Akira Kurosawa contrasts the concept of heroism with human savagery in his film, Rashomon (1950). This Japanese film tells the story of a murder from four different perspectives. Each version intersects and contradicts the others. By questioning the effects of perspective and personal motives on the recollection of the past, Kurosawa reveals that humans lie by nature. He reduces human morality to that of animal instinct. So in a setting like this, how could Kurosawa showcase heroism?
Alan P. Barr explains in his article in the Massachusetts Review, “Kurosawa, as obsessively as any other artist, explored the nature and possibility of heroic action in a world that is basically corrupt, corrupt almost as a consequence of its human-ness.” (Barr 158). Kurosawa portrays human corruption in this film by showing the four different accounts of the same crime and proving how each individual’s selfish motivations skewed their version on the truth when it came to the trial and the re-telling of the events. However, amidst the selfish alterations of the truth, Kurosawa still makes an argument for human heroism—a heroism that is not perfect, free of blemish or completely altruistic.
In Rashomon, Kurosawa does not provide a benchmark for the audience to measure the different character’s versions of the truth against reality. He does not provide an ultimate hero with the ultimate truth. In this absence of absolutes, Kurosawa breaks the assumed connection between truthfulness and heroism. The most truthful is not necessarily the most heroic. Kurosawa uses this film as a medium to express perceptions, experiences and memories as opposed to an exact reconstruction of reality.
First, Tajomaru, the bandit, tells his story, which includes a brave and honorable sword fight with the samurai and passionate submission from the samurai’s wife into his arms. Secondly, the samurai’s wife recounts her experience, in which she makes herself the misfortunate victim. Thirdly, the dead samurai shares his story through a spiritual medium. And lastly, the woodcutter who found the dead samurai contributes with his outside perspective of the murder he witnessed. Donald Keene, who wrote an article on Kurosawa in Grand Street, points out that “the woodcutter is necessary to make the film’s point; he proves that not even an objective witness is capable of telling the truth.” (Keene 143). Although the woodcutter had nothing to do with the murder because he was an innocent bystander who happened to encounter the dead body in the woods, he still has a different version of the truth. In this aspect, Kurosawa does not focus the merit of heroism on the truth value of their individual stories. He makes truth irrelevant to the heroic value of the characters.
Kurosawa introduces one form of traditional Japanese heroism with the character of the samurai, who is dressed nicely according to his rank. However, he does not appear to be so honorable and heroic in the woodcutter’s retelling of the clumsy sword fight between the bandit and him. In this version of the story, he appears to be cowardly. In his version of his death, though, the samurai claims he honorably kills himself. The samurai assumes it is sometimes more honorable to kill one’s self than to live in shame.
Another parameter of heroism is set by the samurai’s wife, in her request of a duel until death between the two men in order to prove their manhood and, consequently, win her love.
She says she was happy when she found out her attacker was Tajomaru, the bandit, because she thought at last a real man would taker her away from the farce she was living. She wanted him to savagely fight for her love and become her hero. Lastly, the film offers one more definition of heroism. Kurosawa unexpectedly closes Rashomon with a refreshing act of kindness from the woodcutter, setting the final, and most penetrating, qualification of a hero.
Kurosawa based the film on two works from Akutagawa Ryunosuke, “Within a Grove” and “Rashomon”. This woodcutter character, however, is not present in either one. Keene explains that Rashomon “is the account of a man who, hitherto reluctant to take the last step into lawlessness, abandons human decency.” (Keene 142). In the middle of all the lying and selfishness that is seen in Kurosawa’s film, it would be expected that it would end in the same way. It seems as if the priest who has taken refuge from the rain storm at the Rashomon Gate will completely lose hope in humanity as he listens to the re-telling of the story. However, this is where Kurosawa’s addition of the woodcutter character makes the difference as he defines heroism in Kurosawa’s terms. In Ryunosuke’s “Rashomon,” the main character succumbs to his corrupt, selfish human desires and ends the story on a depressing reflection on human nature. In Kurosawa’s Rashomon, on the other hand, this woodcutter character provides a ray of hope and restores the priest’s faith in humanity.
The woodcutter has already shared his version of the story, which would be expected to be honest, since he provides an outside perspective of the crime. His intentions are questioned, however, because of his possession of the dagger that he appears to have stolen from the crime scene. When a baby is heard crying and is found abandoned by the gate of Rashomon, he is the one who steps up and takes on the responsibility of taking the baby home. He says he will take the baby to his wife and will raise him as one of his own six children that he already has.
Barr raises the question in his article, “Is man doomed to a kind of intellectualizing impotency, or can action be redemptive and rejuvenating? Is action necessarily violent?” (Barr158). Kurosawa’s addition of the woodcutter character in the film proves that action can be redemptive and rejuvenating. The hero of this story is not the man who has made no mistake and leads an outstanding life, but he is the man who has made transgressions before but is redeemed by a great act of kindness. When the commoner attempts to steal the abandoned baby’s kimono and amulet all of the character’s moral values are questioned. Kurosawa builds up the whole story, with its many battling scenes, for this one moment of genuine heroism. The woodcutter reprehends the commoner for being so low as to attempt stealing from an abandoned baby the only thing his parents had left him. The amulet was clearly their only way of showing any concern for the well-being of the baby, and that holds a lot of value for the woodcutter. It is unexpected for this character to take the baby, but it is absolutely necessary in Kurosawa’s definition of heroism.
Kurosawa’s Rashomon studies human nature through a series of flashbacks and unreliable accounts of a deadly encounter in the forest. Surprisingly, it is not in any of the flashbacks that the essence of Kurosawa’s representation of heroism can be found. Heroism only occurs in a scene that takes place in the present and is clear for the audience to accept as truth. The murder is not resolved; the absolute truth is not revealed. The only revelation is the woodcutter’s deep sense of humanity and compassion, which allegorically represents humanity as a whole. When he takes the baby, potentially saving his life and giving him hope for a future, the woodcutter embodies Kurosawa’s vision of heroism. And the rain ceases to pour.
Maria P. Uribe