On the surface the film is straightforward, an incident occurs in a forest and three people are involved; a bandit, the samurai husband, and his wife. The film then narrates the incident from each protagonist’s perspective. There is also the narrative of the woodcutter; an eyewitness account of what possibly “actually” happened.
Based on the short stories of Akutagawa, the script is co written by Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto. The incident is that of the murder of a samurai, the alleged rape of his wife - a noblewoman; all allegedly carried out by the bandit, Tajomaru, in a forest. The film then moves into flashback, where the viewer gets to see the incident as narrated from the perspective of each of the actors – the bandit, the samurai, and the woman. The story of each of the actors in the incident is narrated in front of the court, - as represented by the gaze of the camera, which equates it with the gaze of the audience. The dead samurai’s tale is told through a spirit medium. We also get to see the woodcutter’s story at the end, as he too was a witness to the events in the forest.
The film never shows us the incident as it happened, it only shows us the incident in flashback, rather multiple flashbacks as narrated by each of the protagonists and the ostensible eyewitness. In a “conventional” film the viewer would expect the flashbacks to be linear; the flashbacks would depict pieces of the “truth” or the “true facts of the case” as they unfolded sequentially in time, with each flashback adding to and completing the entire narrative. At the end the viewer would know what “actually happened”, pass a judgment, and leave satisfied.
But this is where Kurosawa deviates from the set norms. In a brilliant masterstroke, Kurosawa shows each flashback as different; each version of the incident as narrated by a protagonist has a different take on what happened in the forest. The viewer is then left with the question – what “really” happened in the forest? And that is where the film moves into the realms of the classic.
For most of us “reality” is something that is objective and independent of us. What is “real” exists independently of us and would continue to exist even if we were not present. Eg Would the moon still exist if we were not there to observe it?
This is in direct contrast to the view that human beings actively interpret the world to make sense of it, or in other words meanings are something that we create, meanings do not exist independently of us and they are not objective in any sense of the word. We are not passive recorders of the world; in fact what we see depends on the meanings that we hold. These meanings arise as a result of the social world that we are part of; we inherit legacies of meanings in terms of norms, values, and beliefs. Thus we always have multiple realities and multiple pluralities of interpretations, rather than a one Objective reality.
Rashomon puts forth this viewpoint brilliantly in its form; the flashbacks reinforce the point that each of the characters interprets the incident in his or her own way, with respect to the meanings that they hold. Their stories are told before the court which tries to understand the truth, under the gaze of the objective eye of Justice. We also have the woodcutters account of the incident, and in a court of law, the eyewitness’s testimony is the most crucial. But Kurosawa asks us; can there be an objective account of the world? Aren’t all our accounts of the world stories that we create?