'm taking a class at Kanazawa University at the moment called 'Understanding American Law through Cinema' (映画で読み解くアメリカ法） and in the very first lesson (after the orientation lesson) we watched Akira Kurosawa's 'Rashomon' (黒澤 明の『羅生門』). One might question why in a class about American Law we watched a Japanese film but the teacher explained that it was to show the difference in the way that Japanese people and American people think about truth.
One of the big differences in the way that Japan and America approach truth can be seen in how the Jury system works in each country. Whilst in America (and Australia too actually as far as I know) anyone can be called on for jury duty and the jury can be made up of just those everyday people who were called in, in Japan it is only recently (in 2009) that a jury system was implemented and in that system qualified judges and jurors together decide upon a verdict. My teacher rationalised that this was because in Japan it is generally considered that there is one truth whilst in America the understanding is that there are multiple semi-truths and as such the truth is never fully known so whether or not a person knows anything about law or not, they are qualified to give their perspective on the truth and that perspective is recognised as worthy enough to decide a trial. That was my teachers explanation, but in fact as far as I could tell the main theme of the 1950 Japanese film Rashomon is exactly about the idea that there is never one whole truth to be told but rather multiple viewpoints on the truth.
In the film, a samurai and his wife are traveling when they encounter the bandit Tajomaru who makes a plot to take the woman from her husband and rape her. The Samurai ends up dead and so a trial is called. How Tajomar's plot uncovers in reality is told in the trail by Tajomaru himself, the wife and even the dead samurai (through a medium). Each of the stories conflict with each other on the points of whether or not it was rape or consensual and how the samurai was killed. Each character tells the tale putting themselves in the position of hero or victim. The case ends with everyone believing the samurai's version of events to be true, as no one can comprehend why a dead man would lie. However then the woodcutter who witnessed the events tells his tale and it turns out to be far less glorious than what had previously been told. The audience however is left wondering at the end whether the woodcutters story can also be trusted or not as he left out an important detail incriminating himself.
It's always completely different when you watch a film in a class through the lens of a particular theme, in this case law and truth, than if you were to just watch it yourself. I did notice that the cinematography was the most beautiful I have seen from films of that era. I went home and watched the film again and found that whilst the questions about truth where still fascinating, I was more interested in how it dealt with the topics of honour and rape. Quite a few Japanese films seem to be quite harsh on the old Japanese code of honour and that's always interesting to see. In this case, considering recent events around the globe (what with rape in India becoming a topic of protest and the Steubenville rape case causing heated arguments in the US), I find it hard not to look at the way in which the case in Rashomon was almost exclusively aimed at finding the murderer, rather than defining whether what had taken place between Tajomaru and the samurai's wife was raped or not.
In every story the reaction and criticism of the wife that the rape inspired in the husband and ironically in Tajomaru himself is horrifying. In my opinion, whether or not she succumbed to it in the last moment is not all that important in defining whether or not it was rape, considering the life threatening circumstances she was under. It also seemed pretty apparent that her husband, who it is likely she was forced to marry, did not treat her very well. It was all quite awful and messy just hearing how each character tried to justify it- there wasn't much need to change the rape part of the story in order to save the male's reputations.
Anyway, that aside, it's a masterpiece. The tale is based on a novel called "In a Grove" (藪の中 Yabu no Naka) and Kurosawa's handling of it is incredible. The film's depiction of truth has become so widely known that a phrase 'The Rashomon effect' was born to refer to the subjectivity of perception on recollection of a singular event.