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Video: Trouble with the truth

Video | Japanese classic parallels today's scandals

Issue: "Cloning: Double trouble," March 7, 1998

In trying to untangle the various explanations being offered up in the allegations against President Clinton, independent counsel Kenneth Starr has been said by several commentators to be in a Rashomon situation. American citizens should hope not! Director Akira Kurosawa, considered the premier Japanese director (The Seven Samurai, Kagemusha, Ran), became esteemed when Rashomon premiered in 1951. The film is a powerful mystery involving rape and murder, but no one ever discovers "whodunit." Its real theme is the postmodern notion that truth is impossible to know. After a poor woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) stumbles across the corpse of the Man (Masayuki Mori) deep in the woods, the entire district is stirred. A bandit, Tajomaru (Toshirô Mifune), is captured riding the Man's horse, and the Man's wife (Machiko Kyô) is rescued from suicide. All are brought together for trial before the magistrates and priests, but, as a young priest observes, "even the most learned and holy men cannot understand it." Everyone-including the Man through an eerie medium-is given a chance to tell his story, but no one tells the same story. The bandit Tajomaru blames Nature for setting him on the path of deceit and evil: Had the breeze not blown the veil away from the Woman's face, he would not have lusted after her and been drawn by the Woman's schemes into a duel with her husband. The Woman insists she was the victim: Raped by the bandit and then rejected by her husband, she threatened her husband with a dagger and then fainted. Upon awakening, she found the Man murdered, and she concluded that she must commit suicide. From his grave, the Man places curses upon both of them, accusing the bandit of premeditated treachery and his wife of vicious infidelity. After the "mistrial," the woodcutter, the young priest, and a cynical character from the village happen to meet under the Rashomon gate for shelter from a sudden downpour. After hearing the conflicting stories, the cynic discovers the woodcutter lied about stumbling across the dead man. The woodcutter was an eyewitness to the entire incident. Will the truth now come out? The woodcutter's version places blame on each participant. The husband was motivated by greed to forget his wife; the arrogant wife demanded that the two men prove their manhood by dueling over her; and the covetous bandit stopped at nothing to acquire his neighbor's wife, horse, and possessions. But there is a problem with the woodcutter's story: His details do not agree with the hard evidence. This cannot be the truth, either. Audiences, like the priest, must throw up their hands and exclaim, "All men are sinful brutes." But that's the one and only objective statement in this film. Mr. Kurosawa, like his postmodernist contemporaries in America and Europe, took the subjective view of the world: that truth is relative, and "you can't live without being selfish." Yet, practically speaking, such a hopeless view might have condemned the film to failure with his audiences, so Mr. Kurosawa tacked on a corny "happy ending." An orphan is discovered at the foot of the gate. The cynic robs the infant of his religious talisman but is halted by the priest who scolds the men for their corruption. The cynic stamps off in a huff, but the woodcutter repents and asks to adopt and raise the babe as his own. This "redemptive" act causes the priest to exclaim, "Thanks to you, I think I'll be able to keep my faith in man." It was "faith in man" that caused the epistemological basketcase of postmodernism. For when God is left out of the picture, there is ultimately little reason to trust either one's mind or one's senses. If the universe is meaningless, it can hardly be reasonable. We are left simply with competing models of reality, none of which is any better than the other. Which plays Rashomon-like havoc with our legal system's biblical commitment to find "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God."

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