Jesus Christ. Is the entire world falling apart? I mean, I know it literally isn’t falling apart…but. Well. Is it? Because it sure does feel like that sometimes.
I’m actually not referring to the depressing fact that wildfires keep ripping Californian forests apart, or to the dystopian-novel-esque-plot where coronavirus cases keep setting new record highs each successive week, or the painstucking fucking reality that the number of animals on the endangered species list—a number that’s reached 30,000, by the way—has more than doubled over the past two decades.
I’m actually much more concerned with the people in this country who are actively trying to keep thousands upon thousands of people from voting in the elections, who are denying just how deadly the coronavirus is, who are claiming that climate change isn’t the culprit for 7,900 fucking wildfires burning over 3.3 million fucking acres of land on the West Coast.
Who are these people, by the way? And how do they come to think the way they think? And why is their worldview so myopic that they can’t realize how many people are being hurt and how much damage is being done to this planet?
But then I’m also forced to wonder…am I actually part of the problem? Is my perception of the world the one that’s actually myopic? Do I hoist myself above these people in an effort to make myself feel whole and good and justified?
These thoughts have been swirling in my head for several days now—probably thanks to the fact that I just watched Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon.
I hadn’t seen the movie for years. Along with Sunset Boulevard, I remember Rashomon being one of the first movies I had ever watched when I decided to become a cinephile back in 2006.
In those days, I was all about Akira Kurosawa. Of all the filmmakers that were on my radar, Kurosawa was the one that intrigued me the most. The thought of watching a three-hour-and-27-minute movie like Seven Samurai didn’t seem torturous to me at all. In fact, I couldn’t think of a more pleasant way to waste away an afternoon.
And that Kurosawa infatuation was all triggered by what many movie junkies consider to be the man’s first truly great film: Rashomon.
My relationship with the movie now, however, is much different. Back in 2006, Rashomon was the pinnacle of cinema—everything the artform was meant to be. It was contemplative, it was visually arresting, and it played with the storytelling formula in a way that was well ahead of its time.
But, in today’s world—a world in which I’ve seen thousands of movies, including several that were made during and before the year 1950—I’m less moved by Kurosawa’s filmic techniques. I still believe the movie is interesting in both a visual and storytelling manner. But I’m definitely not floored by Rashomon’s choices like I’m now floored by, say, a Stanley Kubrick movie, or an Andrea Arnold movie, or an Apichatpong Weerasethakul movie.
What I do love about Rashomon, however, are the ideas expressed in the film, and how that philosophical core informs me about the world and about myself in that world.
For those who haven’t seen the movie, Rashomon owns the formula of your classic whodunnit story…kind of. Sort of. The story is told from the perspective of a woodcutter who finds a dead samurai in the woods. The woodcutter attends a trial that is meant to determine who killed the samurai, and there are three suspects: a bandit, the samurai’s wife, and the samurai himself, whose side of the story is told through a medium.
As you can imagine, all three accounts are totally different: the bandit weaves a tale where he fights the samurai to win the wife’s affection; the wife, on the other hand, claims that she found her husband dead after she passed out from the guilt of the bandit raping her; and the samurai tells the court that he killed himself at the thought of his wife having been with two different men.
And in every story, there’s a valuable dagger that’s gone missing.
Because the movie was so striking and influential at the time, the unreliability of eyewitness testimony became known as the “Rashomon Effect.” Each of these people weaves a different story—and because of it, we’re never quite sure who’s telling the truth. That very notion questions the legitimacy of “justice,” as we must choose who to believe as opposed to ever actually knowing the truth.
Except…do we get the truth? After those three parties recounted their tales, we get a fourth perspective from the woodcutter himself—who, as it turns out, saw the entire ordeal play out but kept quiet about it. And what he saw was a messy, convoluted, unflattering sequence of events where the two men clumsily fight and the wife runs away in terror.
And upon my most recent viewing of Rashomon, this twist in the film is where I parted from my former self in the early cinephile days.
Because, back in those years, I knew about the Rashomon Effect and what the movie revealed about the justice system. But these days—when everybody is pointing fingers at one another, trying to blame their perceived “enemies” as the culprits for this fucked up world—I can’t help but think that ego is to blame. Not necessarily people, but that ugly, diabolical, inescapable ego that drives men mad and tears civilizations apart.
Because the bandit didn’t want to reveal that he fought a messy battle with the samurai and only barely made it out alive; the wife wanted to appear as though the bandit caused so much grief that both she and her husband were driven to commit suicide; and the samurai wanted to make it seem as though honor was his killer, as opposed to a dirty rascal of a bandit. In each situation, the story plays down their weaknesses and accentuates their strengths.
So, truth be told, “ego” is the only reason that each character in Rashomon presents their story in the way that they do.
And that includes the woodcutter. That man standing on the outside pretending that he has no dog in this pointless fucking fight.
At the very end of the film, a man accuses the woodcutter of leaving out a key detail: that the woodcutter was the one that stole the valuable knife that had gone missing. And you can tell from the pained expression on the woodcutter’s face that this is true.
Which means even the woodcutter—who is ostensibly our objective guide through this story—didn’t even present the situation properly. And if he lied about that…then what else did he lie about? Did he misrepresent each of the suspects’ stories? Did he embellish, or undermine, or twist any of the details?
Where you can go wrong, however, is if you’re looking for the “truth” in Rashomon. Because the power of the movie doesn’t lie in who or what you believe, but in how much each of those parties believes their stories.
Yes: only one of them can be telling the truth about the events of the situation. But, really, every story we hear is “true” in the sense that those stories reveal very important things about those characters. The bandit may not have described his battle with the samurai properly—but the bandit does believe he’s properly describing his fighting prowess. The same can be said for the wife—who believes she is a faithful, innocent bystander—and the samurai—who believes he must die with honor.
And there’s that last character: the woodcutter. And what I realized this time around is that the woodcutter is me, is you, is all of us. He’s on the outside, taking in all of the events and forming his own conclusion about the “reality” of the situation.
But he’s just as susceptible to twisting the facts of the situation as anybody else. We view the world through the lens we’ve inherited. Whether that worldview comes from our parents, from our friends, or from our own organic experiences, we come to believe that this specific way we see the world is the only way any of this disastrous shit makes sense.
And what the woodcutter sees is lies, is violence, is conceitedness. He doesn’t look at these three people and think, “Wow, each one of these people is trying to shape the world in their own idealized image.”
Instead, he sees a contradiction of the world he’d like to live in.
The irony, however, is that he’s every bit as responsible for this giant fabrication as any one of those liars. By failing to reveal that he stole the knife, he presented himself in a way that made his story seem “true.”
But all really he did was paint a prettier reality for himself that wasn’t real. And that is what has truly been eating at him for the entire film.
And that’s what really struck me about this viewing: there is no truth in Rashomon. Just like there is no truth in this world. Because if there was, we’d have 6 billion different truths to keep track of. Instead, what we have is a single reality where billions of different perspectives exist.
So now when I look around at a world that’s ostensibly falling apart, I don’t wonder how all of these people I disagree with could be so stupid. Instead, I recognize we all come from different viewpoints. And I can’t truly start to understand this strange, complicated, beautiful-and-messed-up world I live in until I try to empathize with all of these different perspectives.
Or, at the very least, understand that there are different perspectives. That I can talk to these people and understand why they say the things that they say. That the answer to our problems is more complicated and nuanced than the simple truth I perceive.
That is all pretty easy to say that you’ll do—but feels fucking impossible to do.
Especially when shit is burning (literally).
But I’m only contributing to the fire if I don’t try.