Relativists Get Their Favorite Movie Wrong

Final grades were due a few days ago, and for those of us who teach, grading season has just come to a close. With visions of student papers dancing in my head, I can’t keep from thinking, Rashomon is a perfect movie for our culture.

Liberal democracy inclines us against ethical judgment. Though some call it tolerance, a better name is relativism—but that isn’t quite right, either, since it implies a theory people would defend. It’s really more a handy move in conversations when a heterodox moral verdict threatens to speak. The democratic impulse wishes to maintain communion and uniformity around the reigning assumptions while also, contradictorily, asserting the equal legitimacy of all opinions.

With relativism, we get to dismiss dissenters, while also asserting everyone’s right to their own views. Each gets to go his own way to do what he wants, his egoism validated. The problem here, of course, is the one presented in our classic Hollywood Westerns: While democratic liberty requires strong and able individuals, it nurtures and is then corroded by individualistic people.

This background habit of relativism shows up in my students’ papers with sentences like, “Whose to say weather abortion is wrong.” The missing question mark may seem a grammatical blunder akin to the misspelling of “who’s” and “whether.” But the frequency of the error proves otherwise. That period belongs there, for my students are writing indicatively and not interrogatively.

“Who’s to say?” may have started as a real question before becoming what it is now: a worn-out rhetorical question that is actually a statement—albeit one giving the speaker the free feeling that he’s not asserting anything he would be called upon to support with rational arguments. It’s less a meaningful use of language within a conversation than it is a move out of conversation, a dispute-stopper for those wishing to avoid the mere occasion of moral judgment or to quiet a disapproved opinion. The person deploying it is like a policeman at the site of an irresistibly eye-drawing spectacle saying, “Go about your business. There’s nothing to see here.”

The “who’s to say” move seems justified on the basis of an undeniable fact: disagreement. As F.A. Hayek might remind us, because the human mind is dispersed in various bodies, our knowledge arises perspectivally. Multiple perspectives give rise to more information, and to conflicting positions.

The disparateness is not evidence that there is no reality captured better by some accounts than others. In fact, the disparateness hardly makes sense at all without there being such a reality, since views can conflict only on the basis of some one thing, seen in common. Its tolerant motivation notwithstanding, relativism doesn’t respect perspectives; it annihilates them, since it would destroy the common thing given perspectivally.

So the “who’s to say” cliché, a dispute-stopper as I said, performs rather profound work for a cliché: It reaches in to deny the thing about which we might disagree. All disputes would be instances of talking around each other; we are really seeing different things, not seeing things differently.

But it is important to recall how much democracy needs disputes. Maintaining a shared life requires maintaining our disagreements about a common world.

The state of nature for human beings isn’t prepolitical. It is Michael Oakeshott’s “conversation of mankind” in which we help each other see the world better, or Aristotle’s city where we give reasons about who should be in charge and what the common good is. The rational modern state would like to put an end to this messy play of opinions—think of the trendy desire to control independent campaign expenditures, as though no one may speak without the government’s permission. It wants rule by experts, and in return, the state promises us autonomy, empowerment to pursue private desires without bothering with any grand thing beyond ourselves.

But citizens of a political community, not just subjects of the state, share political conversations, disagreements, about the many goods vying for our shared attention and allegiance. That’s citizenship. That’s how we come to understand ourselves as responsible for things beyond ourselves. “Who’s to say” relativism is a ploy, tempting us to trade in our citizenship for individualism.

The movie Rashomon is famous as a portrayal of relativism. Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 classic is also the namesake of “The Rashomon Effect”—when multiple witnesses offer sincere but conflicting accounts of an event. By reputation, the movie challenges the Western belief that reason discerns reality and allows us to answer to reality ethically. Commenters almost uniformly celebrate it as a non-Western exposé of reality’s failure to exist. Donald Richie, the most prolific writer on the film, sums up the movie’s “central theme” this way: “the world is illusion, you yourself make reality, but this reality undoes you if you submit to being limited by what you have made.” Promising that relativism will set us free, “You are not,” Richie tells us, “truly subject to this reality, you can break free from it.”

This conventional interpretation is wrong, though. We should recall that the Japanese filmmaker was influenced by (and then also influenced) American Westerns. Rashomon might be seen as a subtler and gentler Western (it was remade by Hollywood as one in 1964’s The Outrage). While portraying human hurdles to truth and to moral responsibility, the film affirms, with a moderate hopefulness, the worthiness of our struggle against the temptation to adopt self-exculpatory narratives. It wants us to face reality and to respond ethically, and it intimates that a civilized life together needs us to.

The story is about an alleged rape of a woman and murder of her husband by the bandit Tajomaru outside Kyoto, the ancient imperial capital, during a period of decline and civil war. The scene of the crime is the forest south of the city, outside the political order, where natural growths obstruct our views and we benefit from only natural light, the sun obscured by the trees.

The crime is recounted in a trial that is held in the city, in the sunlight of a courtyard. But despite the raw and direct light that shines on the proceedings, the truth remains obstructed—not by nature, what naturally grows, but by the tales told by starkly shaded human beings. Three eye-witnesses—the bandit, the samurai’s wife, and the dead samurai (who testifies, jarringly, through a female spiritual medium)—spin contrary tales in which they fulfill their social roles beautifully. In each tale, the storyteller kills the samurai, leaving us with a detective story where too many suspects have confessed. Here, in the city, the political attempt to secure justice is impeded when human beings won’t speak truthfully.

This plot is taken from Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s 1922 story “In a Grove,” while the title is taken from Akutagawa’s 1915 story “Rashomon.” None of that story’s characters or events appear in the film, so interpreters ignore it. But Kurosawa’s Rashomon is a response to Akutagawa’s “Rashomon.”

The brilliant little story portrays a samurai’s servant sitting at the dilapidated Rashomon gate. Recently fired, he is contemplating a new career as a thief. Built in the 8th century, by the 12th century the building had become a place for ne’er-do-wells to hang about and for abandoning corpses and unwanted babies. Finding a woman robbing a corpse, the servant recoils from thievery in disgust. He delivers his ethical judgment, but the woman responds, in calm cynicism, with a self-justifying story that people must do whatever is necessary to survive. Her view of the world convinces the man. He attacks the woman, steals her clothes, and runs away.

None of this is in the movie. Instead, Kurosawa invents a new narrative (perhaps influenced here by a 1936 Western with Walter Brennan called The Three Godfathers, or its 1948 remake by John Ford). A new trio—a priest, a woodcutter, and a commoner—are taking refuge from a storm in the ruins of the Rashomon gate, which separates the wilderness from the city. Troubled, they recount the rape and murder trial (in which the priest and woodcutter participated) before finding, hidden in the building, a baby abandoned, left with an amulet and wrapped in a fine kimono.

The commoner steals what he values from the baby, to the horror of the woodcutter and the priest. Before running off, he mocks their indignation. Is he, the commoner, evil and selfish? “And what’s wrong with that?” he snaps. “That’s the way we are . . . . You just can’t live unless you’re what you call ‘selfish.’”

Clearly, Kurosawa adapted the woman who was caught robbing the corpse into the commoner. They articulate the same individualistic, survival-justifies-all view of the world, and they live accordingly.

If the wretched woman has transitioned into the commoner, the unemployed servant is adapted into Kurosawa’s woodcutter. After the commoner runs off with the baby’s belongings, the priest holds the baby, and he and the woodcutter stand glumly about. The woodcutter has admitted to pilfering the dagger from the crime scene and to perjury during the trial. Thus the priest assumes, with reason, that the woodcutter wants to steal what’s left from the baby when he reaches to take her from his arms. The woodcutter wishes to adopt the child, and explains that a seventh child at home will be no extra burden. The film ends with the rain stopping, the sun just peeking out, as the woodcutter walks away from the “Devil’s Gate” with infant in arms.

The movie is a cliché for relativism. We all have different perspectives. No one’s perspective is wrong. Some people walk into the film with this attitude preset, and their prejudices are flattered. The film seems to pet such people. Yet Kurosawa said the film was about how difficult it is for people to be “honest with themselves about themselves” and about those human beings “who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are.” As David Boyd puts it, the woodcutter’s good deed is Kurosawa’s “assertion of something beyond the ego,” a sketch of “an existential escape from moral relativism.”

While the priest and woodcutter were perplexed and depressed at the events in the forest, there was no mystery and no sadness for the commoner. He knew in advance that life is cheap, that morality is a priest’s tale, that truth is a lie, and that he has no duty except to himself. While the commoner responds to the baby’s stuff, the woodcutter responds to the baby. Thus we glimpse an alternative to a life of self-dealing individualism and of reflexively dodging the truth when its difficulty strikes us.

Two deeds by the woodcutter suggest what this alternative requires. First, truthfulness begins at home, about ourselves, to ourselves and to others. Second, we must take up burdens for others beyond our duties to them. Though the movie portrays this as very difficult, the commoner and the woodcutter demonstrate that we can do worse or better jobs of discerning and responding to reality.

Thus Kurosawa moderates Akutagawa’s pessimism and displays how keeping up a civilized, shared world requires moral sacrifice, honesty, and a rejection of egoism. The conflicting testimonies confirm for some the easy relativism to which we are prone, democratically, to respect all views by shutting down moral debate. But the film shows us the real fruit of this attitude—the commoner’s individualistic rejection of truth and morality.

Rashomon, supposedly the epitome of relativism on film, curbs the tolerant relativism by which liberal democracy inclines us against judgment and personal responsibility, even while it reminds us how difficult it is to discern reality and respond to it well. Civilization needs the virtues of moral heroism, truthfulness, and humility, even if our democratic “who’s to say” respect for others’ views easily erodes them.

Not because it expresses our relativism, but because it challenges it, Rashomon is perfect for us. I’m putting it on next semester’s syllabus.