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October 02, 2010

"Rashomon" and the truth of being a person

Last night I did one of those things that counts neither as a waste of time nor as particularly productive: I watched a classic movie.

The classic in question was Kurosawa's Rashomon, and, having read both stories on which this film is based — Rashomon and In A Bamboo Grove, both by Ryunosuke Akutagawa — I thought I would be in for a fairly predictable but pleasant experience. It was pleasant but less predictable than knowledge of the basic story would suggest.

The idea that there is no access to the truth, or that it rests in contradiction, may not be new, but Rashomon illustrates the principle better than many movies in the vein. The pervading ambiguity — who's good? who's guilty? who's honest? — makes the audience's detective work such a joy that no resolution is really needed; in fact the film's final scene, where the priest finds his faith in humanity restored, felt trite to me, unnecessary, even perverse in its (semi-ironic, one suspects, but that doesn't save it) attempt to change our reaction to the events depicted. There is no need for redemption in a film such as this. The notion itself seems superfluous. It is enough to be shown the weird tendency we have to construct and reconstruct events with no real reference to truth — our desire to make the truth conform to our ideals.

Rashomon's greatest strength, to my mind, is the way the characters seem plausible in every scenario enacted: no matter how incompatible the accounts given, the characters themselves remain consistent. It's masterful, but more importantly it's real; we are all contradictory creatures capable and guilty of holding conflicting opinions about everything. I haven't seen a better illustration of this in the cinema than Rashomon.

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