Akira Kurosawa, Rashomon, 1950: The ending

Norman N. Holland

The three men and the baby

    After the priest and the woodcutter have told what they saw, Kurosawa takes his film in a startlingly new direction. We hear the cry of an abandoned baby. The three men approach. The priest picks the baby up and holds it. The commoner robs the baby of its clothes and its protective amulet. The woodcutter protests, but the commoner faces him down by pointing out that he, the woodcutter, had stolen the costly dagger and lied about it. The woodcutter admits the theft and the lie and himself takes the baby. The priest protests against his stealing the rest of the foundling’s wraps, until the woodcutter explains. He has six children at home. One more won’t make any difference. The priest says this kind gesture has restored his faith in human beings. End of picture.

    Now this would be a real Hallmark Cards ending if we took it literally. The priest’s statement at the end that the woodcutter has restored his faith in humanity seems to me sentimental and foolish—if we take the priest as speaking for the film and Kurosawa. But Kurosawa is a far more subtle artist than that.

    The woodcutter’s taking the baby to bring up with his own children seems an almost unbelievable act of kindness after the lies, rape, and violence we have (more or less) witnessed. The ending seems to be shamefully sentimental. But we can’t read the ending as optimistic. The preceding narrations show that we can’t believe anybody. Hence, we can’t believe the woodcutter when he says he will take care of the baby. He might want to sell it or bring it up as a slave. Or he might really want to take care of it. The point is, we can’t know. And that is what constitutes the horror: we cannot be sure about acts of violence, and by the same token we cannot even be sure about acts of kindness.

    I think of Rashomon as a movie—now the whole movie—about dependency as symbolized by that baby. We have nothing in isolation, nothing purely itself, not life, not truth, not facts, not experience—nothing. From birth through death, all during life, we never know the world as it really, ultimately is, the ding an sich. We depend on our all too fallible senses, fatally driven by our needs and personalities. We know the world through ourselves and others, never truly or directly. We are dependent, and dependent on whom or what?

    In this movie, we depend on a nature that consists of a cruel downpour. We shelter in a ruined and collapsing structure. There is a loose correspondence between the three talkers at the gate and the three actors in the woods. The priest identifies with the wife, the cynical “commoner” is like the bandit, and the witnessing woodcutter with the husband witnessing his own dishonoring.

    The characters are universals. We can read them as standing for human beings in general. They all exemplify a smash-and-grab attitude toward their fellow human beings and to civilization itself. Tajomaru—obviously. But the husband follows Tajomaru out of greed, hoping to find a cache of valuable swords. The wife may hate the husband, marrying him only for money. The woodcutter has stolen the dagger. The “commoner” tears off pieces of the highly symbolic gate and casually burns them, and he steals the baby’s possessions. Even the priest seems to seize on the events for his moralizing purposes.

    The film is framed by death and birth. It begins with the priest and woodcutter describing the many horrible deaths they have seen, including the depositing of unburied bodies at this same gate. The film begins with death, but it ends with a “birth,” the finding of the foundling at that same gate. Birth and death—the two unavoidables of human life.

    The incident at the center of the film, the killing and the rape (or seduction), consists of just those acts—passionate, violent acts—that lead to birth and death, sex and killing. The crimes are crimes of penetration: the rape (or seduction) or the way the bandit throws his sword into his victim’s body. This is that same sword that Kurosawa has suggested has phallic significance by having the bandit slowly lift it along his leg after he first sees and lusts after the woman. Kurosawa uses much the same “Bolero” music for the woodcutter’s penetration into the forest as for the wife’s account. The two penetrations are both sexually toned. The whole film consists of stories told to the listener/commoner, and ears and eyes are other kinds of gates to be penetrated. In a sense, the crime(s) at the center of the film is a passionately intensified version of the gate and the baby, events that frame both the film and life itself.

    Repeatedly Kurosawa’s camera “penetrates.” It shows us events by looking through the ruined framework of the gate, through the leaves of the forest, or most dramatically, at the woodcutter’s frightened face through the outstretched hands of the dead man (as if the camera were looking out of the dead man’s eyes). I’ve already mentioned how Kurosawa uses different camera styles for the different narrations, changing and coloring their stories.

    We are dependent on Kurosawa no less than the other narrators, and he is as unreliable as they. He too tells the tale to suit his needs and personality. He doesn’t give us “the truth.” Out of his inner needs, whatever they are, he creates a film that damns humanity—but it is also a great work of art. It plays with its own falsity, its fictionality, if you will. As he has said of this picture, “The camera has a starring role.” Others have called it “the fifth witness” (or the sixth). And the camera lies. As Robert Altman says in his commentary on the Criterion DVD, “It cracks this visual thing that we have in our minds that if we see it it must be a fact.”

    The movie plays with the very idea of representation in fiction and art. This is a movie about believing in a movie that you can’t believe in. And not just film. We can’t believe in our fellow human beings or our own senses. We humans can only see the world through our own drives for wealth, status or sex. We think we see facts, truth, the world, but we are as egotistically focused and as dependent as that highly symbolic baby—or this brilliant filmmaker. And we can experience that egotism and dependency when we experience this great film.

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