Maybe it was inevitable that a work of art about the nature of truth would have far more to offer an audience in a time when the very idea of truth was under blatant attack. I have seen Akira Kurosawa's Rashōmon, and read the Ryūnosuke Akutagawa stories that inspired it, any number of times since I was a teenager. Even then its meaning seemed clear: yes, we construct the truth between ourselves, but that doesn't mean there's no such thing as the truth, and the truth makes all the difference. I watch it now, in 2019, and the fact that it feels even more daring and revolutionary now than it did in my youth says as much about how well it has endured as how badly the rest of us have slid back.
In this fallen world
As I once wrote in another discussion of the film, the Akutagawa story Kurosawa used most directly for his film was not the one named "Rashōmon". It was named "In A Grove", with the other story borrowed mostly for its gloomy setting (and with its own meaning and storyline jettisoned). That setting is the tail end of Japan's Heian era, when a decadent aristocracy was giving way to the warrior class, and much of Japan — including its capitol, Kyōto — was in chaos.
Against all this, Akutagawa's "Rashomon" gave us a hapless servant, dismissed from his master, waiting out a fierce rain under the crumbling eaves of the Rashōmon gate — once something proud and lovely, now only a step away from firewood. When he encounters an old woman pulling hair from the heads of corpses abandoned in the gate's upper story, he finds himself embracing the same barbarism she embodies. When an entire society is in collapse, Akutagawa seems to be saying, the difference between how one person or another deals with that collapse is only a matter of degree, not moral alignment. Being good means little when the world itself refuses to allow goodness. But does that mean we should not choose it anyway?
Some version of that same question informs Kurosawa's version, although it isn't apparent at first. It opens in the same gloomy setting as the titular story, the peeling remnants of the gate. There, a man takes refuge from the rain, a gray-haired and sad-eyed woodcutter (Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura, he who also played the leader of the Seven Samurai in that film). His numbness and dismay stem from an incident he relates in fits and starts to another, more cynical bystander (Kichijirō Ueda, another Kurosawa regular) and a gentle Buddhist priest (Minoru Chiaki, same). On a foray into the forest one day, the woodcutter came across the corpse of a samurai, witnessed traveling earlier that day with his wife.
It doesn't take long for the authorities to round up a suspect: Tajōmaru (the one and only Toshiro Mifune), a bestial, impulsive bandit. His story — which he's only too happy to brag about — is that he came across the samurai (grave-faced Masayuki Mori, "Sensei" of Kokoro), tempted him with word of a cache of weapons in the nearby grove, tricked him, tied him to a tree, and ravished his wife. She begged Tajōmaru to let her husband fight him, the better to have only one man alive know of her shame, but Tajōmaru defeated the other man anyway, and she fled.
What changes everything is when the wife herself (Machiko Kyō, an actress as singular as Mifune) is called as a witness. Tearful, pathetic, fingers mincing the white gravel she kneels on, she tells a markedly different story: Yes, she was violated, but her husband refused to forgive her — refused even to put her out of her misery, which she even failed to accomplish herself (by drowning). It's now her word in all its sodden misery against the bandit's vulgar braggadocio, a deliberate emotional ploy as much on Kurosawa's part as on hers or his. But then there's a third point of view, that of the dead samurai as summoned through a spirit medium. What he saw was his wife abandoning her husband for this brute, provided he killed the husband first. This Tajōmaru did not do, and the husband chose to kill himself out of shame instead.
Then, finally, there is what we are led to believe is the definitive view — the woodcutter himself. He witnessed the whole thing, he claims (although can his word be trusted if he didn't admit to this when questioned by the authorities?). What he saw was the grimy truth behind each persons' self-aggrandizement: Tajōmaru abasing himself in front of the woman he just violated; the husband refusing to duel the bandit "for such a woman" (whom he urges to kill herself); and the woman discarding what little pride she has left the better to take revenge on both men by way of each other. Even the duel between the two men is pathetic. What left the woodcutter so dazed is firsthand evidence how people lie to others, to themselves, to their world, the better to not be seen as failures — firsthand in the sense that he himself is now complicit in that lie too.
Akutagawa left us with no real closure, just the endlessly ringing closing note of the story's ambiguities. But Kurosawa offers us something. A baby has been left abandoned in the Rashōmon (as opposed to yet another corpse), and the woodcutter, at the preist's urging, takes it for his own. Not simply to raise as his own child along with all his others (what's one more mouth to feed, he rationalizes), but also to imbue with some of the understanding he now has, to through the baby give the world, as Andrew Vachss put it in a title for one of his works, another chance to get it right.
Few films were both as successful and as widely misunderstood as Rashōmon. Its entry into the international film festival scene, a first for postwar Japan, led people to somehow believe its multifaceted nature was emblematic of Japanese filmmaking generally. It wasn't, of course; it was as hard a sell for Kurosawa to the folks at Daiei, and to Japanese audiences, as it was anywhere else. But Kurosawa's original insistence that the movie wasn't all that complicated turned out to be simple common sense: it's essentially a courtroom drama, with the focus not being the mechanics of the law but the fallen nature of humanity. And its influence since then has been inestimable — not just from the direct remakes of the property (The Outrage), but the ways movies can pay its whole premise homage as casually as they quote a single shot from another movie. To wit: The Last Jedi gave us a Rashōmon subplot involving Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren, which makes even more sense in light of Star Wars being a cultural pastiche machine.
None of what the movie offers would be effective if it were not also great cinema. Kurosawa staged and assembled even the simplest scenes exactingly. Look at the way the woodcutter, priest, and itinerant are all blocked and photographed in the opening sequence: somehow the camera always knows where to be in relation to them, and they in relation to it, to show what they need to show as characters. This goes even more so for the flashback scenes in the forest, creatively lit by way of sunlight bounced from giant mirrors, the better to play off the beads of sweat on the actors' skin.
An entire book could be, and in fact was, written about the interplay between the careers of Kurosawa and Mifune. Some of their collaborations didn't always work as a whole (Record Of A Living Being), but never because of Mifune himself; even in a middling movie he was at least charismatic. Here, he's a primal force in a way that not only presages his key role in Seven Samurai but much of the rest of his career. Laughing, jeering, kicking, leaping, strutting, flexing — half the time when watching him I want to duck. But that in turn sets up Machiko Kyō's turn as the samurai's wife, at first seemingly only directed to catch the light, and then by degrees unleashed to demonstrate equally primal energy — weeping in front of her interrogators, begging Tajōmaru with wide eyes, laughing and spitting at both men in the woodcutter's flashback. Kyō was a trained dancer and uses her body language expertly throughout, but Kurosawa gets equally inspired moments out of the other actors: look at how Tajōmaru sags in place when she cuts him down to size in front of her husband. It's the earthiest, most expressionistic film Kurosawa made until the likes of Kagemusha and Ran in the 1980s.
Reality ... what a concept
Some time back when I sat down to write an analysis of Akutagawa's original stories, I noted how there were implications to them being set in premodern times. What an audience of 1922 would see that was not visible to someone in antiquity would add its own depths. And what an audience of 2019 would see that would never be visible to an audience in 1922 adds yet more. Consider the presence of the spirit medium in the story: We in the here and now must assume the people in the story take this testimony on face value, but Akutagawa (and Kurosawa, I think) leave open-ended how we modern readers can react to it. Is the spirit medium a trustable source of truth for the inhabitants of the story, even if they aren't for us? Or is it more that the dead man still lies even to himself, just as all men do when they are also alive?
What we in the here-and-now see that Akugatawa's characters could not, and that his contemporaries probably didn't either, is the impact of the postmodern worldview — the idea that our notions about reality are constructed out of competing narratives, and that real-world power rather than intellectual standards is what determines which narratives hold sway. We used to take the objectivity of facts in the modern age to be a given, at least on the surface — e.g., a photo of someone in a specific place is taken as pretty strong evidence that they were there. But now each one of those things has become its undoing — photos can be forged, videos can be deep-faked, floods of lies can bury truth by way of the same mechanisms used to propagate them. The engine for such things, though, is not the technology that enables them, but the need for one's narrative to win at the expense of others. Tajōmaru cannot be thought of as a loser; the wife cannot be thought of as anything other than a victim; the husband cannot be a heartless monster. Not to themselves, not to anyone else.
Truth is something each of us constructs privately, and the nature of the world we build for each other will depend on how we reconcile those private truths between each other. We can try to find a way to do that elegantly, or we can choose not to do that at all. Rashōmon's point is that we have no choice but to do so, because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate; if you seek a monument to that, look around. We must do it, and in a way that takes into account our humanity — both our strengths and our frailities, both our aspirations to the truth and our love of storytelling over facts.
The original Akutagawa story didn't hold out much hope for humanity to prevail over its worst impulses — that we would either not find ways to know the truth, or that we would allow our penchant for storytelling and mythmaking to win out. Not in the sense that an enthralling fiction is an evil, but in the sense that it's no workable substitute for a reality that exists whether we like it or not. The movie holds out more hope in faith in humanity as it could and ought to be, versus the wisdom of knowing what humans actually are. If only a little more hope. But maybe that much is enough.