From our taken for granted understanding of reality, the court of justice is where the actors narrate their version of events, so that the ‘truth’ can be ascertained; where “truth” is an external reality,
which can be observed and known through mental representations in the mind of the knower. The inner states of mind of the individuals concerned and their communication then must accurately mirror reality; thus if the versions of each of the characters differ, it is because his or her mental state is not “reasonable” or is “biased”. This presupposes that someone somewhere would be able to understand or would have knowledge of “What really happened.” But as shown, what are we to make of each of the versions? Who is lying and who is biased? Who is telling the truth? Is the version of the woodcutter, the right one? And we move to an even more fundamental question, what is truth?
If at all we consider this is as a problem, then the resolution demands that the different narratives be sifted and analysed to arrive at the “truth” as one cannot have multiple, conflicting versions existing at the same time. But who would then do this? What is the method to arrive at the truth?
Kurosawa poses these questions and urges us to reflect. As a corollary, we are also left with another issue, is Justice really blind, is it really objective?
The film presents us not with a problem requiring a solution, but an acceptance of multiple paradoxes. Each character has actively constructed his or her meaning of the events, in fact constructed the incident, depending on his or her lived experience; an experience, which includes his gender, his social background and class, and his or her sexuality. The actor thus is an active participant in construing or making his or her own reality, and is not merely a mirror which reflects reality.
There is a brilliant sequence where the woodcutter enters the forest which possibly suggests the entry of the woodcutter in to the realm of memory. Kurosawa uses the forest as a metaphor for memory; memory that is not a mere mechanical recording of experience but is instead a realm where experience is actively interpreted based on past experiences and meanings, as well as the current external environment that the person finds himself or herself in. The forest is shown as shadowy and blurred, the cinematographer Miyagawa creates a hazy realm which is nebulous and vague, thorough the use of light and shadow play. This realm is where right and wrong, truth and falsehood do not exist as clear-cut distinctions.
Kurosawa suggests that all Memory is actively constructed; it is interpretation, it is flux and transformation, and the creation of meaning takes place in such a realm. In this realm, we humans actively fashion and shape meanings from our observations and past experience. It also suggests that the forest teems with shapes and forms that we cannot really be consciously aware of; in other words the unconscious plays a major role in fashioning our meanings. Desire and shame, guilt and honour are all protean transmutations of the unconscious, which uses our experiences as raw material. Human beings actively search for meaning, experience by itself holds no value; it is meaning, which gives experience value. We do not just record experience, but instead seek to forge meanings in the realm of memory where the known conscious, the unconscious, and the unknown conscious merge.
The actors shine; Toshiro Mifune as the bandit and Machiko Kyo as the wife, are incandescent. Mifune’s body language is amazing; he conveys everything through small gestures, the twitch of his eyes, and there is this one scene where he is shown reposing languidly under a tree, and the samurai couple passes by. A wind blows and he opens his eyes and looks at the woman, and his look says it all. Machiko Kyo undergoes startling transformations, from a submissive wife to a spiteful woman who harangues the men. Kurosawa relies on visuals predominantly, dialogues are sparingly used. Kurosawa’s genius lies in the way he has taken a so called everyday story, and sculpted it into a form that poses profound questions about the way we comprehend and understand the world.
Watch this film as many times as you can.