Gate of Meanings: Reconstructing Rashomon

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“A man sometimes devotes his life to a desire which he is not sure will ever be fulfilled. Those who laugh at this folly are, after all, no more than mere spectators of life.”
― Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Rashomon and Other Stories

Over the years, cinema screens have flashed and faded different films that have open endings. Films like those depended on its audience to construe different versions of endings, to which people will be debating that the ending is this, or the ending is that. The problem with films with open endings is that it is hard to determine the truth; or in another sense, the real ending of the story. Different people or groups of people have their own versions of endings that have no empirical basis to render it as truth; but I firmly believe it is this difference in opinion or this babbles of debates that contribute to the beauty or aesthetics of a film.

Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” featured a really unique style of presenting a mystery to its audience, not its usual cliché that there is this knowledgeable detective that will be able to pinpoint the murderer, including the almost-impossible tricks involved (especially with locked-room mysteries). The film featured primarily the aesthetics of being black and white which is significant because it enables its audience to imagine the color embossed thus enticing them into the first process of being involved in the film. The film appears to be sucked of its life without its colors—looking dull and boring. Thus, the audience of the film serves as one of the biggest makers of the film because they are the one adding the colors to it.

The plot of the film centered on four major characters’ testimonies (the woodcutter, the thief/rapist, the samurai, and the samurai’s wife) and included two other characters (the priest and the commoner) that also served as the honing agents of the film’s mysteriousness. The four characters who gave their own versions of the stories represented different perspectives, however true or not, while the priest and the commoner served as the listener and as well, the judges of the four. The film basically had an ending, but it was somehow “hanging”—in the sense that there are many unresolved questions which was not really presented by the film itself; but by the audience who are perhaps nonplussed. The film showcased the rain stopping, and showing the whole gate in itself and ending with its sign etched with the text, “Rashomon.” This paper goals to critique the film through a hermeneutical approach using the texts of Wolfgang Iser (Interaction Between Text and Reader) and Stanley Fish (Interpreting the Variorum) bordering on the internal and external aspects of the film—the internal which is the characters themselves and the external which is the audience (in this case, this critic). This paper would not, however, gear towards the explication of the truth of to construct a final reading of the text itself but it gears towards to be as a contributing piece to the incomplete jigsaw puzzle of the film as argued by Fish when he articulated, “[they] are not meant to be solved but to be experienced… any procedure that attempts to determine which of a number of readings is correct will necessarily fail” (Fish 2072).

The film presented a complex web of perceptions of each character’s witnessing capability that from a single scene that objectively happened, it was construed through the different perspectives of the characters. Wolfgang Iser emphasizes that “central to the reading of every literary work is the interaction between its structure and recipient” (Iser 1673). This is applicable primarily to the internal agents (referred to as the characters) presenting on how subjectivity encages the objective treatment of the truth; or how the characters viewed the happenings itself because each person reads (in this sense, critiques) a text differently and there will be a point in time a person reads the same with the other eventually forming the conception Fish’ interpretive communities (Fish 2088). It is important to note as well that when one is drawn into the events, a character will primarily rephrase what is said; and thus, the character would rather state what is meant (Iser 1676) because the memory is in itself fallible; and sometimes, people tend to add, subtract, or modify. Fish supports Iser’s statement where he emphasizes that “…what is being specified from either perspectives are the conditions of utterance, of what could have been understood to have been meant and said” (Fish 2081). This case can be presented in the recounting of the woodcutter of the court litigation. It is possible that the woodcutter is constructing his own version of what the other characters testified. But this idea will be debunked with the idea of the priest, being with the woodcutter during the court hearings. However, the film made us aware that the woodcutter finally revealed what he really saw narrating it only to the priest and the commoner. Since only the two are left to judge, it is impossible to clearly identify whether the woodcutter tells the whole truth or he waited only for the chance to be able to recount all the stories woven and knit it together, and forming another story (which we are unsure whether it is true or not) using the other testimonies as his base story. The woodcutter, however biased, for he is not really part of the clash of the trio but in fact, he did discrediting plots that may foil his own words: (1) lying during an official court litigation; (2) stealing an important evidence [which is the dagger]; (3) hiding the fact that he stole the dagger. These three reasons would be enough to denigrate three times the credibility of the woodcutter now. What if, he actually lied about the last story, or he wasn’t able to see any of the other characters at all? Thus ending in a paradox, I believe this is the reason that it’s the experience of a text’s explication which is contributive to the further enrichment of a text and not the presentation of truth.

The characters appeared not to fully know each other, including the samurai and his wife since both of them appeared first as romantic lovers but in their own respective testimonies, they are seen to be resenting to each other. In the wife’s testimony, it’s the husband who is constructed as the evil one with his demeaning, looking down on the femininity of the wife. As seen in the film, the eyes presented so much resentment and stillness in its demonizing gaze that it was able to debase the wife’s self-identity. This testimony presented the power of the male eyes as something powerful enough that he (the samurai) had the guts to use the power of his eyes to look down on others despite his incapacitated state of being shackled with ropes. On the other hand, the husband’s testimony presented how the woman looked down on the man as weak and eloped after with Tajomaru. These scenes only provided of each other’s interpretation but not perception (Iser 1674) because both of them wasn’t able to experience each other, and therefore formulated their own sets of constructing the other (Iser 1675).

There are two readers in the film: the three characters at the Rashomon gate (the priest, the woodcutter [also a witness], and the commoner) and the audience/critic of the film itself. Iser presented the concept of “gaps” or which he coined in his essay as the “blanks” that were present in the film but it’s the duty of the readers to fill it. Iser explains that “whenever the reader bridges the gaps, communication begins” (Iser 1676). Thus, the first communication opened when the three characters are seeking for the truth behind the murder mystery through the testimonies given as they communicate with the synthesized sets of testimonies (which are, of course, contradicting each other). The second communication opened when it’s the reader’s turn to interpret what the characters was able to interpret. Because of this mirroring of repetitive interpretations, more perspectives arise and more gaps are being opened because there is a clash (or combination) of the author’s implications and the reader’s visualizations. Fish asserts that “…analyses generated by the assumption that meaning is embedded in the artifact will always point in as many directions as there are interpreters” (Fish 2073). When the readers, the internal one (the three) and the external one (the critic) focus that there is only a sole embodiment of truth, the truth will be debased into relativity and subjectivity, as all other readers will have their own embodiments of their own truths.

Readers will eventually be confronted by the problem of misunderstandings. The problem will lie in a reader’s inability to where associate a given scene that causes a dilemma for the fear of misinterpretation (Fish 2078). It is safe to assume that misinterpretations can also be collective, or rather a shared experience between all other people. The tendency of misinterpretation will always arise when a person is conflicted intrapersonally; in a sense that the reader fears that there is a given scene but is unable to decide whether it is interpreted literally or literarily. Given for example is the weather occurrence of the rain. Primarily, there is no sight of rain in all other testimonies aside from the place where the three are staying. It is hard to discern now whether there is an impact of the loss of the recurrence of the rain or it’s just the director didn’t want any rain for the scenes of the testimonies. The rain also ran throughout the film but it ended just after the woodcutter confronts the priest of his plans to take care of the baby. And so, is there are meaning to the rain? I, as the reader, would signify the essence of rain as the wavering faith of the priest. After all, when the priest finally decided that his trust would go back to the humanity, the rain stopped. A second instance would be the recurrence of the light or the sun. The murder happened under the sun; and the temptation of the samurai’s wife brimmed the sun by the camera’s angle. The sun signifies then as an agent of determining the goodness or the evilness of an act. The third instance will be the baby’s cry (or simply the baby). Is there any significance of the baby? Why did the baby cried, even covering the heavy thudding sounds of the rain? Perhaps, the baby became the voice of faith that was able to finalize realizations in the film. The priest realized faith in humanity; the commoner realized that humans are bound to do evil deeds and all other people that will judge us are just the same; and the woodcutter realized his wrongdoings that eventually, he is one of the focal points of the film. The fourth, which I render to be final, will be the Rashomon gate itself. Why is the setting grounded in this place—a run-down place that needs to have a heavy reconstruction which is then joined by the sign of the Rashomon, which is intact and readable. Perhaps it could mean the identity of the people; that their names are forever etched in the history and it remains. However, it’s only the names that are being unaltered, but the one signified by the name (in this sense the gate itself) is destroyed already, metaphorical for the human person embodied throughout the film. Though I have provided all of these, I may or may not have the same interpretations with others, as they might just interpret everything literally. We must, however, remember that “…what is important is not the information itself, but the action of the mind which its possession makes possible for one reader and impossible for the other” (Fish 2080).  But what is intrinsic to any given creative piece is our ability to interpret it because we have noticed it; not because it was just supplied causing a nonplussing effect but it is made noticeable through an interpretive strategy (Fish 2084).

In order to further problematize the notion of gap-filling, readers will eventually be affected by the concept of vacancies which Iser posited as the “important guiding devices for building up the aesthetic object, because they condition the reader’s view of the new theme, which in turns condition his view of previous themes” (Iser 1679). Iser also introduced primarily the concept of the referential field that conditions two positions related or influencing one another (Iser 1678). Though not expansively, Fish supports Iser’s assertion by saying that, “whatever he has done, he will undo it in the act of reading the next line, for here he discovers that his closure…was premature and that he must make a new one in which the relationship…is exactly the reverse of what was first assumed” (Fish 2082). Before the murder, the characters primarily interpreted all other characters with their own theme in mind. After the murder, they contradicted each other and had another theme in mind on how they now interpret one another. Because of the existence of vacancies, the readers themselves are influenced by external factors that pave the way to a change of interpretation or a theme in mind. This was also evident in the three people in the Rashomon (the gate). The priest is guided with the principle of religious belief and he abided with his own conception of “faith” as signified trust to other people or humanity. He had his own external factor of religious affiliation or affinity affecting the course of his judgments for the testimonies. However, the testimonies also acted as external factors that debunked his belief altogether of the truth behind the case, rendering him unable to discern who is the one telling the truth. He finally gave up on his “faith in humanity” when the woodcutter revealed his intentions and thus, the woodcutter acted as another external agent that affected the priest that may influence his belief never to trust people. The concept of vacancies acted as a continuous stream of thematic influences though external agents are forms of circumlocution, it was able to alter belief-after-belief of the priest ending with his faith restored just because the woodcutter wanted to adopt the child for he was already feeding a lot of children (of his own) at home.

Thus, we formulate the concept of standpoints or biases—or, that tendency to formulate own bias to accept a standpoint based on differing totalities of each person. For the totalities would mean that it is the life of a person encompassing all that constitutes to his humanity—culture, environment, philosophy, gender, religion, etc. The value of viewpoint is seen through the changing positions, which of course will not be gender, ethnicity, and the like since they are presumably fixed. Iser asserts that “the discrepancies continually arising between perspectives of hero and minor characters bring about a series of changing positions, with each theme losing its relevance but remaining in background to influence and condition is successor” (Iser 1680). The film presented different discrepancies between the characters because they had a fluctuating perspectives influenced by external forces that would again influence another one causing the character to switch viewpoints differently.

On the other hand, Fish’s conception of the interpretive communities renders the importance of each other’s difference; that, all of us have different gender, different culture, different experiences that would constitute of our way of reading a given text, in the sense or writing it to form criticism. There is already a pre-conceived notion of things around us, and as we grow up and learn more, we acquire ways of interpreting (Fish 2088). Let us analyze first Tanjomaru, the thief/rapist of the film. We can see that he recreates the scene as if he was some kind of hero. He reconstructed the truth into something objectively subjective because of his acquired ways of interpreting the happenings. Primarily, he was able to deceive the samurai and his wife immediately which is contrasted on how foolish he acts like laughing and rolling unexpectedly. He also showed that despite his notorious standing, he was able to seduce and rape the samurai’s wife. Thus, it is based on his masculinity and patriarchal ideology that he is superior and he shapes the testimony that he is superior and won at all costs. His affinity for his own patriarchal tendency geared towards the anti-feminist aspect of (1) the stupidity of the wife for being gullible; (2) the wife unable to land any hit on him, thus showing the subjection of women over men (or in the sense of rape, a showcase of power and not of sex); (3) the eventual subjection of the wife to her sexual desires, submitting herself to the love-making of Tanjomaru; (4) and the women’s affinity for being the center of men’s feud.

The statement of the wife now centered on her femininity which she have sputtered continuous cries all throughout the litigation and pronounced even her multiple attempts of suicide. The wife uses her gender as an advantage to turn the truth to her side. First, she was subjected to the male gaze from her husband that eventually debased her femininity, on which she remarked to be offended. She also offers to be just killed taking away the blame from her in a sense that a woman can’t kill a man for she is a coward (or how she construes such assumption). Throughout the film, she uses the female cry as a form of melancholic depression—a form of psychotrauma that arises from the oppression of her environment towards her. She cried even in the testimony, as well when she was in court, even stating, “…but I even failed to kill myself. What should a poor, helpless woman like me do?” possibly gathering sympathy and in the course of court litigation subjected into law, she is committing the fallacy of argumentum ad misericodiam (appeal to pity).

The statement of the samurai used the folk elements of perhaps Japan to embody his statement through a medium, presumably a shaman. The samurai presented a melancholy by not using his gender but by using his code of honor (perhaps the Bushido code) as a samurai. He first narrates how he is just firm in place, watching helplessly how his wife is being oppressed by the bandit. He acted according to his principle and presented betrayal in its truest form: the philandering act of his own wife. He presented the value of loyalty which is very important for the Japanese that in the end, he committed his own lovely seppuku or hara-kiri.

Thus, even though the film’s ending is hanging, the film reaches its absolute performance of completion through the experience of the reader; thus, Iser articulates, “in this respect the images hang together in a sequence, and it is by this sequence that the meaning of the text comes alive in the reader’s imagination” (Iser 1682). The film in itself had many scenes that can’t be made available so profoundly in a written text. A lot of images and scenes depended on how the reader was able to construct it, using the principles of how he believes one should properly critique a work and respond to it properly.

Works Cited:

Fish, Stanley E. “Interpreting the Variorum.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Gen.Ed. Vincent Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2001. 2067-2089. Print.

Iser, Wolfgang. “Interaction Between Text and Reader.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Gen.Ed. Vincent Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2001. 1670-1682. Print.


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