Image: Karman Khanna
The following review was submitted by SMIW reader Karman Khanna to our section Spoilt Modern Film Reviews
Rashomon is a Japanese film produced in the year 1950. The film is directed by Akira Kurosawa, a Japanese filmmaker, considered as one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema. The film marked the entry of Japanese cinema onto the world stage and won a number of awards around the world.
The film depicts an event involving a a bandit, a samurai and his wife from each one’s point of view – as well as from the point of view of a neutral witness, a woodcutter. The plot line aims to establish that there is no objective truth to a story and it can seem equally true when looked at from different vantage points. However, it’s the film’s problematic view of women being likened to objects that are to be owned; of rape and; how it affects a woman’s honour – that this review aims to analyse.
The film opens on a woodcutter, a priest and a commoner discussing the murder of a Samurai and the rape of his wife. The woodcutter claims he found the body of a murdered samurai three days earlier while looking for wood in the forest; upon discovering the body, he says, he fled in a panic to notify the authorities. The priest says that he saw the samurai with his wife traveling the same day the murder happened. Both men were then summoned to testify in court, where they meet the captured bandit Tajōmaru, who claimed responsibility for killing the samurai and raping his wife. What proceeds is a sequence of first person accounts of the bandit, the Samurai, the woodcutter and most importantly, the Samurai’s wife.
Tajōmaru’s story is the first to be told. He talks of how he was attracted to the wife at the first sight of her face. She is shown sitting on a horse being guided by her husband. The scene establishes how women are perceived as objects to be taken care of by their spouse and in a way sets the base for portraying the wife as a trophy which is later reinforced by the bandit’s rape on her to assert power. Tajōmaru recounts how he tricked the samurai into a deal for swords and holds him hostage, tying him to a tree, before raping his wife. However, in the bandit’s version, during the course of the act, the wife’s protest turns into a pleasurable reciprocation. In Tajōmaru’s mind, this imagined pleasure is a sign of victory. He believes that he has succeeded in ‘having’ the woman to himself as if she was a commodity which could be owned by an individual.
Since the Samurai is actually dead by this point in the film’s timeline, his version is recounted through a medium.The samurai narrates that he committed suicide. According to him, after being raped, his wife had accepted Tajōmaru’s offer of travelling with him on the condition that he kills her husband – so that she would not feel guilty of belonging to two men. Both, Tajōmaru and the samurai’s reaction to this statement struck a unified chord of masculinity. They were shocked that a woman had taken a firm decision for herself and has in some ways, discovered her agency. Tajōmaru, who was until now lusting for the woman, suddenly felt outraged by her and asked the samurai if he should kill the woman for this immorality. In turn, the samurai was so moved by the bandit’s reaction that he was ready to forgive him for his crimes. Seeing this, the woman freed herself in desperation and fled the scene. This shows how patriarchy has conditioned some in a way that they would rather side with a criminal than respect a decisive woman. Feeling dishonoured and emasculated that his wife surrendered herself to a bandit, the samurai killed himself with a dagger that his wife had dropped before fleeing.
In the wife’s recount of the event, Tajōmaru left after raping her, following which she was looked upon by her husband with disgust. This isn’t uncommon. In the present day, this can be compared to what feminist writer, Nivedita Menon writes in her book Seeing Like a Feminist about rape. The rapist leaves after committing the crime and the victim is left fighting for a nearly impossible normal life again. The samurai’s disgusted, cold look shows he loathes his wife for getting raped. This, in some ways, resonates with the ideology that many misogynists still hold – about rape being the fault of the victim; either for dressing in a particular manner or, being out on the streets till late in the night. In Rashomon, it was the woman’s fault because she was so beautiful. Her husband resents her defiled beauty because she didn’t conceal it well enough and the bandit chanced upon it. In her narration, the wife pleaded with her husband to kill her as it would have been a fate worse than death to live such a tainted life – again, we see how rape is connected with honour, a concept we struggle with even today.
The woodcutter, who claims to be a neutral witness to the entire incident is a trope in himself. His version of the story paints the wife in a manipulative light. He recounts that how, after raping her, Tajomaru begged the woman to marry him to which she said, being a woman could not be the decision maker here and the men should fight each other to decide who will have her. In response, the samurai declared that he will not fight for her as she had lost her honour and the bandit could take her along. Again, the woman is portrayed as an object to be owned being passed around by the two men. The manipulative wife resurfaces in the woodcutter’s narrative when she insults the men, calling them weak and dishonourable – the notorious dacoit for raping her without killing her husband and her husband for disowning her and asking her rapist to marry her. According to the woodcutter, the wife manipulated the men to start a fight when they had no intention to do so. It is not made clear why the woodcutter shared this account or if it is true or not. That part is left at the viewer’s discretion. However, one thing remains constant despite the wife’s alleged manipulation of the men – that all of it was to reach a conclusion about who would own her in the end.
In many ways, Rashomon is a reflection of the patriarchal and misogynistic Japanese society that is known for objectifying women and attaching honour and shame to their sexual identities. Kurosawa’s intention for making the film was to bring to light the subjectivity of truth and explore multiple realities rather than an exposition of a particular truth. However, the wife’s character and its treatment expose the harsh truth of society’s perception of woman as desirable commodities which are easily tarnished and hence can be disowned at the drop of a hat – something that rings true to this day, not just in Japan but in India (among other places) as well.
About the author:
Karman Khanna is a FPM-C Scholar at MICA Ahmedabad.