatantly lie to each other, especially when they are speaking about a grave matter such as murder. Because it stresses the moral condition of the society instead of the pursuit of justice, I think that the "frame story" makes Rashomon a social critique instead of just a story of murder and intrigue. Kurosawa seems to be telling his audience that there are some definite problems in a society when it's members are constantly lying to one another and to themselves.

The "frame story" also allows Kurosawa to add the woodcutter's second version of what he witnessed. I assume this variation to be the truest account, just because it seems the woodcutter has the least to hide and also because, through out the movie, he is torn by this inner turmoil which I believe stems from the fact that he knows the truth and none of the official testimonies reflect that truth. Of course, with the exception of the priest, everyone in the story has told lies. Even the woodcutter told lies in the beginning, but it seems that there is something gnawing at the back of his mind and I feel that this gnawing stems from his knowledge of the truth. Kurosawa is able to reveal this "true" version only through the "frame story".

The only thing that I can see might have been lost by having the story told through the "frame story" is that the perceptions and ideas of the priest and the woodcutter almost assuredly warped the accounts they give, if only slightly. We cannot be sure, as an audience, that their recollections of the other testimonies are completely accurate. The fact that the two never correct each others suggests that their flashbacks are for the most part correct, but there may be small details that have been twisted through the two characters' interpretations of what they heard that are passed on to us.

The rain, I think, is a symbolic cleansing. During the rain, the priest has serious doubts as to the condition of human kind while the woodcutter is in a state of disbelief that everyone would lie about the murder as they did. When the commoner discovers that the woodcutter has stolen the dagger, the woodcutter is filled with shame and guilt. The commoner runs off before the rains stops, before the purification is complete. After the rain stops, the woodcutter offers to care for the baby. At this point, the priest has his faith in men renewed. This renewal is because of the woodcutter's unselfish proposal to care for a baby he has no responsibility for. The woodcutter feels cleansed of his guilt and that he is basically a good person, even though he did steal. The rain is a symbol of this purification. Then, the woodcutter walks in the direction opposite of the one the commoner left, suggesting that he has decided to take a path opposite that of the commoner. The woodcutter, and human kind as a whole, now that the priest can have faith in his fellow man, has been purified.

The gate itself seems to represent, to me, the society of the characters at large. The gate is in a state of decay, much like the society as the priest and the woodcutter see it. At first, the characters use the gate as a shelter. The commoner uses the society as a shelter in the same way. Both are crumbling, but the commoner defends his actions by saying that if he does not do it, somebody else will. He is thus using the society's ills as a shelter for himself, to shield himself from any attacks or guilt he might feel. After he has been purified, the woodcutter is able to free himself from the shelter of society and be himself.

The main effect the "frame story" has on the film is that it shifts the emphasis of the story from a simple search for truth and justice to the moral attitude of society. Both the priest and the woodcutter see that something is wrong with the witnesses and their testimonies since all of them contradict each other. The commoner does not see a problem; he accepts things and says that is the way things are. Kurosawa probably intends us to think more about this problem of everyone telling lies than about who killed the samurai. Rashomon was accepted so well by western critics probably because Kurosawa forces us to reflect upon societal ills. Those critics noticed the parallels between the problems the priest and the woodcutter see and those plaguing societies of the western world. I feel Rashomon is not so much a tale of murder and deceit as it is a social critique.

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Last updated: Tue, 15 Mar 2005 - 16:15:51

 

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