I love a mystery.
And I acknowledge, right off the bat, that this is possibly the worst possible way to approach one of Kurosawa’s classics, and one of the best films of all time, Rashomon.
But I’m a pedant, and a bit of a jerk, and Rashomon gave me an itch that, over the next few days, I found myself compelled to scratch. I just can’t abide the idea that there is no story, or some sort of fluid story, behind the events of the film.
I need closure. It’s a flaw. I’m okay with it.
So, with all that in mind, and retaining at the forefront that this is not the point of the film, here’s a ton of rambling bullcrap about what might have been going on in the movie.
To keep things simple, I’m going to use archetypes rather than proper names: Bandit for the Toshiro Mifune character Tajômaru, Wife for Machiko Kyô’s Masako Kanazawa, Husband for Masayuki Mori’s character Takehiro Kanazawa, and from there they’re actually called Woodcutter, Priest (Monk in my subtitles) and Policeman, so my bases are pretty much set.
On to business.
First and foremost, the question is that of the murder. Whether the Bandit rapes the Wife, or whether she reciprocates his affections and has sex with him willingly, informs the motivations for the murder, but doesn’t change the fact of the murder itself.
And, once honed in on the murder, we have three possibilities:
1. Bandit kills Husband (Bandit, Woodcutter)
2. Wife [presumably] kills Husband (Wife)
3. Husband commits suicide (Husband)
Among the three perpetrators, there’s a tidy knot: each admits to the crime (mostly; the Wife leaves some room for doubt, but not much). But, presuming that Japan was not chock-a-block with compulsive liars, they must have had some reason for making these stories up.
The simplest reason is love: each of our three murderers is trying to cover for another person, and the best reason to do that is that they are trying to shield them from the consequences of the murder.
From there, we can eliminate probabilities until we arrive at a satisfying reason for one story being more plausible than the others.
Let’s see how this works if we map it out. Click on the image for a full version (1500×1500 px):
Pretty. If you have Adobe Illustrator and want to mess around with my RashoGraph, this is the source file.
Now let’s talk motivations.
1. Why would the Bandit lie and assume blame? Assuming he is telling the truth about having fallen in love on sight with the Wife, as occurs in an uncontested segment of the movie, he would lie to protect the Wife. Would he lie to protect the Husband? Perhaps, were he gripped with remorse or empathy over the event, but that doesn’t seem likely. So, of the two parties he would lie to protect (the Wife and himself), he protects the Wife and assumes blame himself. This would suggest that the Wife is the murderer; were the Husband to have committed suicide, there’s no reason for the Bandit to cover that up. There’s one opening for doubt in his love for the Wife — the Wife’s story — but she may have a compelling reason to lie on this front. And, if the bandit has left early — as he does in the Wife’s version of events — he may lie in order to protect the Wife because he assumes it was her that killed him.
2. Why would the Wife lie and assume blame? That answer depends on the truth about her allegiances: if she has fallen in love with the Bandit, she would lie to protect the Bandit. If she continues to love the Husband, she would lie to protect the Husband. If she loves both, she would lie to protect both. She has potential motivation to protect all three players — the Husband, the Bandit and herself.
3. Why would the Husband lie and assume blame? The Monk expresses concern over the very possibility; he says that considering the dead lying would shatter his belief in the human soul. But the Monk assumes that the Husband would lie out of malice; I think the possibility of the Husband lying out of love might give him some wiggle room to retain belief in human decency, and since that seems to be the ultimate message of the film, let’s give the Husband the benefit of the doubt, and assume a spirit can lie for good reasons.
Would the Husband lie to protect the Wife? While the Bandit’s love seems to be unconditional, there are different accounts of the Husband’s reaction to the rape: in the Bandit’s tale, he is a victim, and may still love her; in the Wife’s tale, he loathes her; in his tale, he is shocked by her but there is still room for love (were he to truly loathe her, why kill himself in despair over her betrayal?); in the Woodcutter’s final tale, he rejects her. If the Wife’s account is true, then the Husband may also lie to protect the Bandit, who has earned his respect.
The Bandit, however, has no reason to protect the Husband. His story is more self-aggrandizing, yes, but he still acquits himself well and nobly in the Husband’s story, and there isn’t much of a reason for a cunning Bandit to throw his head on the chopping block just for the sake of a better-told tale. If we assume the Bandit is not lying to protect the husband (or is telling the truth), we can discount the Husband’s account of the murder as an utter lie.
The Husband did not kill himself.
4. But why would the Woodcutter lie? This is the trickiest part of the tale, and makes us lean overwhelmingly towards the Woodcutter’s interpretation of the story: unlike the three possible murderers, he doesn’t have an overt stake in which one takes the blame. There are, though, motivations in play:
- He may fear reprisal from the Bandit, who is notorious in the region, if he blames the Bandit and the Bandit does not wind up in prison.
- Having stolen the dagger with the pear inlay (as mentioned in an uncontested part of the story by the Woodcutter himself), he needs to concoct a story that diverts people from the missing potential murder weapon. Note the ferocity in which he insists the man was murdered with a sword.
- The wife’s beauty has already made a battle-crazed legendary womanizer fall head over heels in love with her; having the Woodcutter also develop a crush on her doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility.
Obviously, the “fear the Bandit” scenario doesn’t seem likely, as he blames the bandit. The other reasons, though, dovetail nicely together, again towards the WIfe being the murderer and the others covering for her.
EDIT: There’s a further problem with the Woodcutter’s stories, too: the timeline. Piecing both his narratives together, it’s clear that the Woodsman finds the Wife’s hat and still arrives at the scene in time to witness all the action. He doesn’t find the horse, which means it is gone by the time he finds the hat, and yet he still arrives at the rape/murder scene in time to see how it all goes down. But if he was close enough behind the Bandit/Wife (yet not quite close enough to hear them running through the woods ahead of them) to not miss any of the crucial events, how could he have found the hat after the Bandit has stolen the horse?
Solution One: The Wife Told The Truth Theory
The Wife’s story is true, and both the Bandit and the Husband are lying to cover for her.
This makes sense for a number of reasons:
- The Husband, without the medium to interact for him, cannot hear the Bandit’s “confession,” and doesn’t know the blame has already been taken.
- The Woodcutter has stolen the murder weapon [established], and wants to lie to divert attention from its absence.
- The Wife’s story is the best engineered to engender sympathy for her: she was raped against her will, her husband rejected her in a madness-inducing way, she doesn’t recall the murder, she was overcome with remorse afterwards.
But — as asked by modern poet/philosophers The Black-Eyed Peas — where is the love? If we move to a simple Wife True, All Else False theory, it holds up except that the story itself removes the motivation to lie from the other two players. The Brigand leaves her in the dirt following non-consensual rape, the Husband loathes her and drives her to insanity with his cold indifference. So why — if the Wife’s story is true — would the other two lie to cover up for her, to say nothing of the Woodcutter?
Something stinks here. Let’s move on to another possible solution.
Solution Two: The Bandit/Woodcutter POV Theory
The Bandit’s story is mainly true, partially exaggerated by him and partially misinterpreted by the Woodcutter.
This works on a few levels as well:
- There’s enough commonality between the two stories to make this a bit of a whisper game, where the Wife falls for the Bandit, she encourages a battle between Bandit and Husband, battle occurs to a varying degree of skill, the Husband dies, the Wife flees in shock/remorse, and the Bandit leaves with the horse.
- The Wife would still lie to protect the Bandit.
- There’s still a huge opening for the Woodcutter to have stolen the knife.
There’s a huge motivational knot in this one, as well: why would the Husband lie to protect the Bandit? One compelling reason might be that he felt so betrayed by his wife’s rejection of him for the Bandit that he invented his story to illustrate how his wife’s betrayal hurt him (Shot through the heart! And YOU’RE to blame!), while letting the Bandit off the hook (the Samurai code: you can’t really hate a guy for beating you in a square fight, and the fight was square).
It’s still not entirely satisfying.
I still like the Wife as the murderer, with the dagger, as she’s the only person present where all other players have a compelling reason to take the fall on her behalf. The problem with her account being true is that it removes their motivations to intervene on her behalf.
But what if everybody is lying?
If there’s no choose the right answer motivation to sift through the stories, we are left with the option of sifting through the motivations to find out the most probable chain of events, given (a) the fact that the stories are fundamentally quite the same, and (b) if you look at who’s motivated to defend who, you get some interesting pathways.
So let’s recap:
The Woodcutter will support theories that do not involve dagger murder (and the Wife and Husband versions feature the dagger as the murder weapon).
The Woodcutter may protect the Wife (if the love theory holds).
The Bandit will protect the Wife, but not the Husband.
The Wife will protect the Bandit or the Husband, and perhaps both.
The Husband may protect the Wife (strong), and may protect the Bandit (weak).
With all that, I give you:
Solution Three: ‘Mon Fiction
In this version, the Bandit/Woodcutter (2) story is true to a point; about 90% accurate. We follow the story up to the point that the Wife has succumbed to the Bandit’s affections, fearful that if she does not respond, he will murder both her and the Husband. The Bandit, after the rape, begs her to join him, and she — confident in the Husband’s prowess as a samurai — demands that he liberate the Husband and kill him. The Bandit does so, and the Husband, in a cold fury (being slightly dense, he doesn’t understand the Wife’s motivation), rejects his wife, and agrees to duel the Bandit. The Bandit aquits himself surprisingly well, and the Wife, realizing the Husband may well lose, attempts to help the Husband by stabbing the Bandit with her dagger. The Husband sees this, and knows that the Wife is, in fact, on his side.
The Bandit, however, dodges — and the Wife plunges her dagger into the Husband’s heart. The Wife, in horror, flees to attempt suicide, and the Bandit, seeing that his intended has apparently gone mad and there is nothing here for him, flees as well. The Woodcutter, having seen the whole thing, decides to pinch the dagger for himself and takes off to warn the police.
Am I fanwanking over Rashomon? Abso-freaking-lutely. I am writing Rashomon fan fiction, and nobody is more embarrased about that than I. But as far as, well, solutions go, this one is pretty airtight. It offers truth for all characters, in varying degrees, and supports everyone’s reasons for covering up, including the Wife’s reason for lying — she couldn’t stand having killed her husband, even in accident. The Bandit gets to embellish the battle, and the Woodcutter tells the bulk of the truth, changing the end of the battle to draw attention away from the purloined dagger.
But why would the Husband cover for the Bandit? Why not say the Bandit did it as a cover?
Because the Husband was in limbo during everyone else’s testimony. He arrives in the middle of a trial courtesy of Dial-A-Psychic, and has no clue what’s happened except that he’s being asked about the circumstances of his murder. So he tells the only thing he knows is certain to clear his wife — he committed suicide. It’s the sanest move, given that the Bandit might be pinning it all on the Wife, and the Wife might well be confessing to it. Rather than muddy the waters, he takes it on himself.
So that’s my goofy Rashomon fanfic.
But wait! There’s more!
In working on this, I stumbled across an interesting note in a review of the film, which leads to:
Solution Four: The Adapted Hal0000 Theory
Essentially, Hal0000 posits that the Wife and Husband versions converge: that she moves to stab him and passes out and he, upset at her willingness to do him in, kills himself with the dagger. She awakes, sees him dead, assumes she did it, and flees to attempt suicide.
This doesn’t address a number of things, but is an interesting read of the Wife and Husband’s stories, and would probably stand up if you applied some of my loosey-goosey fanfic stuff to it.
Finally, one must always consider the metaphysical, which leads us to:
Solution Five: The Steve Gerber Giant-Size Theory-Thing Theory
What if all their stories were true?
“Unpossible!” you cry. Not so, through the magic of Marvel Comics Science, particularly when one takes into account that the events under contention occured in a forest, which is quite like a swamp, which is of course also the location of the Nexus of All Realities. For those who read Steve Gerber comics in the ’70s, it is not a far cry to imagine that perhaps these events occured at the Nexus; the point at which convergent dimensions meet.
This theory, in turn, is the simplest of all: the story proceeds until the Bandit leads the Wife into the woods, and then, stumbling across the Nexus, all the characters (including the Woodcutter) enter divergent realities in which their stories are true. Shortly after, reality reconverges, and they find themselves shunted together onto one plane again, with a series of conflicting stories that cannot make sense together.
There are several pieces of evidence to support this audacious theory:
- The Bandit, upon the shore, shows the delirium and confusion common among those who have transitioned between dimensions. Poisoned spring or thrown from horse? Why not both — and neither?
- Rashomon, according to the Monk at the end of the film, was once the home of a demon, who was driven from the gate by man’s ferocity. When one thinks “demon” and “nexus of all realities,” only one conclusion may be drawn — the globetrotting, swamp-dwelling monster that guards the Nexus of All Realities: Man-Thing.
- This, in turn, sheds light on this inexplicable figure seen in various screencaps of the film:
And suddenly, through the magic of Mr. Steve Gerber (RIP), it all makes sense:
Those who know fear burn at the touch of…
So what have we learned? Well, first of all, it would be a wise move to keep me the hell away from Primer.
Secondly, there is no psychologically sound “solution” to Rashomon: no one version of the tale both hangs together and provides a plausible reason for all other parties to lie.
Third, I have time on my hands and piss-poor Adobe Illustrator skills.
Rashomon was not, obviously, a “solvable” movie. It’s not Memento, where the joy of the film is in reaching the end and piecing it all together; it exists to be ambiguity, to illustrate the power of the unreliable narrator. And I apologize again for treating it as a puzzle that can be solved, against the intent of Mr. Kurosawa and the original author of both Rashomon and In A Grove, Ryunosuke Akutagawa.
But — as somebody who frets over the timeline of the Terminator movies, and gets in protracted arguments on the Internet about what “I’m in insurance” meant at the end of 12 Monkeys, this has provided me with some measure of peace of mind. Thanks for indulging me.
Addendum: this has been posted to MetaFilter, and there are a lot of great comments/theories in the thread over there as well.