Rashomon and Other Misunderstood Clichés

Any time I tell people I am interested in philosophy and film, they inevitably say “Oh, like The Matrix?” This cliché even comes from professional philosophers — The Matrix is at least mentioned in every textbook I know on using film to teach philosophy.

As for myself, I actually never found The Matrix to be very interesting. I thought it was a whole lot of fun as an action movie, but a bit confused as an exploration of modern epistemology and metaphysics. Ditto with one of professional philosophers’ other favorite films Bladerunner: I thought it was a brilliant feat of cinematic style and production design but a rather shallow discussion of artificial intelligence and other problems in the philosophy of mind (such as the problem of other minds).

But then I read Stephen Mulhall‘s book On Film. (An earlier draft of the section on Bladerunner is available online here. By the way, if you follow the link on Mulhall’s name you can see a picture of him in which he looks a little like David Lynch!) Mulhall convincingly argues that Bladerunner is really about Heideggerean anxiety in the face of death. Once pointed out, this reading seems obvious — how could I have thought it was about the boring old problem of other minds? (Mulhall does discuss skepticism about other minds, but he approaches it not through the classical framework established by Bertrand Russell but through the much more helpful perspective of Stanley Cavell‘s work on “acknowledgment” of the Other in The Claim of Reason and Pursuits of Happiness, his seminal book about philosophy in classic Hollywood screwball comedies).

I found similar unknown depths in other philosophy class clichés like Rashomon and Crimes and Misdemeanors. And this sent me back to The Matrix to see what else might be found there.

One problem with most philosophical readings of films is that philosophers tend to read their own concerns into the films rather than taking seriously the film’s own ideas. Part of the problem here is lack of education in how to “read” of film, but a deeper problem is an overly narrow idea about what counts as a “philosophical” discussion. I hope to discuss the latter issue at some point on this blog. And I’ll probably come back to Bladerunner and Crimes and Misdemeanors at some point. But for now let me focus on The Matrix and Rashomon, both of which are usually misread in terms of the standard epistemological problem of skepticism, but are both actually interested in exploring the reasons professional philosophers tend to misread them.

Let’s start with Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950). Through a series of flashbacks, related by a woodcutter and a priest to an unnamed commoner, the film tells the story the murder trial of a bandit accused of killing a samurai in the forest. We see the court testimony of the woodcutter who found the samurai’s dead body and reported it to the police, a priest who happened to be walking by the scene, the bandit himself, the samurai’s wife, and even the dead samurai himself (whose ghost is channeled by a psychic medium). But each eye-witness gives incompatible versions of the events and we are left with the skeptical conclusion that we can never know what really happened.

In the opening scene the priest says he has “finally lose my faith in the human soul” because of the “horrible” story he has heard — even more horrible than war, famine, plague, earthquakes, etc. What does he think is so disturbing? The problem seems to be, in part, because we can’t know what really happened in the forest. But why is that so disturbing? Each witness tells the story so as to make themselves look good. But note that the reason we can’t know what happened is not just that the witnesses lied. The problem is that each one experienced the situation differently.

For example, in the bandit’s flashback, the sword fight between him and the samurai is typical action movie fare. But in the woodcutter’s flashback, it is a more realistic farce with both fighters clearly scared out of their minds and falling all over each other etc. But I don’t think the bandit was lying about how the battle took place: in his own mind it was much more glorious than it was the way the woodcutter saw it. Likewise, despite the fact that the bandit, the samurai, and the wife give three very different versions of the woman’s request that the men fight, these differences could easily be read as different interpretations of the same event. In other words, the point is that we all see the world from our own biased perspective. The problem is that we don’t know that we are biased. We think our own perspective is the uninterpreted self-evident truth.

Now the film is usually used in philosophy classes to introduce the problem of relativism: is truth just relative to each individual’s perspective? And that is certainly one of the issues in the film. But that is not why the priest is so disturbed in the opening scene. I see the film as not so much an affirmation of epistemological relativism as psychologically-based rejection of Cartesian foundationalism. Remember that Descartes was responding to the post-reformation problem of finding a religiously and politically neutral basis for knowledge. He thought he could base the entire structure of knowledge on the “foundation” of human reason. Remember also that Descartes’s proposal was to prove everything using abstract mathematical and logical Reason since people can’t agree on philosophy, ethics, politics, or religion but but they can agree on math and science.

In my view, Rashomon challenges the possibility of basing knowledge on universal human Reason, not simply because each person reasons from his or her own perspective (though, again, I agree that that is part of the point of the film), but also for the more radical reason that humans are not rational. We repress what we know to be true in order to be happy. In particular we repress our awareness of human depravity. The “horror” that disturbs the priest is the same horror we Joseph Conrad called “the heart of darkness” — “the horror, the horror” chillingly lamented by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.

In the first line of the film, the woodcutter says, “I don’t understand.” In the last scene, he clarifies what he means: “I don’t understand my own soul.” The problem isn’t that we lie to each other it’s that we lie to ourselves. At one point the priest says, “It is because men are weak that they lie, even to themselves.” And when the priest says, “I refuse to believe anyone could be so sinful”, the commoner replies, “But is there anyone who’s really good? Maybe goodness is just make-believe. … Man just wants to forget the bad stuff, and believe in the made-up good stuff. It’s easier that way.”

Now, here is where things get really interesting — and here is where professional philosophers focus on epistemology at the expense of psychology. I believe the film is set up to demonstrate the fact of self-deception with its own viewers. The film’s ending seduces us into forgetting the dark lessons of the trial.

Most interpreters criticize the film for its apparently overly-optimistic ending: an abandoned baby is found in the ruins where the storytellers are, and when the woodcutter (seemingly) altruistically takes it in, the priest says he has regained his faith in humanity. This seems a suprisingly sentimental ending to a pessimistic film, and most critics see Kurosawa as losing his nerve at the last minute. But I think the point the film is making is the exact opposite of this optimistic reading.

It seems to me that the film includes deliberate hints to undermine this optimism, for it is possible that it was the woodcutter that abandoned the baby in the first place. Consider these usually overlooked details:

  • He already has six children, so it makes sense that he would think he couldn’t take care of another one.
  • He is very protective of the baby when the commoner takes the baby’s kimono.
  • He defends the baby’s parents for going through a lot of trouble to leave an amulet to protect the baby, recalling his original statement to the police in which he says he found an “empty” amulet case.
  • The baby stops crying as soon as the woodcutter takes him.

If I am right, then the woodcutter is not doing something heroic and selfless by taking the baby in. He is only doing his minimal duty to his own child and taking him in due to a guilty conscience. So the priest’s renewed faith in humanity is based on a lie. And if we as the audience share his optimism, we are mistaken, too. Moreover, this unjustified faith in humanity is due to self-deception. All the evidence is there for us to know that the woodcutter is lying, but we choose not to see it since we want to imagine human beings to be good. And when, on repeat viewings we realize that we have been seduced into easy optimism, we realize that the temptation to self-deception is a reality in our own hearts, not a general possibility “out there” in the world.

In this way Rashomon takes us to the core of the problem of evil. Is our belief that the world is meaningfully ordered — that justice is possible and life is worth living — simply a form of self-deception? Is faith in goodness, as Woody Allen will argue through the film Crimes and Misdemeanors, a form of blindness to reality?

Thus Rashomon contains within itself the seeds of deconstruction — not a deconstruction of itself so much as a deconstruction of a standard but superficial reading of the film which demonstrates our unwillingness to face the darkness in our own hearts. It’s a whole lot easier to turn the film into an exercise in abstract theoretical concerns. And I think analytic philosophers make a similar mistake with The Matrix which is not really about metaphysics and epistemology but is really about politics. More shockingly, I will argue that The Matrix does not have a Platonist or Gnostic metaphysics but is actually anti-Platonic. But since this post is getting long, I think I’ll save that discussion for next time… [You can find my post about The Matrix here.]

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