Truth at 24 fps
An essay by: Witney Seibold
“I don’t like anything Japanese.”
“But dad, you liked ‘Rashomon.’”
“That’s not the way I remember it.”
-Dialogue from “The Simpsons”
“It’s human to lie.”
“Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.”
So, down to the nitty-gritty:
Books are very abstract. We interpret words into images and ideas. Theater is immediate, and we do get real actors, but they are in an artificially enclosed space. Music is only sound. So-called “plastic” arts are only images.
In short, most art forms require a certain amount of imagination on the part of the audience to be “complete.” We are invited by the artist to fill in the gaps to create an entire story in our minds. A sculpture may be a static image of, say, a naked fellow named David, but when we view David, he begins to take on a personality and a story. We may see a group of actors up on a raised wooden platform, but in our minds, they can be the Danish court dealing with revenge and ghosts. We may see a squiggle of lines on a page, but, if we can read, the letters form themselves in a really good film essay.
Film, at least according to Jean-Luc Godard, is the most holistic art form to date. It’s the one that gives us the most amount of truth, and requires the least amount of conjecture on the part of the audience. We’re not just given “a tree,” we are given a very specific tree, captured on film at a very specific time. We are not given a description of someone’s reaction (as we would in a book), we are given a specific person giving a very specific reaction. We’re not merely given a scene where we can imagine the court of Denmark, but we’re given a real court in a real place with real actors. The camera does not lie. If a mistake is made, if an improvisation is given, if a performance is stellar or mediocre, the camera unrelentingly records it, at 24 frames per second. The truth, as Godard would say, is being captured.
Of course, it’s one of the great ironies of film that, while this “truth” is being captured, it’s most often in the service of a fiction or a story. Written by a screenwriter, designed by a production designer, artificially lit, laid out ahead of time by a storyboard artist, and specifically guided along certain lines by a skilled director, the film is a carefully constructed lie. Even a documentary film, which is supposedly “documenting” real people and events, is still a construct, with certain words carefully chosen as part of the filmmaker’s “thesis.” The only films that really would capture “truth” would be along the lines of Andy Warhol’s experimental films. And, quite frankly, those films are pretty boring.
So, are films truth, or are they fictions?
And so we have the central brilliance of Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece “Rashomon.” It is a film that very directly deals with the nature of truth, both in terms of the human experience (many eyewitnesses witnessing very different things, all of which are claimed as “truth”), and in terms of filmmaking (Kurosawa changing points of view on us, altering details, not letting us settle into what is truly “true” in the film’s universe). It gives us carefully constructed lies, and we believe them until they are contradicted by new lies that we believe until they are contradicted. And it manages to lie to us, to trick us, the constantly pull the rug out from under us, while keeping us involved with an interesting story, great performances, and taut drama.
Layer one: The first line of dialogue in “Rashomon” is “I just don’t understand this story.” How apt. We are in an abandoned building (The Rashomon gate in Kyoto) with a woodcutter (Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura who is the star of both “Seven Samurai” and “Ikiru”), a priest (Minoru Chiaki), and a traveling commoner (Kichijiro Ueda). The first storyteller of all of this is Kurosawa himself. He is filming these events, and we are seeing the film as we are used to seeing: from the all-seeing and unseen voyeuristic eye of the camera. Through Kurosawa’s eye we see the beauty of the word around us. The falling rain, the dilapidated building, the sun filtering through the lofty treetops. Kurosawa is said to be the first filmmaker to point his camera directly at the sun. This may or may not be true, but it’s certainly an effective and relatively new device. Through Kurosawa’s eye, we see the beams of sunlight, the swooping branches brushing past… we feel as if we are in the forest. We are brought into an earthy and real universe. When the lies begin to form, we are still within Kurosawa’s eye, and are still in the lush and unforgiving beauty of the forest. Or we sit, shivering, in the rain, confused. The weather is almost made into another form of music, as it dictates much of how we feel.
I have said before that certain filmmakers just know what they’re doing; the shots, feelings, themes, crafts, all seem to come to them easily, without forcing the issue or having to out-clever anyone. I listed Bergman and Kubrick. Kurosawa is another one.
Layer two: The woodcutter begins telling a horrible story, and we see the film through his eyes now. He wanders through the woods and comes upon Takahiro’s body. We’ve certainly seen flashbacks in films before (heck, my last essay was on “Citizen Kane,” which was a life told in flashback from others’ perspectives; in fact “Kane” dealt with similar themes for truth and lies, only in a less effecting way), but it’s wonderful how easily we slip into another’s eyes in this film. Since someone is actively telling this story, we get to see it. And if we’re seeing it, it must be true, right? Kurosawa is playfully playing with the conceit that what is one the screen is the truth. Were the woodcutter filmed merely speaking the whole story, not only would that be dull, but we’d begin to question the veracity of his story from the outset. But no, we see it, and we believe it.
(A slight digression: the concept of “real vs. visible” – i.e. if it is visible, it is real, and if it is not visible it is not real – is a Buddhist concept. Perhaps the “visible truth” in this film stems from deeper religious feeling in a largely Buddhist country)
The woodcutter then tells the story of attending the trial of Takahiro’s murder. We see the court room, a large sandy area bathed in sunlight, and the woodcutter and another witness sitting quietly in the background. Note that we never see or hear the interrogator; the characters are addressing us, the audience, challenging us. So we’re getting a story of a man telling a story of the following story:
Layer three: We now meet Tojomaru, the bandit, played by Toshiro Mifune, one of my favorite actors. In his version of the murder, he raped the wife (Machiko Kyo), and killed Takahiro (Masayuki Mori). There was a valiant swordfight, equally matched, but one that ended with him as the victor. And he is not remorseful. In fact, he is full of bluster and piss ‘n’ vinegar. He is proud of his crime. It’s odd that a person would so grandly admit to guilt in a court of law where he is likely facing death at the hands of the state, but, thanks to Mifune’s performance, we can believe that this man wouldn’t give a damn one way or the other.
…Another digression on the actors. Mifune’s acting style has been called over-the-top by some critics, and “expressionistic acting” by others (he gives not a 100% accurate portrayal of human behavior, but a slightly overplayed version of humanity, making his – and our – emotions more intense). I guess both descriptions are accurate, as Mifune is not one to shy away from loud cackling, stomping his feet, sneering, mugging, chewing the scenery. And yet he comes across as soulful, pained, and passionate. In fact, the saem could be said of all of Kurosawa’s films. In most of his films, the characters overplay, the shots are slightly oversaturated, the dramatic conventions slightly obvious. This is not a mark of bad filmmaking, though, but very obviously a style choice. It allows us to experience a heightened version of reality.
While Mifune is certainly one of the most famous of Japanese actors, and yet it was Masayuki Mori who was the most famous at the time “Rashomon” was made. He gives a very subdued, and modern, performance in “Rashomon.” Some critics inaccurately pegged this style as kabuki acting, but it was straight out of the action fashions of the time.)
So when Tojomaru incriminates himself, we can kind of understand him. We may not agree, but the bitter irony and guilt and even out-and-out boastfulness is something we can relate to. Of course, Kurosawa isn’t going to let us off that easily…
Layer four: We now have Masako, the wife’s version of things. She is also in the courtroom, so keep in mind, this is still the woodcutter telling the story. In her version, though, she insists that she killed Takahiro after being shamed by Tojomaru. Before the duel between the men was demanded of by the woman, who is punished for her actions and spurned see the not on feminism below).
What is going on now? What are her motives to lie? Or is she lying? Which of them is telling the truth? We see another flashback, but the details have now been altered. We can’t be sure of either one anymore. At this point in the film, I would assume most people we be more apt to believe Tojomaru’s story; She is a shamed woman, and has a motive to punish herself. Or is she that simple? Does she fit the mould of the docile and obedient female, or is there something more sinister afoot? Does her motive for muder really stem from her shame? Kurosawa has been accused of making “guy” films (about men, and for men), and has never really been one to push feminism as a particular theme, so I guess it’s possible she really is a shamed and docile Japanese woman, but even if we are convinced of this, we won’t be able to hold onto it for long. We get a new version of things…
Layer five: The dead man… Wait, what? The dead man? Yes, the dead man. A medium is called into the courtroom, and the dead man is contacted. Things get a bit sticky with this. It is the film’s conceit that the medium is actually contacting the dead man, and getting a story from him. Or does the medium herself have something to contribute? If that’s the case, then we have
Layer six: The dead man. Now we have Kurosawa telling about the woodcutter, telling about the testament of the medium, telling abut the dead man. What a gloriously complex film, and yet one that’s seems so simple. The dead man also claims to have killed himself. Unable to deal with the shame himself, he is set free, wanders the woods, and ends up killing himself. Whether it’s the medium telling this story, or actually the dead man, we now have at least two people lying to us. An interesting idea in a film that is all lies anyway. Or is it all truth. Heh heh.
Layer seven: Ah, but the woodcutter was not entirely honest with us. Now we see another version of the story that was previously hidden from us. And since we now know that the woodcutter was not honest with us before, it’s even more difficult to discern the real truth anyway. Was all of this a story? And why would the woodcutter make up a story that so obviously distresses both he and the priest listening to it? In this version of his story, we get a close recounting of Tojomaru’s story, but rather than a manly and epic swordfight where both men fought valiantly and one was the clear and honest victor, we have a long (some would say too long) version of the same swordfight.
Kurosawa is actually doing a parody of a well-established Japanese film genre; that of the old-timey sword epics. The Japanese equivalent of, say, the American western; a genre full of conventions and similarities. But in this version of the swordfight, the fighters are not confident or graceful. In fact, they seem hesitant from the get-go. They grunt and struggle and get dirty. We get common images like the sword stuck in the tree stump (a common image in old Japanese films). And who was the killer? Does it even matter anymore?
Resolution: And so now we have four versions of the same story, all different, and all with different outcomes. And we’ve had a delightfully frustrating time being jerked around. At this point in the film, the audience is probably feeling a lot like the commoner does. Outraged. Understanding. Bitter. Realizing that maybe the story doesn’t make any sense, and that it’s possible that everyone was lying.
But we’re not left with a hopeless feeling; a feeling that the world is crawling with liars and dishonesty. Because, and this is a little odd, a baby is discovered in the dilapidated building. The baby is a rather obvious symbol of hope for the future, and some critics have come down on Kurosawa for including something so ham-handed, but I feel it works. People have fled in disgust, someone is dead, no one is telling the truth, and the weather is not looking any better at the moment. Then we find a child.
The point is that right, wrong, true, untrue, honesty, fiction, lies can all be subjective. Sometimes the truth cannot be found. Life is like that. Your memory and mood affect events and history. History is a story with details changing from teller to teller. What happened may be concrete, but how we pass it down will be altered. The only thing that can keep us together is what we do now. They woodcutter and the priest both resolves that saving this child is the important thing. The woodcutter will use the child as a new leaf, a new testament to honesty.
Yes, it is ham-handed, but in a film that’s been playing on our sense of truth, it makes poetic sense that the ending feels pure, but still a mite contrived. Perhaps it is a “real” event from a contrived drama situation, but it works for the character and it works for the audience.
We pull out, after a mere 88 minutes, having witnessed something extraordinary.
Many people have pointed out that a good film is one that can be viewed and reviewed, and only gets better upon repeat viewings. “Rashomon” is one of those films that suspends our disbelief, cuts it down, then suspends it again each time we watch it. We believe it or not, but we love it.
Are you still unsatisfied with the ending? Perhaps you should be. Kurosawa’s explanation of the film is included in the Criterion DVD edition of the film, which one can find easily enough. Bear in mind, though, that Kurosawa claimed that the film did indeed have an explanation, but intentionally did not have a clear solution. The film is about stories that do not coincide. That is the point.
Besides, since when do human have logical explanations for themselves anyway? We are our own witnesses. We embellish ourselves because that’s how we survive.
“Rashomon,” it should be noted, was the first Japanese film to really reach the rest of the world. Before 1950, few Japanese films, indeed any Japanese cultural touchstones, were available in the west (The only other Japanese-inspired events that I can think of in modern “western” history are “The Mikado” and various devastating bombing runs). In the minds of most Americans,
Japan was either an enemy, a far-away exotic place where electronics came from, or just something alien altogether. “Rashomon” was released in 1950 to critical and audience raves. It was wildly successful, and won the Academy Award for best foreign film. Japanese culture exploded into the film world, then bringing us products ranging as wide as Chekovian family dramas (the films of Ozu), kaiju films (giant monsters like Gojira/Godzilla), and, of course, samurai films (“Seven Samurai,” et al). The Samurai films influenced an entire generation of American cowboy genre filmmakers, and the kaiju film scarred many a glorious childhood. Later on Japanese anime would blossom into its own subculture. It wasn’t long before Japanese products began flooding the market, from cars to washing machines. There was even a joke in “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) about how the Japanese make such bloody good cameras.
Japan was on the rise, and “Rashomon” was its harbinger.
Was this American embracing of Japanese culture an expression of collective guilt about
Hiroshima? Was it an unconscious attempt to balance the American cultural influence that was growing in
Japan? Well, those are subjects for other essays. But “Rashomon” was the apex that wedged open a film revolution.
Not only was it new culturally, but people had not seen a film like this. It was entirely original. That cannot be said of many films.
Is cinema, as Godard said, truth at 24 frames per second? Or is it all fiction and lies? “Rashomon” points out that it lies somewhere in between. It comments on this essential illusion that is the center of every film, and does so with a taut crime thriller, a convincing period piece, and a beautifully shot work of art. One that uses pacing and lighting and atmosphere in an effective new way. It’s no wonder the film opened up an entire culture, as it is a classic.
Humans are liars, and that is our truth. So, in a way, we cannot help but be truthful. We witness, we make stories, we tell our stories, and life is epic.