- “No two people see things the same way…There are very few really stark black and white stories,” Jim Lehrer
- “That’s also part of the times. Today everyone lies. Pharmaceutical fliers, governments, the radio, the movies, the newspapers. So why shouldn’t simple people like us lie as well?” 1939 film The Rules of the Game
- “Above all else, never lie to yourself”, Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov
If I ever thought there was no such thing as the “Rashomon Effect” – which offers an explanation as to why eyewitness accounts of an incident can vary and even seem contradictory and conflicting – consider the last scene of Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai. If you check the internet, there are several explanations of it which almost seem to be describing different scenes from different movies.
Let me offer further proof that there is such a thing as the Rashomon Effect by providing my own version of what I think is really going.
The scene looks like farmers are happily planting rice. But what they are actually doing is transplanting rice seedlings into paddies that they have just flooded. The seedlings have grown somewhere else in regular dirt and they have to be transplanted into the watery environment of the paddies before their root systems become accustomed to the drier dirt otherwise the harvest later in the fall will be diminished.
Just as in great literature where there are times when one has to read between the lines to realise what is really going on, I feel that such is the case in Seven Samurai. What the movie doesn’t show is that after a hard day of battling the bandits, no matter how exhausted they are, each farmer has to check his seedlings to see just how far along the root systems have developed. When he returns home, his wife quickly asks, “How much longer?”. The farmer replies, “Pretty soon, pretty soon”.
In order to return to battle the next day refreshed, he needs to get a good night’s sleep. But both he and his wife can’t fall asleep easily because they are so worried that if the battle stretches out much longer, the root systems of the seedlings will get used to the dirt and will not readily adapt to the watery environment of the flooded paddies. After a certain point in time, each extra day of battle is eating into the autumn harvest.
If you wonder why the farmers seemed so happy when they are finally transplanting, it’s not because they no longer need the samurai who organised their battles against the bandits. It’s because the farmers are finally able to do what their fathers, grandfathers and former generations have done for centuries–transplanting when spring arrives. Kurosawa was trying to portray this as the pre-industrial norm of life all over the world, i.e., farmers planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall.
And if the music performed by some farmers which accompany the planting sounds joyous, the rhythm is fast because the farmers have lots of seedlings to transplant in probably acres and acres of paddies. The rhythm is not so much an expression of joy, but rather exists to make the farmers work faster since they are under a lot of pressure to get all those seedlings transplanted into all those paddies before the root systems develop further to the point where they cannot adjust easily to their new watery environment. The farmers have no time to lose.
As soon as the transplanting is finished, the farmers probably are still very busy needing to tend to their own vegetable gardens which they neglected during their battles with the bandits. A farmer tending his garden in the aftermath of a war is portrayed toward the end of a movie which came out a year before Seven Samurai – Ugetsu. The very end of that movie also shares the same message as the end of Seven Samurai – that peace should be the norm and that those who work hard should not be at the mercy of the distractions and disruptions of leaders who, when they are not trying to steal the fruits of the farmers’ hard labor, are in battles that disrupt the average citizens’ lives and livelihoods – something also portrayed in “Ugetsu”. After working on their gardens, the farmers probably still have to go into the surrounding forests to forage for whatever edibles they can find.
At the point in the plot when the farmers feel that they can no longer continue to be at the mercy of the bandits, doesn’t their decision to fight back echo this recent comment made by actor Oscar Isaac about the forthcoming movie Dune?: “It’s about the destiny of a people, and the different way that cultures have dominated other ones. How do a people respond when it’s at the tipping point when enough is enough when they’re exploited? All those things are things we’re seeing around the world right now.” And for those who look up to the samurai, Dune’s author Frank Herbert said: “The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes.”
If heroic ideals like bravery and courage exist to differentiate and distinguish individuals from each other and to entitle the best to rewards and prizes, could group norms be viewed as allowing people to live together harmoniously and encouraging them to work together productively? The routines and repetitiveness of those norms cultivate basic values which serve to strengthen the farmers’ resolve to cope with the adversities, hardships and obstacles that are put in their way–often by their supposed ‘betters’.
Are the farmers then any less heroic than the samurai as they struggle to not stray from the straight and narrow by trying to keep things on course, trying to not to fall behind, and trying to not lose sight of the long term common good? And aren’t they wise to not allow the rewards and prizes of success blind them to the importance and necessity of not taking survival for granted? Are the winners those that succeed or those who survive? Should one strive to win the battle of glory or to win the war of survival? As a samurai says ending Kurosawa’s film: “So. Again we are defeated. The farmers have won. Not us”. Meanwhile, speaking about the topic, the director himself said: “I wanted to say that after everything the peasants were the stronger, closely clinging to the earth. It is the samurai who are weak because they were being blown by the winds of time.”
The plight of the farmers shouldn’t be so difficult to understand considering the relationship we ourselves have with our own 21st-century leaders who, when they are not feeding at the trough or involved in political power struggles of their own, are busy giving speeches to the public sprinkled with half-truths and filled with promises in the hopes of getting the votes necessary to win elections which will then give them the power to raise our taxes further.
Wouldn’t the farmers who had battled the bandits have agreed with Warren G. Harding who as presidential candidate after World War I said: “America’s present need is not heroics, but …normalcy…” And considering that he said that in the aftermath of the 1918-19 Spanish flu, could there be anyone among us now in these pandemic times who could disagree with him?
And concerning the growing social violence in our own times, has the promotion and glorification of ideals which recognise and reward outstanding individuals with success blinded us to the importance of group norms which help to provide for a secure and stable society that contributes to the survival of humanity? If ideals can help to raise the level of individual performance, then don’t norms help to keep us together and on course? If ideals can become obsessive and blind us to reality, then don’t norms serve to ground us?
With regard to the 2019 film Ad Astra, isn’t its message that rather than reach out to the stars a la Star Trek’s “…To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!”, we should be reaching out to each other? Doesn’t the film beginning as a journey of discovery but ending as a journey of self-discovery remind viewers of the importance of preserving and promoting norms over ideals?
In the 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai, the ideals (e.g., honor, duty) of a military commander derailed his men’s sense of norms which had to do with not taking survival for granted and the tragic result was the unnecessary loss of lives. The notion of the ‘glory’ of war caused the leader to lose sight of the horrors that war was creating for his followers and in the final scene, an onlooker of the needless and avoidable carnage could only exclaim, “Madness! Madness … madness!” Shouldn’t the tragic outcome of Willaim Holden’s and Geoffrey Horne’s characters remind us that if a good system brings out the best in people and a bad system the worst, then war somehow manages to get rid of what’s left of the best?
Speaking of madness, if one ever thought that a person couldn’t go mad when deprived of a normal life, consider the 1960 Satyajit Ray film Devi which portrays a 19th-century Indian housewife who is at the mercy of her superstitious father-in-law. He has a ‘vision’ and proclaims her to be a goddess (devi) and she herself comes to believe that she has supernatural healing powers. Eventually, when someone in her care dies, she is ‘exposed’ and loses her sanity. In the 1991 Zhang Yimou film Raise the Red Lantern, a young woman in 1920’s China who can no longer afford to be a college student has no alternative but to marry a man who already has three wives. She eventually goes mad when she finds herself not only at the mercy of his will, but also of his whims.
Concerning the tragic outcome of women who are not accepted for who they are because of men who hope to transform them into an ideal more imaginary than real, recall Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Just because he finds her too average, a man brushes aside the chance to have a normal relationship with a woman who loves him. He then obsessively pursues another woman who allows him to transform her into his feminine ‘ideal’. Doesn’t the subjectivity of truth increase the more one tries to create one’s own reality as Scottie tried to use Judy to ‘create’ his ideal Madeleine–who turned out to be a phony? Concerning appearances versus reality, is Vertigo about deception (on Judy’s part) or about self-deception (on Scottie’s part)?
With regard to Renoir’s 1939 movie The Rules of the Game, it may also be more relevant to our times than we realise. Considering that we are supposed to be living in post-modern times where the truth now matters less and less, both Rashomon and The Rules of the Game portray their respective societies as places where telling the truth no longer matters. In the case of Rules…, lying so as not to have to do the right thing has become a way of life and has caused morality to come into doubt by blurring the distinction between virtue and vice. As a character in the film says: “I want to disappear down a hole… so as not to have to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong. The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.”
And the women accept this amorality when it comes to their relationships with men: “Love, as it exists in society, is merely the mingling of two whims and the contact of two skins.” or “Friendship with a man? That’s asking for moonlight at midday.”
In Rashomon, lying has become a way of life. To quote some of its most famous lines: “It’s human nature to lie. Most of the time we can’t even be honest with ourselves.” When accused of being selfish later, the same character says: “What’s wrong with that? That’s the way we are, the way we live. You just can’t live unless you’re what you call selfish.”
Concerning Seven Samurai, consider what the son of a farmer said about the samurai who were the ruling class in Japan whose abuses were forcing the farmers to lie to survive:
“What do you think of farmers? You think they’re saints? Hah! They’re foxy beasts! They say, “We’ve got no rice, we’ve no wheat. We’ve got nothing!” But they have! They have everything! Dig under the floors! Or search the barns! You’ll find plenty! Beans, salt, rice, sake! Look in the valleys, they’ve got hidden warehouses! They pose as saints but are full of lies! If they smell a battle, they hunt the defeated! They’re nothing but stingy, greedy, blubbering, foxy, and mean! God damn it all! But then . . . who made them such beasts? You did! You samurai did it! You burn their villages! Destroy their farms! Steal their food! Force them to labour! Take their women! And kill them if they resist! So what should farmers do? Damn it… [He sinks to his knees, sobbing] Damn it… God damn it…
The victim in Rules… is humanity. The director Renoir portrays a society led by those who have become bored with their affluence. They have turned everything into a game because they are too superficial, frivolous, and shallow to take anything seriously. This is a game that will eventually penalise and ultimately make losers of those who are too sincere and earnest to play it because they cannot abide by its rules which ultimately corrupt virtue and erode human decency. Rules... ends with its most sincere and innocent character being shot and with the others agreeing that it was just an unfortunate ‘accident’.
Instead of providing a positive role model for others to follow, the disgraceful and deplorable actions of the high society of Rules… are all about keeping up appearances by covering up the reality of their hollow and shabby lives with lies. Although their wealth may have freed them from the will of any authority, they have used their freedom to put themselves at the mercy of their own whims, impulses, and urges. They lack the norms to restrain their excesses which would have warned them that they were about to derail themselves and society by deviating more and more from the straight and narrow.
Their lifestyle parallels that of the privileged in The Great Gatsby who had become thoughtless, reckless and even destructive in their hedonistic pursuit of pleasure: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and . . . then retreated back into their money . . . and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
And when the ‘simple people’ exist only to clean up and cover up the messes of those above them who live free from worry of any consequences, then wouldn’t they also want some of that leeway for themselves – even if it means that their own wholesomeness, straightforwardness and good intentions would be corrupted and perverted. This is as they learned the rules as to how to play the game which would transform them into social parasites and even cause them to evolve into predators existing solely to satisfy their appetites?
The victim in Rashomon may be the truth, but ultimately humanity is redeemed in the last scene. This is when the woodcutter agrees to take care of an abandoned baby probably as a way to assuage the guilt he feels over his less than heroic behavior at the scene of the crime and his less than complete account of it to the authorities because he didn’t want to get involved.
Considering that Kurosawa admired Dostoevsky and even made a film adaptation of The Idiot, the trial in Rashomon may have been inspired by the trial in The Brothers Karamazov which has been described as “… [providing] Dostoevsky with an opportunity to satirise the criminal justice system in detail. He emphasises how any decision can be formed on the flimsy basis of circumstantial evidence, unreliable witnesses…Man-made justice, then, is shown to be unjust and unable to grasp the truth of any situation.”
A film that tells its story in a series of flashbacks like Rashomon is Citizen Kane. A reporter attempts to get at the truth as to what made Kane tick by interviewing those who ‘knew’ him. In the process, one begins to wonder if it is even possible to really ‘know’ a person any more than one can ever really ‘know’ the truth.
In addition, that reporter also tries to figure out the ‘meaning’ of “rosebud” – Kane’s last word before he died. Could rosebud symbolise the more normal life Kane would have led if the fortune he subsequently inherited hadn’t fueled the bonfires of his grandiose have-it-all over-the-top tycoon ambitions which ultimately failed?
And just as Vertigo’s Scottie tried to remake Judy into a more glamorous ideal, Kane also tried to transform his second wife into a diva and even built an opera house for her to make her debut. It turned out to be a fiasco because his obsession to make her into a star blinded him to her very limited vocal resources.
With regard to the evolution of cinema, did the subjectivity of interpretation increase with Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad which he described as a Rorschach test? Kubrick said something similar about his 2001: A Space Odyssey in an interview: “The film thus becomes a subjective experience…anything the viewer sees in it.” Concerning the 1970 film Little Big Man, its director Arthur Penn said, ” On the whole, audiences like their entertainment dramatically compact and homogenous, but I want the opposite. A film should remain free and open, not with everything defined and resolved.”
Some have criticised Rashomon’s last scene where the woodcutter agrees to take care of an abandoned baby as being unrealistic considering that all that preceded it portrayed human nature as weak as the result of the turmoil and chaos of the times the characters lived in.
“War, earthquake, winds, fire, famine, the plague. Year after year, it’s been nothing but disasters. And bandits descend upon us every night. I’ve seen so many men getting killed like insects, but even I have never heard a story as horrible as this [the story of the crime and subsequent trial]. Yes. So horrible. This time, I may finally lose my faith in the human soul. It’s worse than bandits, the plague, famine, fire or wars.”
But that final scene reminded me of the end of the film The Grapes of Wrath when Ma Joad gives her “We the People” pep talk about the resilience and perseverance of the masses. In the struggle for survival, the attitude and behavior of the lowborn can be inspiring as they keep their chins up and continue to work hard and do their best often in spite of the burdens placed on their backs by the highborn.
Concerning Rashomon’s final scene, according to the book CINEMA EAST…(1983), “…Kurosawa himself says that he wanted to present gigantic columns of clouds (cumulonimbus) above the gate, but they never appeared during the shooting of the final scene. The image of cumulonimbus predicting approaching rain…” Rather than have the woodcutter carry the abandoned baby into the bright sunlight which Kurosawa probably would have viewed as too obvious in its optimism, perhaps Kurosawa was thinking along the lines of what Gandhi once said: “I am in the world feeling my way to light ‘amid the encircling gloom’.”
Would that be difficult to understand and appreciate by anyone who has had to live through tough times?