There Is No Truth
Ambiguity is the point. "When you read a book or listen to the radio your mind makes it up, (based on your own personal experiences)," explains Robert Altman in the Criterion Collection DVD. You expect the visions you see on the screen to be true, factual. "Roshaman" is a visual film. A black and white Impressionistic feeling comes through in the shadows of many tall trees, and the story is like a poem in its ambiguity (Altman).
In the 1950 black and while film, Akira Kurosawa, tells three versions of the events which lead to one man's death. Each version is interesting, but the three tales do not match up. The audience is cast as the jury, watching the melodramatic flair of the three stories.
The goddess-like wife, covered in a long veil astride a stallion, is led through the grove of woods by her husband. They are approached by a bandit, offering to sell a hidden cache of swords cheaply. The bandit attacks the man, then the woman. The wife's virtue is stolen, and the true circumstances of the husband's death are never exactly known, blame being cast on each character in the telling.
The film begins with one man stating again, and again, "I don't understand." The Priest tries to make sense of the stories and maintain his faith in the goodness of man. The theme of this story tackles the goodness of humanity only five years after WWII. "Roshamon" is innovative for its cinematography and plot, winning the Venice Film Award.
Each version is told through the eyes of one of the characters involved in the death, the dead husband's tale being told, with all the passion of a modern horror film, by his possessed wife. In the end, no truth is discernable because each has recounted details to his or her own advantage. Each story is true, but none are true.
Many shots of the sun overhead through the trees, pass as intimate events unfold off camera. The woman is a superb actress, showing a range of emotions from frail, to passionate, to vindictive. She sees the bandit as a possible escape from the boredom of her daily life, but not even he can rescue her from herself, as she finally flees, hiding in the chambers of the monastary.
The bandit is captured, and offers little remorse for the events, but is dishonoured in the telling of all versions but his. The infamous bandit Tajomaru, may be this man, or may not. Western audiences will miss the Japansese culture's thorough knowledge of the samurai. The bound motif of the daggar and sword reappear throughout the story. Honor and pride are necessary for life on this earth to not be a living hell. "Roshamon" is an art film.
Each version is an interesting tale on its own, entertaining to the commoner who passes time listening during the rainstorm, much like a modern audience, not caring for the truth--but wanting to know about the sex and violence involved. The bandit's scratching, hideous laugh, and expressive eyes represents what Altman refers to as a buffoon-like character. Japanese audiences are used to more extreme characters than those of the West.
Indeed, the theme of the film questions what truth can be, with so many versions of the same story. The commoner catches the Woodsman in a lie, and discredits his information. The appearance of a baby at the monastery ends the film on a note of optimism as the Woodsman, who already has five children, offers to take the infant as one of his own. There is hope for the future.
Subtitles are less distracting than some foreign films, as the dialogue is sparse, more like signs along the way of what has happened (Altman).
This film was groundbreaking, as well, in its cinematography, and in the way it was shot. as The producer/cameraman used new techniques to achieve the Impressionistic feel of the movie. The leaves of the tall trees cast dappled shadows on the actions of the characters. In order to achieve the desired lighting effect, actors faces were lit with a mirror, taken from wardrobe, reflecting the sun, and shaded with braches creating a breeze.(Kurosawa)
The sun is shot directly overhead, through the trees. The film leaves one with the feeling that life is not a black and white picture. The theme of truth questions whether man, or woman, can truly be trusted in their words and deeds, and consequently understanding the things that befall humans on this earth. This film runs 90 minutes.