“What is truth?” Those words of Pontus Pilate are reflected in every second of Akira Kurosawa’s first great film Rashomon. They are not the words of rebellion or desire for violence or revenge. They are the words of self-centered resignation.
Three men escape a terrible storm together in a shelter shortly after a murder and rape trial has finished that has shaken their community to its core. One of the men in the shelter was a witness. He found the body and testified that day. With his two newfound companions, he shares the trauma of being part of the trial, hearing three different stories of what he saw but each of them are completely different from the other and none reflects what he reported to see.
We see each of the three versions of the story from the point of view of that witness. He points out where each is lying, so we know that the stories we see are not accurate. It doesn’t take long, though, to see that our narrator isn’t telling the truth either, and not just because he doesn’t know the truth.
The heart of Rashomon is not a crime story (or three crime stories or four). It is the story of the narrator coming to terms with his own dishonesty. Through telling the story of the trial, he has to admit not only that he doesn’t know for certain what happened in the crime but that he really doesn’t understand himself. He feels like a fraud who has spent his entire life lying to himself.
The three versions of the crime story are intense and revealing about some of the darkest places of the human soul. But it’s the story of the witness that really counts. This is the furthest type of story imaginable from a who-done-it. We don’t need to learn the facts of the alleged crime. We don’t need to know if the man was murdered or killed in duel. We don’t need to know if the woman was raped or unfaithful to her husband. All we need to know is that the witness doesn’t know and that it’s tearing him apart.
The more he realizes he doesn’t know both about the case and about himself, the sadder and more desperate the story gets. He’s in search of truth but doesn’t know where to find it. Nevertheless, he searches. In searching, he finds out much about himself that he hates. But as he learns these deep, dark details of his own humanity, his own lies, and his own self-centeredness, the more motivated he becomes to get rid of those things about himself he hates.
Most of the journey we see in the witness’s growth are the very tumultuous situations that he must face in order to become a better person. We don’t see much of the positive side that must follow, but the movie leaves us absolutely certain that after all the darkness, hurt, and emptiness we’ve had to suffer through with this character, that he is starting on a new road that will lead him out of the despair we’ve suffered with him.
Part of being human is being faced with crossroads like these where we must determine how we will live from that point forward. Kurosawa takes us through the difficulty of that but leaves us with so much hope, hope that the witness will not stay the same after he’s finished the story as Pilate presumably did. The movie points to the reality that we can’t always understand the truth in situations around us, but it often doesn’t matter because there are more pressing truths that we must uncover in order to see the world and ourselves more clearly.