Some of the best psychoanalytic work in film comes in odd forms: a successful child therapy performed by a dead psychologist (The Sixth Sense see July, 2011); a good analytic hour in which the analyst was a cannibalistic psychiatrist locked in a cage (The Silence of the Lambs see June, 2011). But perhaps the most unusual example is that of a relatively successful one session psychoanalytic psychotherapy conducted in medieval Japan in an abandoned temple during a rainstorm.
Even for those who have not seen Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, the title evokes images of competing eye witness accounts of the same event. It has become an icon in our culture. The film revolves around four versions of a rape and a violent death which may be a murder or a suicide. Each account has tempting correlations with at least one of the others, but when we try to combine them to create a coherent narrative the discrepancies become apparent. It is frustrating. I am reminded of that damn Rubic Cube that’s probably lying at the bottom of a drawer or in the back of a closet with the colors all misaligned. No matter which way you twist it, it doesn’t fit.
The title of the film comes from the name of the abandoned temple. As one of the characters tears planks from its inner walls to make a fire, we easily understand that we are seeing in concrete form the tearing down of the old moral structure. The film is very clearly about ambivalence and confusion created as the old, solid moral standards are given up in favor of a new pragmatic rationalism. I am sure these issues were as relevant for 1950 Japan, when the film was made, as for the medieval period in which it takes place.
The viewer watching Rashomon is in somewhat the same position as an analyst with a patient. Without outside verification, he or she tries to make sense of what is seen and heard. In fact, the film follows the pattern of a good psychotherapeutic session. A patient enters in distress. He describes a confused traumatic memory; and, as he does so he shifts in fantasy from desires to conscience to defenses. Finally, he is shocked and then relieved of his distress through a well timed interpretation.
The patient is a “firewood dealer”. I will refer to him as the woodcutter. As the film opens, he is acutely depressed. We will learn later that he is tortured by a traumatic screen memory and a guilty secret. He makes no secret of his distress and confusion. He is sitting on the floor of the temple, sheltered from a heavy rainstorm. By his side is a tall, gentle looking man—a priest. In this allegorical psychotherapy, the priest is the woodcutter’s conscience, his superego personified.
Another man runs in to get out of the rain. Although the film does not identify him as such, he is a psychoanalyst, long before there was such a profession. He is the only character that the film does not identify by name or title, so I will simply call him the analyst. He does not look like a psychoanalyst. He is dressed in baggy shorts and takes off his shirt to squeeze the rainwater out of it. He is the one who literally tears at the pillars of the temple to make a fire for himself. His language is often rough and cutting and he has an unpleasant staccato laugh.
Nevertheless, he is an analyst in the ways that are most telling. He is moved by curiosity. He approaches his patient with questions about his distress, knowing that the answers will be interesting both for their truth and their lies. He knows that the truth will not come out straightforwardly, and likes lies “if they are interesting.” His opening words are almost tritely psychoanalytic, his interest aroused by the woodcutter, who has been repeating in a mournful way, as much to himself as to the priest:
“I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it all. I don’t—I just don’t understand it all.”
The analyst approaches him, leaning over his shoulder.
“What’s wrong? What don’t you understand?”
“ I’ve never heard of anything so strange.”
“ Why don’t you tell me about it?”
And so the treatment begins. The analyst turns his attention to the priest, who tells him he has seen and heard about this strange event at the prison courtyard.
“A man’s been murdered.”
The analyst wonders why this is such a strange event in times in which people die frequently in natural disasters or are killed by bandits. The priest agrees:
“I, for one have seen hundreds of men dying like animals but even I’ve never before heard anything as terrible as this.”
As the priest, the conscience, says these words, the woodcutter looks up at him with a hint of fear in his eyes. The priest glances at him for a moment and goes on.
“Horrible—it’s horrible. There’s never been anything, anything as terrible as this.”
On second viewing, we might well wonder why this particular crime is more terrible than all the horrors the priest has seen or heard of; but, it is exactly what we might expect the guilt-ridden woodcutter to hear from his conscience. As the priest begins to elaborate on his sense of horror, the analyst confronts the exaggerations of conscience, putting himself in the position of a neutral observer:
“Look here Priest let’s not have any sermons. I only wanted to hear this story to keep out of the rain.”
The woodcutter soon approaches him beseechingly, asking for help understanding.
“Well maybe you can tell me what it means. I don’t understand it—all three of them.”
“It’s those that I wanted to tell you about.”
The analyst essentially tells him to take his time. He knows that an attitude of patience, akin to timelessness, works best. There will be time enough for the session:
“Don’t get so excited. This rain won’t stop for a while.”
The woodcutter begins the session with a screen memory:
“Three days ago, I’d gone to the mountain for wood …”
His verbal narrative is replaced by a visual narrative. In a lyrical scene we see him walking through the woods on a sunny day carrying his axe over his shoulder. As he testifies afterward in the prison yard, he comes across “a woman’s hat caught on a branch and a man’s hat that had been trampled on and a piece of rope and farther along an amulet case, with red lining.” He sees something in the ground (presumably the amulet case) and moves towards it but trips. As he turns, we see his face framed by a man’s arms raised up from the ground. He looks terrified, screams and runs.
After we see the testimony of the priest, who saw the dead man with his wife on the road earlier on the day of the incident and the testimony of a man who caught the bandit, Tajomaru, with the dead man’s horse and bow and arrows, we see and hear the bandit’s account. We must keep in mind that we are getting his testimony through the memory of the woodcutter.
Tajomaru’s account is very reminiscent of the “primal scene”. “Primal Scene” is a term coined by Freud to describe the small child’s witnessing of parental intercourse. He first used it in his “Wolfman” case. Starting with his patient’s recurrent dream in which wolves stared at him from a tree and using the patient’s associations and memories, Freud was able to put together the speculation that the dream was a reflection of a forgotten infantile experience of waking on a hot summer afternoon to see his parents engaged in intercourse.
We see the bandit sleeping beneath a tree. Like the baby Wolfman, he is awakened on a hot summer day, in this case by a cool breeze. He sees a well dressed man, with impressive robes and a “Korean sword” leading a woman who is on horseback. She too is elegantly dressed with a long skirt to her ankles and a veil covering her face. As they pass, the breeze awakens him just in time for him to look up to see it blowing the woman’s skirt up her ankle and the veil away from her face. His eyes show the lust and envy that Arlow (1980) has described as being associated with the primal scene. After she passes, he reaches down for his sword on his thigh and pulls on it and his leg in a masturbatory motion.
“Just a glimpse then she was gone. I thought I’d seen an angel. I decided I’d take her even if I had to kill the man.”
Tajomaru lures the man into the woods with a story of abandoned “swords, daggers, mirrors” where he overpowers him and binds him, then returning to the woman. Arlow has focused on the envy engendered by the primal scene. The bandit’s account displays that envy.
“She looked like a child suddenly turned serious. Her look made me jealous of that man. I started to hate him.” (We see the rage in his face.) “I wanted to show her how he looked, tied up like that. I’d not thought of such a thing before, but now I did.”
Arlow described his patients as seeking revenge by unconsciously contriving to put themselves into the action of the primal scene while a child or a parental figure is forced to look on helplessly. The bandit leads the man’s wife into the woods where he rapes her while the man looks on. We do not see the rape itself, but watch, along with the husband, as he overpowers her with an embrace and a kiss. The scene is rife with emotion. We sense the husband’s humiliation, the wife’s desperation as she tries to fight the bandit with a dagger, and the excitement as the bandit overpowers her and kisses her as the husband watches.
The bandit comes across as wild and childlike, with his account marked by boastfulness. He is proud to take responsibility for having killed the man in a daring sword fight after describing how the woman insisted that either he or the husband must die, lest she be dishonored in front of two men.
“We crossed swords 23 times. No one ever crossed swords with me more than twenty times.”
He finishes his account saying that the woman ran off, and that he sold the sword, but forgot to take the woman’s expensive looking dagger.
This account has been narrated by the woodcutter. It seems to come from the “id”—the childlike functions of the mind, driven by excitement and desire—with the primal scene, violence, sex and the bandit’s boastfulness. All of the characters are described as being motivated by lust, greed and narcissism. It is told as a real event, but it has very much the quality of a fantasy.
By contrast, the next two accounts are narrated by the priest. They bear the imprint of the superego—guilt and blame, pain and sorrow, and intense condemning eyes. Significantly, in each of these versions, the man dies not by the sword but by the dagger. The distinction will be important for the woodcutter’s guilty secret.
Even before the priest has begun to relate the woman’s account, the woodcutter breaks in to condemn her story as a lie.
“They’re all lies! Tajomaru, the woman, all lies.”
The analyst responds while he tears out more boards from the temple.
“Well, men are only men. That’s why they lie. They can’t tell the truth even to themselves.”
The priest joins in, adding more of a tone of judgment.
“Because men are weak, they lie to deceive themselves.”
But the analyst is not put off. He knows that he can not work with only the stated truth.
“I don’t mind a lie if it’s interesting. What kind of story did she tell?”
The priest tells of the woman’s story. We see her telling it in the prison courtyard as the woodcutter and the priest look on behind her. She describes that after the rape she felt compassion for her husband.
“Oh, how terrible it must have been for him. The more he struggled, the tighter the ropes became.”
She tried to help him, but was knocked down by the bandit who then untied him and ran off, laughing at them. She goes to hug her husband, but he is unresponsive.
“Even now I remember his eyes. What I saw in them was not sorrow, not even anger. It was a cold hatred of me. Don’t! Don’t look at me like that! Kill me if you must, but don’t look at me like that.”
She runs to get her dagger which she’d dropped in her fight with Tajomaru.
“Then kill me! Kill me quickly with one thrust!”
The husband continues his cold stare.
“Please don’t! Don’t look like that!”
She repeats it several times.
“And then I fainted. When I opened my eyes and looked about I saw the dagger in my husband’s chest!”
She says that she ran away and tried to kill herself by diving into a pond.
The analyst admits to confusion. The priest begins to tell the husband’s story as told by his ghost through a medium, but is again first interrupted by the woodcutter, who is animated in his denunciation of the priest’s versions.
“Lies! His story was all lies!”
The priest cannot believe that a dead man would lie. It would be too sinful. But the analyst disagrees. He knows the power of defenses.
“Look, we all want to forget something so we create stories. It’s easier that way.”
The husband’s story is told in the prison courtyard through a female medium. It begins with a tone of angry conscience.
“I am in darkness now! I am suffering in the darkness! Cursed be those who cast me into this hell of darkness!”
In his story, the wife is the evil one. He accuses her of not only agreeing to go off with the bandit, but also of demanding that the bandit kill her husband. Even the bandit is horrified and asks the husband what he should do with her. “For that I almost forgave the bandit.” She runs off with the bandit in pursuit. Hours later, the bandit returns and unties him.
The husband continues to sit. He hears his own crying. Then, he sees the dagger and thrusts it into his heart.
“Everything was quiet. How quiet it was. It grew dark. A mist seemed to envelope me as I lay quietly in the stillness. Someone was approaching. Softly, gently—who could it have been? Then a hand grasped the dagger and drew it out.”
The medium falls over dramatically and behind her we see the woodcutter in the prison yard. He blinks and looks startled. We fade back to the temple. The woodcutter paces, then announces vehemently,
“That’s not true! There was no dagger, he was killed by sword.”
The analyst gives the priest a knowing smile. He approaches the woodcutter who is sitting hunched over.
“Now it’s getting interesting. You must have seen it all. Why didn’t you tell the police?”
“I didn’t want to get involved.”
“But now you want to talk about it. Tell me then. Yours seems to be the most interesting.”
Now it is the priest who protests he cannot listen to any more.
The woodcutter now says that he saw the three of them from behind the bushes around the clearing. As we see it through this retelling, the woman tells the men that they must fight to the death to decide which one will win her. Again we see a sword fight, but this time between two frightened men, made clumsy by their fear.
In some ways, this account appears more realistic, because it fits how we might imagine ourselves in such a situation; but, it also may be a projection of the woodcutter’s own fears onto the characters as well as a projection of his own cowardliness in the face of this primal scene as he hides behind the bushes. In fact, each of these stories can be understood as a projection of the woodcutter’s conflict. Through the bandit, he projects the sexual excitement, “machismo” and rage of the primal scene. The husband and wife’s accounts, told through the priest, project his rage and guilt onto first the man and then the woman.
The analyst doubts the truthfulness of this last story as well. He says that none of the stories make any sense. But he has not given up on the truth. Through the lies, he has used the cues of affect, context and motive to glean the woodcutter’s guilty secret. At the proper moment, he is ready to make a powerful interpretation.
They hear a baby crying and find an abandoned infant in a corner of the temple. The analyst takes the wrappings that cover the baby, including an amulet that the parents had left to protect the baby. The woodcutter accuses him of being selfish and attempts to grab the coverings from him (a fight over the fee). At this crucial moment, the analyst is ready with his well timed interpretation. He has done his work well—listening carefully, understanding the context of the various versions of the screen memory, watching for discrepancies and for unexplained affect—and now he interprets:
“And you say you don’t lie! That’s funny! Look, you may have fooled the police, but not me.”
The woodcutter’s demeanor changes. He looks down shamefaced, loosening his grip on the baby’s coverings and backing off. The analyst follows up.
“So where’s the dagger? The pearl-inlay one that the bandit said was so valuable? Did the earth open and swallow it? Or did someone steal it? Am I right? It would seem so. Now there’s a really selfish action for you.”
He slaps the woodcutter across the face.
(For those readers who are therapists, I do not recommend that you try this technique in your office.)
The interpretation has freed the woodcutter of the burden of maintaining his secret from himself and his conscience. He cannot attack the analyst for taking the baby’s amulet because he knows now that he is driven by the same motives. The various versions of the primal scene in the woods have exposed lust, greed, rage, guilt and sorrow, but were a defensive vehicle by which the woodcutter could project it all onto the trio in the woods. Now, he must accept his own vulnerability to lust, greed and rage and his own culpability in the fantasy. He is guilty of these crimes at least in desire and fantasy, as we all are. He no longer is forced to moan helplessly in horror at the evils of men because now he is free to accept his own role in the Oedipal crime and to come to terms with it. The initial “I don’t understand it” has been replaced with open guilt and shame now that he is aware that he does understand it, that he is a participant and not merely an innocent, self righteous observer. This should help free him to express his desires and regain the ability to take pleasure from their satisfaction.
Although the woodcutter has openly acknowledged his guilt over the Oedipal crime of stealing the woman’s dagger, the full depth of his conscience is not completely revealed. After all, it was only one session. We saw how he insisted that the man died by the sword, not by the dagger. The woman has told us that she woke up from a faint and saw the dagger in her husband’s chest. The husband describes plunging the dagger into his chest, but says that he did not die until someone—“who could it have been?”—pulled the dagger out, causing him to die. That is why the woodcutter protests against his conscience that the man died by the sword and not the dagger. If it was the dagger that killed him, then he is the murderer.
The two accounts that present the death as having come via the dagger are narrated by the priest. The depressed woodcutter is attacked by his harsh conscience not only for his greed in wanting the wife’s jeweled dagger, but also for the murder of the husband. We can recognize and appreciate his intense defenses against accepting the more condemning version.
With the interpretation the session is completed and the analyst leaves, but the therapeutic process continues. Although woodcutter’s insight may help him come to terms with his guilt, it is not enough. Our attention turns to the baby.
There is one curious detail about the baby that I did not find mentioned in the reviews of the film that I read. The woodcutter calls our attention to the amulet that is included with its covers, citing it as proof that the parents cared for its welfare. At the beginning of the film, he tells us that amongst the objects he found in the woods was “an amulet case, with red lining.” This cannot be an accident. As good a director as Kurosawa does not casually throw in an amulet and an empty amulet case. He has left it to the viewer to conjecture about the meaning. The obvious conclusion that I am drawn to is that in some unexplained way, this baby is the child of the couple in the woods. (The red lining of the amulet case is suggestive of the emptied womb.) In fact, we might now think that the violent primal scene of rape and death is their punishment and the baby’s revenge for their abandoning it.
After the analyst leaves, the woodcutter reaches for the baby. The priest holds it back, thinking that the woodcutter intends to steal more from it. The woodcutter says that he understands the suspiciousness, but that his intent is to take the baby home with him. He says that he has five children and one more will not make a difference. The priest hands him the baby. By adopting their child, the woodcutter can offer the tragic couple restitution while enjoying a secret Oedipal gratification (becoming the adoptive father of the their child).
The woodcutter resolves his guilt through this act of selflessness. The therapeutic action does not come from insight alone. In the end, the success of the psychotherapy is marked by the reconciliation of the patient with his now forgiving superego. The priest is impressed with the woodcutter’s readiness to care for the infant himself. With Rashomon’s closing words, he allows the woodcutter to gain the admiration of his own conscience:
”Thanks to you, I think I’ll be able to keep my faith in man.”
For now, the patient is one with his “ego-ideal”, the ideal of his conscience. With that, his depression is lifted. We see him smiling broadly as he walks off holding the baby, his treatment successfully completed.
Arlow, J. A. (1980), The revenge motive in the primal scene. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association., 28:519-542.
Freud, S. (1918) From the history of an infantile neurosis. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: HogarthPress and The Institute of Psychoanalysis. vol. 17:1-122.
Published originally in the PANY Bulletin Summer, 2001, 39:2 and in
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