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The Philosophy of Rashomon Essay

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The 1950 film “Rashomon” – directed by famed Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa – is about an incident of violence and depravity that takes place some time around Feudal-era Japan, told through the perspectives of four different people, all witnesses to the incident. As such, it is a compelling story that bases itself upon the philosophies of Justice and the problem of Moral Relativism and how human experiences are often remembered and retold personal bias and absolute truths can be a difficult thing to reveal, if they exist at all.

The film starts with the entry of three characters: A woodcutter, a commoner, and a monk. The latter two act as listeners to the woodcutter’s recollection of the incident and the trial that took place afterward. The first version of the story, as told by the bandit Tajomaru, depicts the bandit descending upon a woman and her husband as they are travelling along roads after being stricken with lust. He lures the husband into the woods, claiming to have swords to sell him, and captures him in a clearing. He then goes back to have his way with the woman and is stricken with envy when she expresses concern for her husband.

To demean the husband and sway her affections, he brings her to the grove in which her husband was roped. She falls for the bandit and insists one of them die, as she couldn’t bare having two men know of her shame, and he and the husband fight fairly to the death. Tajomaru’s story is dramatic, action-filled and fits the tale of a heartless, violent warrior. The second version comes from the perspective of the wife, Masako, who claims that after the attack, the bandit Tajomaru, satisfied, had turned to leave.

When Masako ran to her husband, crying tearfully, she looked into his eyes and saw only his disdain for her. Overwhelmed with shame, she freed her husband and offered her dagger and told him to kill her, but he only glared. She then blacked out and awakened to see her husband stabbed with the dagger. She then tried killing herself a few times and failed. Masako’s story comes from a feminine servile perspective and how intensely a wife might shame her husband, and because of that acted in desperation. The third account is told hrough the words of a spirit medium, who claims to be channeling the voice of the dead husband, Takehiro. According to his story, the bandit told the wife that her husband would no longer accept her, and that she must live with him instead. She insisted the bandit kill the husband first. Instead, the bandit asked the husband whether he would prefer he killed the wife for abandoning her husband so quickly. The wife runs away, and when the bandit releases the husband, the husband kills himself with a dagger, presumably in an effort to preserve his honor, as both a man and a samurai.

The last version of the story is described as first-hand experience from the woodcutter as he admits to being an observer to the crime. According to his testimony, the bandit begged the wife to be his but the wife demanded that the men fight for her. The husband initially refuses to fight over a woman like her and the wife grows furious and tells the men that they aren’t real men unless they fight. Nervously, the two men drew swords and fought in a cowardly, scrappy battle spent mostly rolling in the dirt. Eventually, the bandit won, but only by sheer luck.

After being told the woodcutter’s more believable story, many would assume his was the truth. However, he had painted his own story with falsehoods to maintain his own moral highground. Throughout the film, he is heard insisting that the husband was killed with a sword, not a dagger, contradicting the testimony of the victims. During argument, it’s revealed that this is due to the woodcutter stealing the dagger from the scene and altered points of his story to free him of guilt, bringing the monk and the commoner away from what they thought was an unbiased truth from the woodcutter.

Rashomon takes us to the core of the moral problem: Is truth just relative to each individual’s perspective? The film’s philosphy is that a lack of absolute truth means that there can be no moral certainty. Religion or faith requires the certainty that there is a moral order. If truth is relative, then morality can be relative. These viewpoints lend themselves to the philosophical fields of Justice and Moral Relativism.