When Rashomon hit the Cinema screens in 1950 it started slow with many bad reviews, but within a year it managed to conquer the world. It won the Golden Lion in Venice coming out of nowhere and made Kurosawa a household name in art cinemas all over the world. But its real achievement and reason for its ongoing success in inspiring hapless filmmakers all over the world to recreate its magic with more or less subtle inspired stories, which usually fail to come even close, which makes it much more than an exotic little novelty film, is that it managed to capture the spirit of postmodernism, before postmodernism was even invented. In fact, more than twenty years before the word postmodernism has been coined.
Jean-François Lyotard described the ‘Postmodern Condition’ as the end of the grand narrative, i.e. the hope that there could be one big story which captures the whole truth. Instead all we could hope for is a multitude of of little stories, which don’t add up to one story. There might be one truth out there, but there can’t be hope to get to that story. In short what he describes is not much more as what was already demonstrated in Rashomon.
And this how the film managed to make history: Tell the same story from four different angles. This is not a new trick of course, even in 1950. What was shockingly new is that the different stories didn’t add up. They couldn’t be all true. The viewer gets a feel for what could be the true story behind the narratives that are presented, but there is little indication as to what the story really is. To make this point absolutely clear each of the four narratives is filmed in the same third person “objective” style. The camera lies. We can see what happens but we learn that what we saw can’t have been the truth even though we have seen it with our own eyes.
They call it the “Rashomon effect” in Hollywood, when a story is told in an unreliable way several times, and only with the last story “the truth” is revealed. Rashomon is even harsher though, because Kurosawa intentionally refuses to show the truth. The last story is the most believable, and unlike the previous three, which seem to be wildly different from each other it seems to tie the stories together by indicating which bits of the story might have been lies and which true, but even the last story is as well marked as not really reliable since the farmer who told it, has at least edited out his theft of the dagger, but who knows maybe even more.
Because it encapsulates so beautifully the key problem of the postmodern condition, i.e. the multiplicity and unreliability of different narratives, it is the perfect piece to illustrate the different strands of postmodern attitudes which can easily be identified by how they would summarise this situation.
A proper relativist would have to say that all stories are equally valid, since all stories can always at best only capture one point of view and there is no object truth behind the narratives anyway. ‘Il n’ya pas de hors-texte’ there is nothing outside the text, as Derrida would say. The stories are all we have.
The cool headed rationalist would of course declare such relativism utter nonsense and insist on there being one real story, which is the sequence of actual events and facts as really happened. That all the stories differ would only trigger a muttering of ‘everybody lies’ a la Dr House.
Being a resolute rationalist like that is of course useless if one doesn’t have access to the real facts or at least some script writers which create situations in such a way that one can actually get to the bottom of things by clever use of ones genius. In real life we might be left with stories and no reality we can compare them with. We are then confronted with various epistemological challenges. But usually, if it is about a story in the past, there is a point where trying to analyse the facts is just not what will lead anywhere.
If we dare to go there can then choose the proper postmodern way and go into a critical analysis and interpretation of the stories. Go all hermeneutic on those narratives. We might only have narratives but the fact that we have several versions of the same story allows us to do some speculative triangulations of the motives and attitudes of the characters. The bandit and the farmer describe the same fight between bandit and samurai, only the bandit makes the fight look glamorous, and the farmer makes it look pathetic. Since the bandit is a braggart and certainly doesn’t want to look pathetic, we can start to speculate which version will be the more believable. The attitudes of the women, allow similar discounting. All in all one there are clues as to what really happened, but enough of the clues are vague enough to leave space for endless discussions and different interpretations.
This not only gives the film a specific realistic feeling, because I at least can’t help to think that this is pretty much the situation in we find ourselves in real life, i.e. we have clues as to what really goes on, but they are never good enough to settle all arguments. And moreover, it is exactly this balance between giving a good hunch but not settling the argument which distinguishes the Rashomon from all those second rate attempts at recreating its impact and success, which all fail by either being too easily decodable or even worse by being too obviously designed to be simply undecidable (and yes, I am talking about the disappointing ending of Inception).