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What “Rashomon” is about

Lightly edited from Letterboxd.

My understanding of 1950’s Rashomon had always been that it’s about four witnesses of the same event sharing their contradictory good-faith accounts of it to a court. “That’s not how I remember it,” as one Homer J Simpson once famously put it. A tale of how human memory is subjective, and can not be objective.

But that’s not what 1950’s Rashomon is about at all: It’s about four witnesses of the same event choosing, one way or another, to actively lie about what they saw.

Tajōmaru the bandit lies to big himself up, regardless of whether he did it or not. He wants to be Tajōmaru the bandit, who killed a samurai in honourable combat. But it’s only in his own testimony that he’s ever presented as a person who’s even remotely capable of that.

The samurai’s wife lies because the most plausible account (the woodcutter’s) is, frankly, fucking pathetic. She comes off very poorly in it, and her husband dies a pathetic, pitiful death. A samurai’s honour is a thing that matters, dangit, is the thinking here — perhaps she feels she herself is to blame for what, and this is her way of reconciling those facts. (If the woodcutter’s account isn’t true, she may still simply be finding her own way to deal with the event.)

The medium lies because she’s a medium. It’s what they do. (Alternatively, the spirit of the samurai lies to preserve his own honour and let off his wife.)

Finally, even the woodcutter employs some creative editing to not get in trouble for stealing the valuable dagger — but his account, in which the wife spurs the samurai and the bandit on to fight each other and the samurai dies a pathetic, pitiful death, is by far the most plausible, and his motive to lie is only for not testifying. He has six kids to get back to — seven, now — and in the grand picture of things, that matters more than who stole the dagger.

Though there is some overlap, the accounts contradict so significantly that they can’t be reconciled. They simply can not be good-faith flawed accounts of the same event — the priest at the end isn’t losing his faith over the events described, but because each account is designed primarily to benefit the person recounting it, because this is a movie about what could make people who should objectively know the truth choose to lie about it.

Or at least, that’s how I’ll remember it.

Terrific picture. I regret to inform you all I’m going to be correcting people about it for the rest of my life.

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