Oh Rashomon. How I adore you.
You see, as someone who writes about both TV and film, I’m always on the lookout for something to bridge the gap beween these two mediums.
And there’s no better gap-bridger than Rashomon. Allow me to demonstrate with a small sampling of the television shows that have tried their hand at a Rashomon-style episode.
All in the Family, The X-Files, Happy Days, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond, M*A*S*H, ER, Veronica Mars, Magnum PI, CSI, NewsRadio, King of the Hill, The Simpsons, Star Trek: TNG, Star Trek, Voyager, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, How I Met Your Mother and Grey’s Anatomy.
Right? Right? Click “Continue Reading to delve deeper into this mystery.
Let’s start with the basic facts, shall we?
In Rashomon (directed by Akira Kurosawa in 1950),a woodcutter, a priest and a passerby take shelter from a storm under the famous ruins of the Rashomon gate in Japan. Their conversation hinges around a murder trial, at which the priest and the woodcutter were both witnesses. The crime in question: A famous bandit, Tajomaru, happened upon a young couple, whereupon he raped the wife and murdered the husband.
Or so you’d think. Because the genius of Rashomon is in the way the story is delivered- as the bandit, the wife, and the murdered husband (through the use of a medium) testify, we see each version of the story play out before our eyes. Each one gets the basic details right (wife assaulted, husband killed), but each version casts the characters and the events leading to the crime in a vastly different light.
There’s an old adage for storytelling in film- “show, don’t tell.” The idea is that it’s always better to gain an understanding of a character through actions rather than blatant description. Rather than have a character simply say “I’m angry at you,” it’s much more effective to, say, have that character stew in silence before abruptly throwing a half-full glass of vodka at the wall. That way the audience can actually come to the conclusion that he’s angry all on their own, rather than having it be spoon-fed through dialogue.
You get the idea. In Rashomon, each testimonial is a shining example of how to show and not tell. When the insane bandit Tajomaru tells the story, the wife swoons under his touch and there’s an extended, stylized swordfight leading up to the murder. It’s instantly clear as you’re seeing the story that it’s all one giant overexaggeration, but that in turn cuts right to the core of Tajomaru as a character. He’s clearly unstable. He holds himself in impossibly high esteem. He sees life as one giant action movie. He has no real sense of consequence and just does whatever the hell he wants.
It’s the same with the other versions of the story- when the wife tells it, she’s a tormented victim of her cruel husband’s endless abuse and the bandit’s not even there at all. When the husband tells it, he’s an honorable man who was murdered while standing up to his cheating hussy of a wife. Not only does all of this create fantastic and crystal-clear impressions of who these people really are (and they’re all nuts), but it also wraps everything in the frailty and subjectivity of human memory. So there’s that, too.
And all of this is well and good, but there’s one more piece that ties it all together. Once we’ve heard the three testimonials, the woodcutter back in our frame story (the three men huddled up against the rain) lets it slip that he actually saw the whole thing and was too afraid to tell anyone. What follows is the “real” (note: there’s nothing to say that the woodcutter saw and remembered everything perfectly, so far all we know this last one’s a fake too) version of what happened, and my favorite thing about this movie is looking at how each perspective from the testimonials fit together. There’s a swordfight, for sure. But it’s not like Tajomaru said it was. The husband’s still a prick. The wife’s still a hussy. All the elements from all three testimonials fit together in such a way that you can see each character’s idiosyncrasies and general nuttiness molded this basic story into each of the testimonials we already saw. It’s just fantastic.
What a lot of the TV adaptations lack, however, is the ambiguity at the end of the story. In the original Rashomon, we’re never really sure what actually happened to these three people, but in nearly every Rashomon episode of every TV show (where you see some kind of mystery or contested story play out in different versions from different characters) the story’s always crystal clear at the end. I’m not really sure why that is- maybe it’s just easier to have a sense of closure then a sense of the unknown in a twenty-two minute TV program. Who knows.
But what a lot of the TV versions do get right is the music. Each testimonial has a soundtrack unique to the character telling the story- Tajomaru’s sounds like a rousing adventure story, the wife’s is melancholy and repetitive as she loses her mind under more and more verbal abuse, and the husband’s is warped and mystical, intercut with shots of the medium connecting with his spirit to give everything a supernatural feel. From what I’ve seen on TV (the King of the Hill Rashomon, “A Firefighting We Will Go” being the best example), a lot of the television adaptations set the mood right for each character with some clever music, and that can go a long way towards keeping each story unique.
So I could go on about Rashomon for a long, long time- I didn’t even get to the ending, where the priest who’s been hearing this whole story risks losing his faith in mankind. In fact, the ending anchors the whole film, emotionally, and puts all of this perspective switching into… well, into perspective. I won’t spoil it for you. And hopefully by keeping the ending a mystery, you’re more compelled to seek out and watch the film (for those that haven’t already). Because as enjoyable as it is to watch Rashomon, it’s even more fun to keep your eye out for the inevitable Rashomon episodes of every TV show in existence.
Plus, when finally catch one, you can point it out to all your friends and be really pretentious about it.
It’s what I do.