A soldier and his beautiful wife pass through a forest in a horse-drawn carriage and encounter a bandit who lives there. The soldier ends up dead. We wonder what happened. We hear four versions of what occurred: such as, the bandit raping the wife and killing the husband, or the wife seducing the bandit and prompting the bandit to kill her husband. We hear from the bandit, the wife, the soldier and the witness, a common man. This is the substance of Rashomon, Akiro Kurosawa’s masterpiece and one of the greatest films ever made. It changed my life.
This astounded me. People around me seemed content to live in a simple binary, black-and-white world. Either something was true or it was false. What you said was correct or incorrect. It could not be anything else. I was discovering, however, that I could not throw out something as wrong because it had at least a speck of truth. It would be like discarding the baby, or at least a small limb of the baby, with the bath water. It might be easy and tempting to reject something as false, because you have found a flaw in it, but it may have a key shred of truth in it that was worth preserving. This was in my mind when I first saw Rashomon.
The Buddhists often cite a marvelous Confucian analect: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. The teacher may not even be a person. It may simply be a book or a song, an event or an experience. Anything that helps you see something new, reveals an insight you were missing earlier. For me, Rashomon was that magnificent teacher.
A ghastly killing. So there must be a simple answer to the questions: Who killed? And Why? Kurosawa takes this basic situation and offers four perspectives, of the ostensible killer, the killed (through the ingenious device of a medium), the pretty woman who represents the ostensible motive, and an ordinary person, who happens to be an accidental witness.
You have no alternative but to listen spellbound to the four stories, one by one. When you hear the first story, you are persuaded that it is the truth, for it is quite plausible. Then comes the second story, just as plausible, and it upsets your grasp of the truth. By the third and fourth stories, you are watching a whirligig that keeps changing its color and it thoroughly undermines your complacent notion that seeing is understanding.
Some years later I was a juror in a murder trial. The jurors unaccountably settled on me as the foreman, and I felt a special sense of responsibility. It was a political murder. It was also a brutal one. Two people had held a man down on the desk in his office and a third had slit his throat. Twelve earnest persons sat down as jurors and we all wanted to be fair and arrive at the truth. But the process seemed designed to do something quite different. It was to fit all the facts, events and persons into rigidly defined legal boxes, no matter whether it led to the truth or not. The whole truth was not a distant but a forgotten cry.
So flustered I felt, a week later I took an impetuous step. Peter Ustinov – yes, the famous actor and playwright is also an adept story teller – has a beautiful story of a man who fortuitously watches an accident on the street and feels it his duty to offer his testimony to the police and later in a court. At every stage he is bullied, badgered and bad-mouthed, until he realizes that nobody – not the police, detectives, suing parties, their lawyers, even the judge – has any interest in the truth. They want to go by the law, which means by stultifying legal categories and maneuvers, that make the truth quite inaccessible. I xeroxed the story and presented it to the judge. He was not amused and pointedly asked me if I had respect for the law or not. I suspect I nearly got ejected from a juror’s seat. (In fairness, I must add that the judge later complimented me profusely on my perspicacity, when I presented him, on behalf of the jurors, a series of questions we wanted to be answered by the prosecution and defense.)
To sit and watch Kurosawa’s film may be a good first step.