The narrative structure of Rashomon is not a typical kind of storytelling, where truth usually has one face, it is developed throughout the film and is always revealed as objective in the end of the conflict, i.e. it appears to be obvious and appeals to most of the viewers. However, it is not a surprising fact that, thanks to Kurosawa’s genius, Rashomon has become a word for circumstances when the truth is hard to spot because of different witnesses describing the same event in different ways. In the film, even the viewer cannot see the truth with every witness having his/her own vision of the same conflict.
The basic objective idea of the story is that it is the nature of humans to lie and to invent stories, in order to forget their own mistakes. A simple story of abuse and murder is the main theme of Rashomon: Tajomaru, a notorious bandit, sees a young couple walking through the forest, and decides to take advantage of the young woman; a fight between the man and the bandit starts accidentally, and the latter kills the man. However, what creates the complexity of the plot and drives the story forward, is the conflict of four different points of view on the story, expressed by the witnesses:
- The woodcutter who was hiding and observing the whole scene
- The bandit Tajomaru, the one who started the conflict
- The samurai (Takehiro Kanazawa), who got murdered
- The woman (Masako Kanazawa), samurai’s wife
These are the main characters, all other characters are used as links between the parts of the main story. The supplementary characters are the priest, the commoner, the medium and the policeman to question the witnesses, who was obviously cut out in the editing process, since we neither see nor hear him throughout the film.
The number of locations is limited to:
- An abandoned construction, where the priest, the woodcutter and the commoner meet and recall the story. This can be called the set-up location.
- The forest, which is the location for the main scene, where the tragedy takes place.
- The police department, where witnesses tell their stories.
- Katsura riverbank, where Tajomaru was caught. However, this one is not as important for the film as the first three locations.
The three most important scenes are complicated by the editing: they are entwined within the story, do not follow each other and do not create a linear storyline. Actually, we can say that half of the story is told through the editing and the smart placement of the scenes:
Abandoned construction meeting – woodsman’s story, priest’s sttory, murderer’s story – abandoned construction meeting – woman’s story – abandoned construction meeting – dead samurai’s story – abandoned construction meeting woodsman’s story – abbandoned construction meeting.
This placement of scenes also creates a story within a story structure: the woodcutter and the priest tell us about the samurai, his wife and Tajomaru in the police station, whereas the monologues in the police station lead us into the woods.
The film starts when three men – priest, commoner and woodcutter, looking for a shelter from rain, meet under the roof of abandoned building. The first crucial point in the plot is the woodcutter’s first saying: “I can’t understand it at all,” which attracts the commoner’s attention and gives start to the woodcutter’s monologue about the tragedy in the forest. In this opening scene the first sayings by the woodcutter and the priest serve as the set up for the plot. Later, in the police courtyard, the captured Tajomaru starts his story, explaining how he met the couple and killed the samurai, and the next turning point of the plot is his saying: “Suddenly, there was this cool breeze. If it wasn’t for that breeze, I wouldn’t have killed them.” The breeze unveiled the woman’s face before Tajomaru, and the bandit decided to take advantage of her, but without killing the samurai. The only way to fulfill the desire without any bloodshed is to deceive the samurai, so here comes another turning point, when Tajomaru, having invited the man to look at his hidden collection of swords, gives his own sword to the enemy. When the samurai is defeated and the lady is now Tajomaru’s, the conflict receives further development, when the woman announces that one of the men must die after she has been disgraced. Then the fight starts, and after the samurai is defeated, the woman flees into the forest.
If the story had only one objective interpretation, then the motivations of the main characters would be clear for the viewer, but since four people give different views on the happenings, the final truth and the characters themselves remain hidden from us.
Most stories with a conflict conventionally have a clear border between protagonist and antagonist. In Rashomon, however, this borderline is not clearly visible due to the fact that the four witnesses look on it from different point of view. We might suggest that the protagonist side is taken by the samurai and the lady, the antagonist figura is Tajomaru, and the woodcutter is an observer, but this typical division of roles does not work in every interpretation of the tragedy:
- Tajomaru’s story stresses the fact that he killed the samurai after a fair sword fight, took advantage of the lady after she bravely tried to kill the bandit with a dagger. The lady was a strong person, said that she could not live with the shame, so one of the men should die after that. Another important fact is that Tajomarru did not notice the woman’s dagger when he was leaving. Since the story is told by the bandit, he is the main figure here, and we can see him as a protagonist character, in contrast with the couple.
- The woman admits her weakness, saying that, having disgraced her, Tajomaru escaped into the forest and left her with the husband, who’s gaze was reflecting nothing but hatred towards her. Unable to stand this, she picked up a dagger and asked the husband to kill her, if he could not forgive. The woman’s weakness took over and she fainted, but when her senses came back to her, she found that thr samurai killed himself: “I looked around…I saw the dagger in my husband’s chest.” Here, as we see, the functions of protagonist are taken by the woman.
- According to the words of the murdered samurai, they did not fight at all, but everything happened because of the woman: she urged the bandit to kill her husband, so that she could escape. Tajomaru was more humane than in the previous descriptions: he asked the samurai if he could kill the wretched woman for her words, but she fled, he left the enemy on his own. The samurai, embittered by his wife’s betrayal, took the dagger and killed himself. However, while lying on the ground with the dagger in his chest, he felt that somebody came up and pulled the dagger out. This story is the case when samurai’s wife together with the bandit are the antagonist figures, with the woman being the most evil one.
- The woodcutter denies the words of others, claiming that they all were liars. According to his words, the bandit and the samurai has a ridiculous fight, and both proved their weakness, before the samurai died. The woman was the strong figure again, saying that neither of the two man deserved a woman’s love, if they are such cowards, and the only way for them to become worthy of her feelings is to fight. By her behaviour we can see that neither of them both wanted to fight (the bnadit’s hand was shaking when he was stabbing his victim). The main figure in this story is the woodcutter.
As we see from the four interpretations, there is a tiny detail in all of them – the difference in the functions of the dagger, which serves as a linking chain from the three participants of the happenings to the observer – the woodcutter. Tajomaru is a vain and greedy person, so it is understandable that he invented the fact that he killed the samurai with his own sword in a fair fight. However, the two other participants – the lady and the samurai – claim that the samurai committed suicide with the dagger. This is actually the fact that changes the role of the woodcutter from observer to participant, who is as guilty in the end as everyone else.