Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

Dept of Environment and Climate Change
A scene from Kurosawa's iconic "Seven Samurai"

Cinematic Explorations on How the Observer’s Vantage Defines Objective and Subjective

“No two people see things the same way…There are very few really stark black and white stories,” Jim Lehrer
“Above all else, never lie to yourself”, Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov


If I ever thought there was no such thing as the “Rashomon Effect” – which offers an explanation as to why eyewitness accounts of an incident can vary and even seem contradictory and conflicting – consider the last scene of Kurosawa’s film “Seven Samurai”. If you check the internet, there are several explanations of it which almost seem to be describing different scenes from different movies.

Let me offer further proof that there is such a thing as the Rashomon Effect by providing my own version of what I think really went on.

The scene looks like farmers are happily planting rice. But what they are actually doing is transplanting rice seedlings into tilled paddy fields that they have just flooded. The seedlings were grown somewhere else in regular soil and they have to be transplanted into the watery environment of the paddies before their root systems become too accustomed and inseparable from the drier dirt of their nursery, otherwise the harvest later in the fall will be diminished.

Just as in great literature where there are times when one has to read between the lines to realise what is really going on, I feel that such is the case in Seven Samurai. What the movie doesn’t show is that after a hard day of battling the bandits, no matter how exhausted they are, each farmer has to check his seedlings to see just how far along the root systems have developed. When he returns home, his wife quickly asks, “How much longer?”. The farmer replies, “Pretty soon, pretty soon”.

In order to return to battle the next day refreshed, he needs to get a good night’s sleep. But both he and his wife can’t fall asleep easily because they are so worried that if the battle stretches out much longer, the root systems of the seedlings will get used to the dirt and will not readily adapt to the watery environment of the flooded paddies. After a certain point in time, each extra day of battle is eating into the autumn harvest.

If you wonder why the farmers seem so happy when they are finally transplanting, it’s not because they no longer need the samurai who organised their battles against the bandits. It’s because the farmers are finally able to do what their fathers, grandfathers and former generations have done for centuries–transplanting when spring arrives. Kurosawa was trying to portray this as the pre-industrial norm of life all over the world, i.e., farmers planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall.

And if the music performed by some farmers which accompany the planting sounds joyous, the rhythm is fast because the farmers have lots of seedlings to transplant in probably acres and acres of paddies. The rhythm is not so much an expression of joy, but rather exists to make the farmers work faster since they are under a lot of pressure to get all those seedlings transplanted into all those paddies before the root systems develop further to the point where they cannot adjust easily to their new watery environment. The farmers have no time to lose.

As soon as the transplanting is finished, the farmers probably are still very busy needing to tend to their own vegetable gardens which they neglected during their battles with the bandits. A farmer tending his garden in the aftermath of a war is portrayed toward the end of a movie which came out a year before Seven Samurai – Ugetsu. The very end of that movie also shares the same message as the end of Seven Samurai – that peace should be the norm and that those who work hard should not be at the mercy of the distractions and disruptions of leaders who, when they are not trying to steal the fruits of the farmers’ hard labour, are in battles that disrupt the average citizens’ lives and livelihoods – something also portrayed in “Ugetsu”. After working on their gardens, the farmers probably still have to go into the surrounding forests to forage for whatever edibles they can find.

If the subjectivity of truth increases the more people lie about it, what if the exploited and oppressed are forced to lie in order to survive?:

– What do you think of farmers? You think they’re saints? Hah! They’re foxy beasts! They say, “We’ve got no rice, we’ve no wheat. We’ve got nothing!” But they have! They have everything! Dig under the floors! Or search the barns! You’ll find plenty! Beans, salt, rice, sake! Look in the valleys, they’ve got hidden warehouses! They pose as saints but are full of lies! If they smell a battle, they hunt the defeated! They’re nothing but stingy, greedy, blubbering, foxy, and mean! God damn it all! But then . . . who made them such beasts? You did! You samurai did it! You burn their villages! Destroy their farms! Steal their food! Force them to labour! Take their women! And kill them if they resist! So what should farmers do? Damn it… [He sinks to his knees, sobbing] Damn it… God damn it…

In the Kurosawa film “Rashomon”, lying has become a way of life. To quote some of its most famous lines: “It’s human nature to lie. Most of the time we can’t even be honest with ourselves.” When accused of being selfish later, the same character says: “What’s wrong with that? That’s the way we are, the way we live. You just can’t live unless you’re what you call selfish.”

Considering that Kurosawa admired Dostoevsky and even made a film adaptation of “The Idiot”, the trial in “Rashomon” may have been inspired by the trial in “The Brothers Karamazov” which has been described as “… [providing] Dostoevsky with an opportunity to satirise the criminal justice system in detail. He emphasises how any decision can be formed on the flimsy basis of circumstantial evidence, unreliable witnesses…Man-made justice, then, is shown to be unjust and unable to grasp the truth of any situation.”

Another film that tells its story in a series of flashbacks like “Rashomon” is “Citizen Kane”. A reporter attempts to get at the truth as to what made Kane tick by interviewing those who ‘knew’ him. In the process, one begins to wonder if it is even possible to really ‘know’ a person anymore than one can ever really ‘know’ the truth.

Concerning objectivity, consider what a study guide said about the 1958 novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”:

– Often, the stories about Holly [the heroine] are at odds with each other or with [the narrator’s] own observations, as when Holly’s own tale of her happy childhood conflicts with Berman’s account of her as a teenage runaway. That no “official” narrative of Holly exists exemplifies how, within the world of the novella, story-telling is distinguished from true, or objective information. Berman, Doc, and Jose all have different investments in Holly, and their stories function to communicate their own attitudes towards Holly rather than identify truth. The lengthy quotes from newspaper reports on Holly’s arrest, which contain numerous exaggerations and errors, cast a similarly sceptical light on the seemingly objective information in the press. Perhaps, the novella suggests, there is no such thing as pure objectivity, and even information is a form of story-telling subject to distortion and personal bias.

And if there was ever a movie about appearances versus reality, it’s Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”.  Doesn’t the subjectivity of truth increase the more one tries to create one’s own reality as Scottie tried to use Judy to ‘create’ his ideal Madeleine–who turned out to be a phony? Is “Vertigo” about deception (on Judy’s part) or about self-deception (on Scottie’s part)?

Getting back to how lying affects the truth, what if people are lying because nobody tells the truth anymore?:

– That’s also part of the times. Today everyone lies. Pharmaceutical fliers, governments, the radio, the movies, the newspapers. So why shouldn’t simple people like us lie as well?

That quote is from the 1939 film “The Rules of the Game” which may be more relevant to our times than we realize. Considering that we are supposed to be living in post-modern times where the truth now matters less and less, lying so as not to have to do the right thing has become a way of life in “Rules of the Game” and has caused morality to come into doubt by blurring the distinction between virtue and vice. As a character in the film says: “I want to disappear down a hole… so as not to have to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong. The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.”

And the women accept this amorality when it comes to their relationships with men: “Love, as it exists in society, is merely the mingling of two whims and the contact of two skins.” or “Friendship with a man? That’s asking for moonlight at midday.”

The victim in “Rules…” is humanity. The director Renoir portrays a society led by those who have become bored with their affluence. They have turned everything into a game because they just can’t take anything seriously anymore. This is a game that will eventually penalise and ultimately make losers of those who are too sincere and earnest to play it because they cannot abide by its rules which ultimately corrupt virtue and erode human decency.  “Rules…” ends with its most sincere and innocent character being shot and with the others agreeing to portray it as just an unfortunate ‘accident’.

Instead of providing a positive role model for others to follow, the disgraceful and deplorable actions of the high society of “Rules…” are all about keeping up appearances by covering up the reality of their hollow and shabby lives with lies. Although their wealth may have freed them from the will of any authority, they have used their freedom to put themselves at the mercy of their own whims, impulses, and urges. They lack the norms to restrain their excesses which would have warned them that they were about to derail themselves and society by deviating more and more from the straight and narrow.

Their lifestyle parallels that of the privileged in “The Great Gatsby” who had become thoughtless, reckless and even destructive in their hedonistic pursuit of pleasure: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and . . . then retreated back into their money . . . and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

And when the ‘simple people’ exist only to clean up and cover up the messes of those above them who live free from worry of any consequences, then wouldn’t they also want some of that leeway for themselves – even if it means that their own wholesomeness, straightforwardness and good intentions would be corrupted and perverted? Like their masters, they risk being transformed into social parasites and may even evolve into predators existing solely to satisfy their appetites.

In the evolution of cinema, did the subjectivity of interpretation increase with Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961) which he described as a Rorschach test? Kubrick said something similar about his “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) in an interview: “The film thus becomes a subjective experience…anything the viewer sees in it.” Concerning the 1970 film Little Big Man, its director Arthur Penn said, “On the whole, audiences like their entertainment dramatically compact and homogenous, but I want the opposite. A film should remain free and open, not with everything defined and resolved.” With regard to “Mulholland Drive” (2001), actor David Theroux said, “I think [director David Lynch] is genuinely happy for it to mean anything you want. He loves it when people come up with really bizarre interpretations.”

An article about “The Pawnbroker” (1964) commented that “…part of the greatness of [that film] is that the ending…remains open-ended…The conclusion…provides no definitive answers to…complex questions.”

When seeking the truth, perhaps we need to be reminded that it is not always obvious and easy to discover and can be more multi-faceted and subject to interpretation than we realize.

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