Sunday, September 12, 2010

Kurosawa's 'Rashomon' & The Gospels

The primary Christian source of truth is the Bible, and more specifically the Gospels. God has chosen to reveal his word to humans in the physical person of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and has transmitted the account of Jesus' life and death, not via a supernaturally engraved tablet, but using human witnesses with their own particularities, linguistics, idiosyncracies and quirks. And, in order to preserve the truth at the heart of their witness, He has built in redundancy as a means of accounting for the varying perspectives and indiosyncracies of the witnesses. Thus the truth is not lost, but is revealed and indeed heightened through their cumulative witness. Living in an age where we have become acutely aware of the significance of perspective and presuppositions, this method for transmitting truth seems appropriate.

Note that I'm not saying that the Gospels reveal anything less than absolute truth, only that they do so through a collection of subjective perspectives. But those slightly varying perspectives only serve to reinforce and give depth to one another, rather than to counteract each other.

In the film Rashomon directed by Akira Kurosawa a trial takes place. An incident occurred that was witnessed by the participants. In the trial the witnesses are questioned and they give testimony as to what took place. As the story progresses the film shows each person's account of the events. It becomes clear through their testimony that the way each witness perceived the events was colored by their own temperament, personality, emotional state, expectations and selective memory. And though each account is quite divergent as to the specifics and particularities, there is a significant amount of overlap to the narratives such that a picture of what 'actually' happened emerges from the cumulative accounts--despite the fact that each singular account is highly affected by the prejudices of the particular witness. When we account for the differing perspectives and personalities, the account of the event becomes quite clear. In some ways even more clear than if, for instance, we had sterile evidence of exactly what transpired--like perhaps videotape evidence.

In Rashomon the accounts given by the parties are quite disparate. Although a cohesive narrative can be derived from the widely varying accounts, the degree to which the details of the accounts diverge from one another is extremely high. This is obviously more interesting dramatically than having four accounts that are mostly identical, with very small degrees of variance between them--which is what we have with The Gospels. Still, I think Rashomon serves as a beautiful filmic analogy on the nature of truth and how human witnesses--as imperfect as they are--can serve to reveal truth, sometimes a deeper truth than a list of brute 'facts'.

This message isn't the most immediate interpretation of Rashomon. In some ways you could say that the message of the film is largely the opposite of what I have said. That it's about how truth is unavoidably lost in flawed human recollections. Take this excerpt from the film for instance:

Commoner: Well, men are only men. That's why they lie. They can't tell the truth, even to themselves.
Priest: That may be true. Because men are weak, they lie to deceive themselves.
Commoner: Not another sermon! I don't mind a lie if it's interesting.

Nevertheless, if you are aware of the fact that men are interminably flawed and that in any account there is a particular agenda at work, or indeed a need to 'lie', truth can still be salvaged. Especially when we have multiple perspectives of a single event, and the individual characteristics of each witness can be taken into account. So the analogy to the Gospels isn't fully appropriate in this sense, with the Gospels being free of deception. However, the way in which the film serves as an instructive illustration is that both Rashomon and the Gospels feature four different accounts of the same events from different human perspectives, with each of the accounts heightening, complimenting, and enriching the others.

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