Akira Kurosawa’s treatment of the concept of ‘truth’ in Rashomon was simply a forewarning to present times of ‘fake news.’
In the year 1950, Rashomon, a ‘small’ Japanese film, directed by yet-to-be known filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, released. It had a simple storyline — set in medieval Japan, the film tried to uncover the series of events that took place after the rape and murder of a samurai’s wife. The same incident is narrated by four different people: two accused, one ghost of the victim and the other, a witness. Each of the four has a different version of the ‘truth’. But by the end of the film, the viewer is not told definitively what had transpired. In fact, the climax is open to interpretation.
The rudimentary setup — with three locations, a limited number of actors and dialogues — were enough to leave a profound effect on the world of cinema. It made Japanese cinema a force to reckon with on the world stage. Often touted as ‘the greatest film ever made,’ its impact is denoted with a special coinage — the “Rashomon effect”.
The 1950 film predicted the problem of ‘truth’ and its treatment is most relevant in modern times, where social media along with its bombardment of visual media, occupies most of humanity's waking hours. In a recent case where the son of a famous celebrity was arrested on drug possession charges, we heard multiple versions of the same incident. Much like the characters of Rashomon, the ‘judges’ in this case were social media users assaulted by a barrage of information about the arrest. Information came in all sorts of ways — photographs, videos, bits of narrated incidents by people claiming to be ‘witnesses’. So what is the ‘truth’ of the whole incident? Is there one unified truth or many truths?
Just like with Rashomon, we learn that ‘truth’ is not singular; rather every person who claims to say the ‘truth’, says it, peppered with their own personal biases and interests that serve to forward their own agenda or beliefs.
Today, news doesn’t come from limited or verified sources, unlike even a few years ago, where three primary mediums, namely print, TV and radio, were used to consume news. It generally did not occur to the masses to question whether either of these mediums were peddling ‘fake news’ to forward their own agenda. We all knew about ‘agenda setting’ but never was ‘lying’ discussed as part of ‘agenda setting’. We also knew about ‘gatekeepers’ who controlled what one would consume, but we never thought of them as ‘lie makers’. With the advent of social media, news distribution got ‘democratised’, and anyone with an internet connection and a smart device could generate their own ‘news’, could have an ‘opinion’ to share with the world. One would think democracy is good, but what happens when there is too much of it? Or perhaps an uncontrolled amount of it? People started posting videos that were ‘doctored’ to suit their biases, just like the various participants of the crime and the witness in Rashomon, who mould the truth as per their convenience.
Akira Kurosawa shows us in Rashomon that a listener's own bias affects how they perceive information.The judge is never shown in the film. It’s just a voice that asks questions. The camera is placed from the judge’s point of view, facing the witness or the accused, almost making it obvious that Kurosawa wanted the audience to hold the narrative reigns. Just like the way we participate in consuming news on social media, we consume news (fake or otherwise) purely in our personal space. Between news getting posted and consumed, there are no ‘mediators. It is upon the reader to discern the veracity of the news.
Today, the adage ‘seeing is believing’ does not pass muster. It is amazing to learn that Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, the writer on whose short story Rashomon is based, took this fact into cognizance in the beginning of this century, long before cinema or television was even invented. In essence, what one sees is not necessarily what one remembers or narrates.
Rashomon ends with a poignant incident. When a baby, wrapped in layers of clothes, is found crying, one of the characters decides to steal the baby’s clothes while the other decides to adopt it.
This is also true for social media. Despite all its negativity, there are also stories of human beings helping and reaching out to each other in hours of crisis. They make real connections, irrespective of their personal differences. This is why the priest thanks the carpenter for adopting the infant. “Thanks to you, I think I can keep the faith in man.” In the end, the truth is about humanity, and that’s the only truth that should matter.