Rashomon a classic Japanese historical movie of the 1950s. Directed by the master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and is regarded by many as being one of his greatest films. The film is known for a plot device that involves various characters providing subjective, alternative, self-serving and contradictory versions of the same incident.
Rashomon was the film that brought Akira Kurosawa, and many would say Japanese cinema, to international renown, and it’s a true cinematic masterpiece.
A woodcutter and a priest are seated beneath the impressive gate into the city of Rashomon as a means of protection against the rain when a common appears. He joins them beneath gate and the two immediately launch into telling him about the distressing story they witnessed. The woodcutter discovered the body of a murdered samurai three days ago and the priest confirms having seen the samurai traveling with his wife earlier that day. The woodcutter and the priest were summoned to court to bear witness, and the police arrive with a bandit in custody who had confessed to the murder. This framing device paves the way for flashbacks that give each of the participants a chance to offer their own subjective version of what took place.
The Bandit’s Tale:
The bandit proves to be a notorious outlaw and his story is one involving tricking the samurai to veer off the mountain trail with the enticement of ancient swords. Once he got the samurai into the grove, he tied him to a tree and then fetched the man’s wife. While she valiantly attempted to defend herself with the use of small dagger, the bandit ultimately succeeded in what he terms a seduction. Afterward, overcome with guilt and shame, she begged the bandit to challenge her husband to a duel to death in order to avoid the presence of two men who bore witness to her dishonour. The bandit claims gallantry by agreeing to this demand, thus arguing that the samurai’s death was therefore not murder but an honourable defeat in battle. The woman then ran away into the woods. At the conclusion of his tale, the court inquiries about that expensive dagger that was left behind. He explains that he simply forgot about it amidst all the confusion, and pleads to being foolish in allowing such a valuable prize to escape his greedy grasp.
The Wife’s Tale:
The samurai’s wife also appears in court, but her version is markedly different. She claims that the seduction was, in fact, rape and that afterward the bandit simply left. She went to her husband and begged for forgiveness, but received only cold silence. Releasing him from his bondage to the tree, she begged her husband to put her at peace by killing her. Again, the samurai merely stares with disgust and hatred. This expression so distressed the woman that she fainted with the dagger still in her grip. Upon coming back to consciousness, her husband lay dead with the dagger sticking from his chest. Her attempt to commit suicide failed.
The priest and the woodcutter then tell the commoner beneath the gate with them that the testimony of the dead samurai was even heard. This was accomplished through the intervention of a medium through whom the spirt of the dead samurai related his version.
The Samurai’s Tale
The samurai explains through the medium that after raping his wife, the bandit asked her to go off with him. She agrees and then begs to kill her husband. That way she can absolve herself of the guilt of belonging to different men. The bandit, appalled by this display, grabbed her and offered the samurai the choice of whether she lived or died. It was this offer that moved the samurai to feel compassionate enough to pardon him. Meanwhile, the wife runs away and after failing to catch up to her, the bandit returned and set the samurai free. He then took up his wife’s dagger and killed himself. Somebody later removed the dagger.
The Woodcutter’s Story
After the trial, the story returns to the city gate where the woodcutter tells the commoner that every one of the accounts told at the trial was a lie. He knows this because he witnessed everything, but never came forward with everything knew because he just didn’t want to get involved. The woodcutter explains that the bandit pleaded with the wife to marry him, but instead she chose to set her husband free. The reason the husband was not willing to fight the bandit was because he could not see the wisdom in risking his own life for that of a spoiled woman like his wife. The woman then began upbraiding both her husband and the bandit with recriminations challenging their manhood. In fact, she had incited the men to fight over her only to cover her face once they raised swords to each other. The men reluctantly fought, resulting in a duel far less honourable than that described. The only reason that the bandit emerged victorious was the result of a lucky stroke that left the samurai begging for his life on the ground before the bandit ran his sword through him. This caused the woman to flee in terror. The bandit, failing to catch up to her, instead grabbed the samurai’s sword and limped away.
Following the woodcutter’s story, all three hear the sound of a mewling baby. They discover a basket with the baby inside. The commoner steals a kimono and amulet that was left behind for the baby. The woodcutter confronts the commoner over the theft from a defenceless infant, but the commoner turns the table on the woodcutter when he realizes that the real reason for his silence in court was that he was the one who took the missing dagger. The commoner takes his leave with the expression of a philosophy that each man is only motivated by his own self-interest.
The priest holds the baby, overcome by a sudden lack of faith in the goodness of man. The woodcutter reaches for the baby and the priest backs off, suddenly suspicious of the other’s intent. The woodcutter allays his fears by asserting that since he has six children of his own already, one more will hardly matter. This information suddenly changes every assumption about the woodcutter in the mind of the priest, and thus restores his belief in the goodness of humankind.
The Woodcutter is a man who has come upon a murder in the woods. After hearing three different versions of the story before the authorities from the bandit Tajomaru, the spirit of the murdered samurai, and his wife Masako, he has begun to lose faith in man’s ability to be good and tell the truth. But, while he appears to have lost his understanding in others, it is himself and his own soul he does not understand, as he, too, failed to tell the truth about what he saw in the forest.
The Priest accompanies The Woodcutter at the Rashomon gate as the rain pours down. We learn that he had seen the samurai and his wife traveling the same day that they were murdered, but he did not see anything more. He has come to be baffled by the multiple accounts of what happened and because of this, his faith is challenged by the corrupt nature of man. In the end, he and The Woodcutter come face to face with a decision abandon their beliefs or continue to find the good in the world by doing good themselves when a small child is left at the gate and the thief takes the kimono wrapping the infant. The Woodcutter’s decision to care for the child restores the Priest’s wavering faith.
The Commoner comes to take shelter from the rain under what remains of the Rashomon gate with The Priest and The Woodcutter. This man neither saw the events that took place nor heard the testimonies before the authorities. He hears what happened from the two men’s account. The Commoner’s opinions very much mirror the opinions of the world and it’s often too simple of an explanation for why things are the way they are, and he also contends that humans by nature are selfish. He becomes the moral sounding board against which The Woodcutter and The Priest are challenged in their beliefs.
Tajomaru is an infamous bandit known for doing evil. He is at the center of this story as the samurai and his wife cross his path while traveling through the woods. Tajomaru is able to subdue and tie up the samurai and attacks his wife Masako, raping her. He then kills the samurai with his sword, and is found by the river with the stolen arrows of the murdered man stuck in his back. He gives his account before the authorities, admitting that he murdered the man and forced himself on the woman, but his version of the story is different than that of the woman and the spirit of the samurai.
Masako is a woman traveling with her samurai husband through the woods when the bandit Tajomaru assaults them and forces himself on her. She tells her story before the authorities: that she had fainted after her husband looked upon her with such loathing, and when she awoke, her dagger was in her husband’s heart. She attempts suicide but fails, and at the end of her testimony asks the court what a woman like herself should do.
The Samurai died after an encounter with the bandit Tajomaru in the woods. His spirit is later channelled through a medium in order for him to tell his version of what happened that day. After his wife and Tajomaru have told different versions of his death, he provides yet another version. He says that after the bandit raped his wife he took his own life, plunging his wife’s dagger into his heart. He curses his wife for placing him in a state of suffering in darkness in the afterlife.
The Medium is the conduit for the spirit of the samurai, who appears in court so that The Samurai may give his testimony before the authorities. She wears traditional face-paint and performs a ritual dance before summoning the spirit of The Samurai. She collapses after he finishes his testimony, and does not appear again elsewhere in the story.
Quotes and Analysis
“I’m the one who should be ashamed. I don’t understand my own soul.”The Woodcutter
The Woodcutter is revealing here that he is wrong in trying to blame others for the world being the way it is. It is his admission that he didn’t tell the truth to the police about what he saw, and is thus complicit in society’s failures. In this moment, he recognizes that he isn’t a part of the solution, but of the problem.
“War, earthquake, winds, fire, famine, the plague. Year after year, it’s been nothing but disasters. And bandits descend upon us every night. I’ve seen so many men getting killed like insects, but even I have never heard a story as horrible as this. Yes. So horrible. This time, I may finally lose my faith in the human soul. It’s worse than bandits, the plague, famine, fire or wars.”The Priest
The Priest has come to the conclusion that the story he has heard about the multiple betrayals and murders between the three on the road may finally break his faith in mankind. The hardships of difficult circumstance are one thing, but the deceit that he has witnessed by all involved has overwhelmed him with hopelessness.The Priest has come to the conclusion that the story he has heard about the multiple betrayals and murders between the three on the road may finally break his faith in mankind. The hardships of difficult circumstance are one thing, but the deceit that he has witnessed by all involved has overwhelmed him with hopelessness.
“I don’t understand. I just don’t understand. I don’t understand it at all. I just don’t understand.”The Woodcutter
This, the opening line of the film, is the premise for the entire narrative: finding out what actually happened in order that the truth may be brought to light. And the fact that The Woodcutter says this is poignant, because—having witnessed the event—should know exactly what happened. But his unwillingness to tell the truth for fear of getting caught up in all of it explains the issue of guilt which has come upon him. This shows that when fear outweighs justice, serious damage is done to the individual and the community.
“All women are weak by nature.”Tajomaru
Tajomaru utters this line at the end of The Woodcutter’s second tale, just after the samurai has finished berating his wife for having belonged to two men. The line is ironic given that it arrives just before the wife rises up and scorns both of them for failing to live up to the standards of honorable men, laughing and mocking their characters. Far from being “weak by nature,” in The Woodcutter’s tale, the wife exposes the hollowness of male bravado.
“Maybe goodness is just make-believe.”The Commoner
The Commoner says this to the priest after the wife’s tale, while they and The Woodcutter discuss the possibility that a dead man might lie. The Priest refuses to believe that a dead man could lie, because all men are essentially good. The Commoner, less certain, questions The Priest’s faith in man’s innate goodness.
“For these words alone, I was ready to pardon his crime.”The samurai’s ghost
The samurai’s ghost recites these lines when remembering that Tajomaru threw his wife to the ground and allowed the samurai to decide her fate, rather than follow her command to kill him. The line is notable because it is the only time in any of the tales when Tajomaru and the samurai form a truce, against the wife as the sole antagonist.
“If we don’t trust each other, this earth might as well be hell.”The Priest
The Priest utters this line after all the stories have been told. The Commoner still doubts that any (or all) of the versions amount to an adequate version of the truth, but The Priest maintains that in a world without trust, earth is “hell.” The line references the fact that the men seem trapped in a kind of purgatory or hell inside the Rashomon gate during the storm.
“What should a poor, helpless woman like me do?”The wife
The wife is perhaps the most mysterious character in the tale—one whose behavior varies the most between the various accounts provided by the men. The line here, uttered at the end of her courtyard testimony, suggests that she is an unfortunate victim of rape and abuse. However, Tajomaru describes her as “fierce,” and in The Woodcutter’s tale, she is the fiercest of all three.
“A bandit calling another a bandit. Now that’s selfish.”The Commoner
The Commoner says this to The Woodcutter after correctly guessing that The Woodcutter stole the wife’s dagger, which is why he did not tell his full story in court. The revelation suggests that The Woodcutter’s perspective may not be as reliable as the audience might have previously guessed, and also hardens The Priest’s suspicion of The Woodcutter.
“A fool can think only foolish thoughts.”Tajomaru
Tajomaru says this line to the policeman, mocking his preposterous, heightened version of capturing Tajomaru that involves finding him full of arrows. The line neatly encapsulates a larger theme of the film, which is that people’s stories are a product of their identities—the policeman, oafish and self-interested, tells an ungainly lie.