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Young talents - Rashomon and the Gendered Nature of Lying

The 1950 Akiro Kurasawa film Rashomon is a comprehensive exploration of truth that examines what compels people to lie and makes use of cinematic form to express the subjectivity of the stories we tell. The film centers on a single crime that involves 3 characters: a bandit, the man he murders, and that man's wife. Each person implicated provides their own contradictory testimony, which is given its own filmed representation. The end of the film provides one last account of the event, told by a hidden witness. The film itself is told from the perspective of 3 men waiting out rain at a temple called Rashomon, recounting what they saw in court. Each story is a reflection of the characters, as well as their place in society and the expectations set upon them due in part to their gender.
In this essay I will argue that each lie the characters tell is heavily based on their gender and that score plays a fundamental role in supporting this theme.
The first version of the story is told from the bandit Tajomaru’s perspective, and reflects what he, as a man, aspires to be. He crafts a tale of an honorable battle, where he wins over the man's wife but must have a fight to the death with her husband to have her hand in marriage. The sword fight is framed in a way where the bandit is in his prime and fighting a worthy opponent. He takes time to laugh in his opponents face and turn away from the battle. Never is his life on the line, and he respects the man just for the length of the battle, for never has he been challenged in such a manner. The score agrees as it swells and has an epic dramatic orchestral theme that engages the audience and makes them feel the excitement and grandiosity of it. It’s in essence the ultimate male fantasy. He frames himself as a mighty and brave warrior who won a battle of honor and worth in front of a woman. This story, just like all the others, is a lie. The events likely did not occur in the manner he says, but it’s curious what he chooses to lie about. He doesn’t deny the crime itself, no, he instead fabricates a tale that makes him out to seem like the prototypical Japanese male, even at the expense of his own life. The motivation behind the lie seems purely to motivate his own ego as a man. Since it’s a lie we know his described actions are not a reflection of his true self, but rather what he wishes his true self was. Samurai culture was pervasive in feudal Japan, and as highly respected members of society, they stood as an ideal for what a man ought to be. It was a culture of self control and living by the sword. A true man fights with honor, he knows no fear or cowardice, and he wields his sword like a champion. Of course, not all or in all probability not most men fit this description. Most men are not proficient sword fighters, they are not immune to fear, nor consistently honorable. However there existed a clear and strong expectation for men to follow it. Some men followed it religiously, devoting their entire persona to this predefined notion of masculinity. The bandit falls under this category. His actions are clearly not inherent to his being, rather it is a concerted effort for him to match this ideal. His story shows how strongly societal norms and expectations influence the decisions of men.
The next story heard is that of the woman, Masako. A woman's perspective is far different from that of a mans. This is reflected in her story. Rather than an epic battle, the bandit simply elopes in her story. In her story it is her that delivers the killing blow, an action based on guilt rather than malice, for she sees in her husband's eyes that she has betrayed him, lost her purity and honor by receiving the kiss from the bandit. Her husband’s derision is so piercing it breaks her down and she acts as if she was under a spell, blacking out as she kills her husband and subsequently tries killing herself. The music in this scene is somber, mournful, and makes the audience dread the events just as intently as if it were real. Again, just like the bandit, her story does not reflect positively on her. She has thrown away the easy path of blaming it on Tajomaru, in favor of casting blame on herself, tearfully lamenting her actions in front of the court. To understand why she would implicate herself in the crime, one only needs to look at traditional feminine ideals. A samurai’s wife was to be subservient and bring honor to the household through her grace and loyalty, and the shame that would be brought on if she wasn’t such that it would compel men to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). Masako has been kissed by the dirty bandit Tajomaru, and in the eyes of society and the court she is already guilty, her virtue stained. She’s become dishonorable, and to regain her spot in society she must gain back her honor. What would a virtuous woman do after having brought shame to her name? She would break down, grovel at the foot of her man, beg for forgiveness, and try to kill herself rather than live with her guilt. She must do anything and everything to regain the respect of men, and it is this idea that burrows itself into her story, as though she is the murderer of her husband in this fantasy she has created, it’s her version of seppuku in the moment. She sheds a flood of tears in her mournful “confession” to the jury, showing the world her sorrow, her inability to live with herself. But just like Tajomaru, her story too is one built on lies. The tears are likely exaggerated, her stained virtue does not naturally give her an unconscious drive to suicide. The men at Rashomon have their own way of putting it, “Women use their tears to fool everyone, they even fool themselves” (Kurasawa, 1950). Like many social norms, it’s a careful balancing act to stay respectable in society.
The final story heard is that of the bystander woodcutter. His story stands apart from all the others because he is not in court, he is not directly involved in the situation, he is simply a witness telling his account for a random stranger at Rashomon who bears no influence on him. The scorn of the Japanese government as well as societal norms don't apply here at the solitary temple, and his story is free to be told objectively (Though even his account is a perversion of the truth). The woodcutter's tale is not one of honor, it's not one of virtue or stoicism. His story sees Tajomaru groveling and begging the woman. So much for his manly persona, as he allows his pride to be trampled by setting himself under the control of a woman. Masako too drops her teary-eyed innocent act as well, abruptly drying her tears and taking the initiative to cut her husband loose. Instead of a valiant fight for her honor, her husband abandons her, telling the bandit to keep her to himself. Tajomaru in turn takes pause before having a sudden change of heart and deciding to abandon Masako as well. Before any of them have a chance to leave, Masako springs up and chastises their inaction, “I was sick of this tiresome farce” (Kurasawa, 1950) says she in regard to her relationship with her husband, “A man has to make his woman by sword” (Kurasawa, 1950) she tells them. Stunned into submission, it’s not honor that the men fight for but it’s to save face. The fight this time occurs in pure silence. No music is to be heard. The fight is no longer an energetic engagement of sword and flesh. The audience feels awkward and uncomfortable as the men pant and yelp with only the chirping of birds to be heard in the background. They shake with fear, they fall to the ground, they lose their swords, they crawl away from each other, wrestle on the ground like children, and when Tajomaru finally gets the upper hand, he doesn’t emphatically thrust his blade into a man who has accepted his fate, rather he is panting for air, shaking like a dog, and slowly approaching a trembling man begging for his life and exclaiming “I don’t want to die” (Kurasawa, 1950). The sword enters his chest, and Tajomaru’s eyes aren't filled with the respect and confidence in his story, rather there is just fear as the wife screams and reality settles in. She runs away and escapes as Tajomaru, exhausted from the awkward fight, collapses to the ground.
How does this mesh with any of their stories? When one thinks of manly men and virtuous women, especially in the context of history, one always imagines people who were driven solely by their ideals, unburdened by self doubt and the drive to lie. For once in the classic Japanese samurai film, one sees the dark and embarrassing humanity behind these tales. The film was released in 1950, following the Second World War, and a period of military propaganda that put men in the class of fighter and women in the place of good wife. As the war ended and Japan started to abandon its militaristic systems, the rigid ideas started changing as well. A woman takes charge and embarrasses the men. The men don’t so much fight to acquire her, more so they fight to prove themselves to her. The roles have flipped as she is the dominant onlooker as these men get traditionally emasculated into following her command. Gender roles are not always set in stone. The dark truth we hide inside ourselves, our cowardice, our fears and insecurities with our place in society is something we’d rather not have seen, which is why we construct so much of our personas on lies. Lies about who we are as men, as women, as able actors and virtuous figures. The movie is constructed on lies because at the root of it so is the social world we inhabit. What separates us from animals is our propensity to shed our true desires, our carnal reality, and substitute it with mannered civility. The roles we construct for ourselves keep us grounded but enable us to pretend to ourselves and to others, and nowhere in the film is this seen more than in the gender roles the characters quickly slip away as soon as they think no one is watching.
In conclusion, the film is an examination of the role gendered ideals play in how we act and the way we choose to portray our identity. Score is used to great effect to underpin this idea as it heightens the false reality of the characters testimony, and soberly grounds us when it comes to the truth. The penultimate lie in the film is the way men and women alike decide to portray themselves when they know the judgemental eyes of others are upon them.

Theo Vasile
student, Toronto

Theo Vasile    1/23/2023


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