art, culture, literary critique, literature, nonfiction

Rashomon: Kurosawa’s Yata no Kagami for our souls

Those who dismiss the “naivete” of humanist’s “wishful thinking” have not adequately plumbed the depths and horror of nihilistic thought. In the wake of the death of God, we must ask: is it better to be hope against hope for a better future in the face of despair and harsh reality or to commit suicide?

Rashomon, directed by Kurosawa Akira, attempts to answer that question for a postwar nation suffering cultural and spiritual loss. With the death of their Emperor God, Japan had to rethink its codes of honor and beliefs. With this in mind, Rashomon is arguably Kurosawa’s exploration of and response to Japan’s post-war collapse. Today, I want to have a look at Rashomon‘s final scene – the woodcutter bearing off the baby into the sunlight. This scene, I would argue, is, in and of itself, a metaphor for Yata no Kagami (a mirror), one of Japan’s Imperial Treasures, within which the Japanese (and we) may find reflected our subconscious self and anxieties.

In Japanese folklore, mirrors are said to have divine power and to reveal truth. In the imperial ceremonies, Yata no Kagami – or eight-sided mirror – represents the wisdom of the emperor.

Akihito and Japan’s Imperial Treasures that make a man an emperor , By Anna Jones, 2019.

Revealing the Truth

Through its multiple takes on a single incident, its focus on the lies and illusions perpetuated within “reality”, and its resistance to resolution, Rashomon requires us to both judge and impart meaning, thus forcing the critical reader to face their own heart, their own demons, their own self-delusions.

Filmed in the 1950s, Kurosawa’s vision for Rashomon was ahead of its time, both thematically and technically. I don’t feel 100% qualified to talk about Kurosawa’s techniques, but I can speak to the structure of his narrative – a nested narrative with four flashbacks that repeat a single story over and over again with different beats, foci, and viewpoints. The resulting plot confuses more than clarifies, mystifies more than reveals, and questions more than answers – a perfect postmodern story.

Throughout the story, the three beginning characters who reveal the story through an oral retelling (which de-legitimizes the authority of the storyteller, the woodcutter), commentary is repeatedly made regarding the commonality of lies. In fact, the story starts off with the woodcutter and monk both saying, “I don’t understand.” Later, as the different narratives spiral into focus with each added witness, the woodcutter keeps repeating, “It’s a lie.” After Tajomaru’s point of view and for the introduction of the woman’s interrogation, the woodcutter says, “It’s all a lie. Tajomaru’s story and the woman’s” (Rashomon, 42:00). Eventually, the woodcutter admits that he saw what had happened, hence revealing his original narrative of just finding the body to be a lie. After he finishes his story, the listening cynic/scoundrel laughs.

Cynic: (laughing) So that is the true story.
Woodcutter: I don’t tell lies. I saw it with my own eyes!
Cynic: I doubt it.
Woodcutter: It’s true. I don’t lie.
Cynic: No one lies after he says he’s going to do so.
Monk: It’s horrifying. If men don’t trust each other, this earth might as well be hell.
Cynic: That’s right. This world is hell.
Monk: No, I believe in men. (scrambles to feet) I don’t want this place to be hell.
[…]
Cynic: In the end, you cannot understand the things men do.
(Rashomon, 1:22:00-1:24:00)

Whether one sympathizes with the cynic or the monk, this “wrap-up” scene highlights the push-pull of lies, illusions, and human fallibility. However, the answer is not clearly delineated as to whether any person’s narrative was more real than the others, resulting in an unresolved story that is further perplexing due to how it ends.

Right after this conversation, the three men find an abandoned baby and argue over its belongings (an amulet and kimono). The cynic takes the belongings in order to sell them, throwing the woodcutter’s shortcomings back at him. After overcoming the monk’s suspicions, the woodcutter takes the baby back to his home since he has six kids already and one more doesn’t matter.

The question then was raised in the Japanese film class I am attending: Is the woodcutter going to do something bad with the baby (sell it)? Or is he really a well-meaning person who will take the child home to his family and raise it as his own? Given that the baby represents the future generations of Japanese post-WW2, the question becomes even more weighty: is Kurosawa suggesting that the future of Japan is hopeful or doomed?

Reading the Image

There were a few things about the scene that I noticed right away – the setting, the men, the use of light and shadow, the acting, and the music.

Setting: The men are taking refuge in the wreckage of the Rashomon Gate, which is a famous cultural landmark tied to not only ancient Japanese history but also its mythology. Shown in a state of destruction, the wrecked gate of Rashomon can be read as the devastation of Japanese traditional culture and belief in the wake of World War 2.

Characters: The two remaining characters are the same two we begin with: the monk and the woodcutter. However, instead of being in a state of shock and bewilderment, they have moved to a new frame of mind – hope. If we read the monk and the woodcutter as post-war Japanese, we can see how post-war Japanese try to move forward in the face of despair and loss. I also had a crazy theory that the woodcutter is Kurosawa himself. Just a thought. Either way, both require each other’s promises and belief in order to move on.

Light and shadow: Unlike the dappled (morally grey) world of the forest (the war/the past), this world is sheathed originally in rain, but as purpose and hope enters the scene, the rain ends. The world is then divided into two – light and shadow. The shadowed past of the ruined gate is left behind by the woodcutter and baby. He steps into the sunlight, which can be read as optimism, potential, or hope… or the present of today.

Acting: In the background, the monk has divested himself of aimless wandering and confusion. He stands, almost as a guardian, watching from the gates of traditions. In this way, we could read the monk as Japanese belief/spirituality or “God”. In the foreground, the woodcutter bears the baby away. His face is a mixture of relief and thought. Some may read his face as conniving. Others may see joy. Kurosawa does not offer us interpretive relief in this regard.

Music: The music was interesting to me because I believe it carried the scene on purpose. Speaking ceases, allowing only the acting, the camera, and the music to speak. Here, the music swells in a solemn cadence that harks back to valour and military power mixed with a funereal note. The funereal note was apparent to me because I recognized the piece as being potentially in a minor key. Furthermore, the music ends on a jangling dissonant tone. The ending dissonance made sense – it is used to connote unknown surprise and unsettled endings. It would be more likely used at the end of a TV episode, implying that you tune in next week to find out what happens next. On the other hand, the minor tone wasn’t as clear to me as I liked so I asked my sister (who is studying music) to analyze the piece for me. She discovered that the composer more than likely used 5ths. This means the middle note that decides whether the chord is major or minor was not utilized, leaving the chord open. I believe that the music’s blend of solemnity, valour, and suprise, along with the use of 5ths, implies that Kurosawa intended the future of the baby to be left unanswered and open.

With no comforting dialogue or music, our reading results in very subjective impressions, yet I believe the music’s open 5ths reveals that Kurosawa more than likely intended to leave the ending unsettled since history at the time of making the film was also unsettled. The future is always shifting, and Kurosawa’s Rashomon reflects this promise and anxiety perfectly.

Gazing into the Mirror

Skeptical readings of the woodcutter’s intentions and motivations have foundation upon the apparent dishonesty previously in the film. He lied during his testimony before the court, and it is revealed that he also stole from the crime scene. Is the woodcutter someone with whom the life of a baby can be trusted?

Although I saw the transformation of a character from opportunistic passivity to altruistic activity, others may simply envision an inveterate scoundrel mired within a life of criminal habit. The idea of seeing the woodcutter as an ominous figure flitted through my brain for a tenth of a second when I was watching the film. Yet, as soon as he walked out into the sunlight, I felt like I understood how this finalized the little puzzle Kurosawa had given us. The skepticism of my classmates confused me. How was this allegory not obvious to them?

Then I remembered. This is cancel culture epitomized: the eradication of grace and hope justified by humanity’s dark past. No one is exempt. Not even the woodcutter, apparently. Well, some people get a pass, depending on their social and political circles. This is due to the fact that people seek leaders and figureheads as much as they do ideological foundations. Cancel culture’s primary arbiters – the woke Left – therefore have no choice but to direct, and sometimes eradicate or rewrite, past and present narratives in order to protect their community. As a result, off colour, pedophilia-related jokes on the part of a liberal Hollywood director, for example, does not raise the same outrage as the anti-PC jokes of a certain Netflix comedian.

Given how one’s purity defines one’s authority in mainstream media and seeing how public figures of opposing factions attempt to bring each other down with smear campaigns, it is no wonder that some younger people today may struggle with offering someone a second chance. With a focus on past trauma and past wrongdoing, impressionable young people excited to prove their colours through virtue signalling may struggle with accepting the fact that all humans are capable of error. The idea that a social movement with good intentions could go wrong is anathema to them. This is the idealism of youth. This is the dream Imperial Japan woke up from.

When seen through the lens of Kurosawa’s camera, the world becomes a place as dappled and confusing, questioning not only the motivations of any character – but also ourselves. Good and bad blend into grey. Sometimes, the best we can hope for is a woodcutter.

Our Reflections

Kurosawa’s film resists interpretation, pushing us the audience into the role of judge. As a pre-postmodern film (technically), Rashomon forces us into the position of postmodern critical reader – an arguably egocentric figure, both literally and figuratively. This process of self/communal revelation, however, is not something to be celebrated. It is a moment of confusion and, perhaps, horror. Who are we going to support: A greedy bandit, a complicated woman, a too-rigid husband, a thieving woodcutter, a naive monk, a cynical passerby? What does our choice say about us and what we project out onto the world?

No option really works when faced truthfully head on. When considering the self-reflective dilemma and the allegorical political reading I had figured out, I knew that the question regarding whether we trust the woodcutter or not translated to a more metaphysical and philosophical question: Do we hope for the best or give into despair in the face of nihilism?

The monk chose hope – and since post-war, to varying levels of success, the Japanese people also chose hope. Moving forward, the Japanese managed to become an economic power that vies with larger nations. It isn’t a straightforward success story. As the music in the soundtrack suggests, there is valour and strength… but there is also sadness and uncertainty.

What we infer about the motivations driving the woodcutter’s offer and the monk’s response reflects our response to a world of pain, conflict, and loss – and reflects how we perceive those who have failed within that world. It should have been no surprise then that to some of my classmates, the monk’s choice to believe was delusional. My automatic response to this proposition was in support of the monk’s decision since I reasoned this was the most pragmatic and sustainable way forward in a world of turmoil.

From a certain position (Calvinistic understanding of “total depravity”), I understand why people would decide to embrace cynicism and doubt true change within a person. On the other hand, pragmatically, I believe that trusting in humanity is a better route to go as it encourages compassion and cooperation. When nihilism and cynicism takes over, tragedy, authoritarian rule, and legalism reign.

Perhaps then the woodcutter is neither a beacon of hope nor is he necessarily an ominous figure. He is simply what he is – a human – capable of all the errors that humans down through the ages have created. Abandoning the ghosts of the feudal past, the disastrous samurai code, and the horrors of World War II, the woodcutter leaves the shadow of the Rashomon gate, enters the sunshine, and walks toward a better future.

Kurosawa’s Legacy: Kishimoto’s Naruto

Kurosawa’s vision, as a result, is both optimistic, pessimistic… and realistic. It is not surprising to me that his ideas of what we ought to do in the face of defeat and nihilism have continued on in popular media. This is, after all, a dilemma on mythological levels.

The human struggle to overcome in the face of failure and betrayal resonates throughout literature. We can see it in a variety of media: Marvel’s The Winter Soldier, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight, Mister Tom, and darker Netflix series like Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Many stories are propelled by humanity’s great drive to tie up a narrative with a bow – either tragically or happily; Kurosawa’s story is more an invitation to reflect.

As I thought about the story, I couldn’t help but remember an anime I have been watching recently: Naruto Shippuuden. The name “Rashomon” reminded me of the gates summoned by Orochimaru in Naruto Shippuuden‘s Episode 41-42. One line of thought led to another – to the scene when Naruto meets his father (Episode 168).

In Episode 165, Pain, after immobilizing Naruto, lays down the philosophical gauntlet:

Pain: Why, you ask? Things always happen without warning, and the reason becomes apparent afterwards. This situation… perhaps I will explain to you. […] Even if I told you why, I doubt that would change anything. But what if we tried to have a discussion once more? My goal is something even Jiraiya-sensei was unable to achieve. As I mentioned earlier… creating peace and bringing about justice. […]
Naruto: Peace? Justice? Yeah, right… Don’t give me that crap. My master! My sensei! My friends! My village! After everything you’ve done, don’t you dare talk about peace and justice!
Pain: Then tell me what your goal is?
Naruto: I’m gonna kill you! And bring peace back to the Ninja World!
Pain: I see… That is noble of you. That is justice indeed. However. My friends… my family… my village… They suffered the same fate as this village by you Hidden Leaf Ninjas. How is it fair to only allow you people to preach about peace and justice?
Naruto: What are you talking about?!
[Pain reveals truth that Konoha and other large nations took part in war that devastated smaller nations.]
Pain: You and I seek the same thing. We are trying to establish the peace that Jiraiya-sensei so desired. You and I are not different at all. We each act according to our own sense of justice. The justice I delivered to the Leaf Village is no different from waht you are trying to do to me. The pain of losing something dear to you is the same, and both of us know that pain all too well. You have your justice… and I have mine. We are both ordinary men, driven to seek vengeance under the banner of justice. However, if there is justice in vengeance, then justice will only breed more vengeance and trigger a cycle of hatred. We are living in the middle of such a phenomenon right now. We know what the past has been, and we can predict what the future will be. That is history as we know it. So, we cannot help but believe that human beings are incapable of understanding each other. The world of the ninja is ruled by hatred.
[Flashback to Naruto’s memory of Jiraiya]
Jiraiya: However… even I can see there’s too much hate in our Ninja World.
Naruto: Hate?
Jiraiya: And I’ve wanted to do something about this hatred, yet I’m not sure what must be done, but I have faith that there will come a time when people can truly understand one another.
Naruto: It all sounds kinda complicated.
Jiraiya: And if I can’t find the answer, perhaps I will entrust you to find it.
Naruto: Yes, sir! I can’t turn you down, can I, Ero-Sannin?
Pain: How would you confront this hatred, in order to create peace? I want to hear your answer.
[Naruto looks unhappy.]
Naruto: I don’t have an answer to something like that.

Episode 165

As we can see, Pain puts a problem before Naruto – who deserves justice? Naruto recalls what his teacher said about the reality of hate in the world and the difficulties of finding a solution for aforementioned hatred. In the end, the answer is not apparent to Jiraiya. Later, in Episode 168, when Naruto confronts his father, he receives the same answer:

Minato: Perhaps as long as there is a ninja system in this world, there can be no peace. Pain questioned you about peace… but finding the answer is difficult. In order to save something dear… wars are waged. As long as there is love, there will be hate, and some will take advantage of that hatred. This monster known as hate will not die while there is a system of ninja. It will give birth to more Pains. It was Pain who killed Jiraiya-sensei, but upon careful thought, it can be said that the chaotic world of the ninja, which gave rise to Pain, is equally guilty. To be a ninja is to confront hatred. Each and every one of us battles hatred. Jiraiya-sensei trusted you to find a way to end this hatred.
Naruto: Still, I can’t forgive Pain! There’s no way I can forgive him.
Minato: I know…
Naruto: Fourth Hokage… Tell me! What should I do?!
Minato: You must find the answer yourself. I do not have the answer.
Naruto: If Pervy Sage and you don’t know the answer, how am I to know?! […]
Minato: I know you’ll find the answer. I have faith in you.

We can therefore see that the unanswered question (how to eradicate hatred) has major obstacles – human error, ignorance, and moral failure. Nagato in Episode 174 and the Raikage in Episode 283 question Naruto about this centuries-long problem and the elusive answer. Naruto answers similarly to both. I will look at his answer to the Raikage in Episode 283 specifically. The Raikage suggests that the Prophecy wasn’t true, that the Child of Prophecy (Minato) had failed, and that Naruto should be protected and not be allowed to fight. Naruto responds:

Naruto: When I was trying to control the NIne Tails’ power, Dad made sure to let me meet my mom. He wove her chakra into the seal, so that if the Nine Tails’ seal was undone, Mom would come and see me. He did it all for me! […] When she gave me this power, Mom told me everything – that long ago, Dad fought with the same guy with the mask. And he learned two things: one was that this masked guy would try to destroy the future, and the other was that the only one who could stop him was the Jinchuriki who controlled the Nine Tails – me!
[…]
Raikage: So Minato entrusted everything to you? He knew he wasn’t the savior?
Naruto: I don’t know if Dad ever considered himself to be a savior or not. But my master told me that Dad was the Child of Prophecy, the savior.
Raikage: Do you recall what I told you earlier? That savior, Minato, is dead. Don’t you think that was a failure?
Naruto: You’re right. My dad died. He died along with my mom, trying to protect HIdden Leaf Village from the enemy and the Nine Tails! Trying to protect me! It only lasted a moment, but in that moment, they gave me something. They gave me the belief that I am capable of lots and lots and lots of things! And they entrusted me to be the savior of the world!

Both to Nagato and the Raikage, Naruto agrees that the solution to the question has not been adequately answered, but he also suggests that faith is required in order to pass the burden of finding the answer to the next generation. He accepts the burden given to him by Jiraiya, Nagato, and Minato, and requests a chance to prove himself. Later in the Allied Shinobi War with Madara (and Tobi), Tobi challenges Naruto and Kakashi about “entrustment” and how failure is inevitable. In Tobi’s eyes, failure has created a world of despair and nihilistic rejection. Naruto (and Kakashi) are called to embrace inevitable failure in order to also move forward in hope. We are also asked to entrust Naruto with the narrative, in a sense.

Whether consciously or subconsciously, Kishimoto perpetuates and embodies the hopes of Kurosawa as he brings the theme of entrustment and hope into the modern and postmodern world. In our society of “have it now”, instant gratification is required for not only the physical level of happiness but also societal and philosophical happiness. Kurosawa’s neutral ending and Kishimoto’s intergenerational burden represents an idea surrounding entrustment as an act of faith in the face of despair. In both cases, trust is required on the part of the audience to believe that whatever the future may hold, the characters are moving forward in good faith toward a better world, not a nihilistic one.

Superficially, we could say that Kurosawa’s ending is more neutral than Kishimoto’s. We are not shown a peaceful world or a happy family surrounding the baby. However, the sequel to Naruto Shippuuden, Boruto, reminds us that the story of conflict and uncertainty is far from over. Peace is hard won and fragile.

Conclusion

Stepping back, we can say that the theme of redemption and entrustment is an ancient narrative spanning cultures. Some stories give us answers, positive and tragic. However, other pieces of work elude easy critique. In a blossoming movement to denounce and censor, we are encouraged to delegitmize unwanted ideas and questions by casting doubt on the spokesperson or their personal history. Within this environment, it is possible to be overwhelmed with cynicism and a subversive social nihilism ready and willing to turn to threats, terror, and violence in order to solve perceived problems. The path between discernment and legalism… and grace and enabling… is narrow. Balance is difficult to maintain. No path chosen is entirely free of error or pain. Perhaps the only consolation we may hold onto is that it is the path we chose for ourselves.

Looking in the mirror of Kurosawa’s film, we need to ask ourselves, what world do we see? What world do we want to see? Whatever it is that we see, be sure that some of that projection has some origin within ourselves. Rashomon, Kurosawa’s Yata no Kagami, requires of you to not only find your truth but take responsibility for the world that unfolds before you at your hands.

Author’s Note: This article is not intended to support humanistic philosophy (or nominal belief in Judeo-christian metaphysics). Rather, I hope to suggest that our ideological frameworks shape how we read certain “open” texts… and how such texts may influence our culture and art today. As a Christian, I believe that humanist or nominalist cultural frameworks lead to inevitable collapse, since human ideology is limited and fallible. Yet, in contrast to the obvious effects of nihilism and despair (suicide or homocide), it is arguable that society benefits from adherence to the basic Ten Commandments and the “Golden Rule”, where all humans are considered and treated as equals worthy of mutual respect despite ancestral and personal shortcomings. The pursuit of mercy and justice together forms an optimistic goal towards which society aims though it may never arrive there fully. Before the intersectionalists and culture studies academics lay waste to past fallible ideological structures, they must remember the importance of replacing said concepts with equally firm philosophical and metaphysical foundations. As they build new ideological structures, they must remember that NO human ideological framework can lay claim to perfection. Indeed, many postmodern academics question the concept of perfection in and of itself. However, I believe that reality of perfection existing somewhere (heaven) consciously and subconsciously drives the process of the pursuit of perfection, which itself will create better individuals, society, and world.

Works Cited

Kishimoto, Masashi. Naruto Shippuuden. Directed by Date Hayato, Pierrot and TV Tokyo, 2007-2016.

Rashomon. Directed by Kurosawa Akira, performances by Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori, and Takashi Shimura, Daiei Film, 1950.

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