“Everything was silent.
I heard someone crying.
Who is crying?”
As this dialogue is spoken in Rashomon (1950), by the raspy baritone of the Masako’s ghost, communicated through a medium, the camera stares at the shadows of leaves on the forest floor. It will then switch angles and pan upwards to show Masako (Machiko Kyo), tied to a large root of a tree. His wife has run off in a fit, and the viscious bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) has gone after her. This is the one moment of near-tranquility we will get in this film, yet it is one sodden with guilt and rage. Masako’s wife, wowed by the bandit, has pleaded with him to save her from her husband. Tajomaru has asked Masako if he should kill her or save her. Masako couldn’t bring himself to answer.
The grove he sits in is vast and, with the soft sunlight and slight breeze, would otherwise be peaceful. In another minute, Masako will free himself and stab himself through the chest in the center of this grove.
But this image is getting ahead of itself. It is not the grove that needs to be focused on. It is not even something as specific as the upward pan of the ground-level camera. It is the leaves. Rashomon is dappled with images of the sunlight reflecting through the forest trees, and countering shots of the shadows of those leaves. The straight ahead shot of the forest floor, where Masako recalls that there was someone crying as several leaves sway, is the closest we get to any tangible reality in this film. The leaves are the only thing in this flashback setting—returned to four times—that the viewer and the characters can be sure exist. There is no telling which of the four versions of the story of Masako’s murder is true. It doesn’t matter either. In this story, only hope is real, and morality is ambiguous. In Film, only physical objects are real, but in Rashomon, one of the key objects is shown in only it’s reflective—unreal—form. This is a teasing scene in a teasing film; one that feels like a folktale or a moral fable throughout, except that it takes place in a world where nobody knows what morals are. But in its affirmation of real things—leaves—this stare at their shadows could be Kurosawa’s idea of a moral image. Or is it a morally ambiguous image? That the question is begged proves, perhaps, the latter.