Playing With Time

by Vered Arnon

Akira Kurosawa’s film, “Rashomon”, questions the nature of reality. Film, as a media, represents reality very directly. The main feature of film is the visual image. This visual image shows the audience whatever the director desires to present as ‘reality.’ Kurosawa’s film questions the nature of reality itself. In order to do that, the director must do more than just present an image. To accomplish his goal, Kurosawa breaks his film up into different segments, distorting the linear flow of time.

Human perception of reality is defined by the linear experience of time. A film generally has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Action progresses logically from start to finish. The plot unfurls piece by piece. The audience builds on what they have seen, until they reach a satisfying conclusion at the end. Kurosawa uses various techniques throughout his film to completely disrupt this linear progression. One of his techniques is the flashback. Action starts, then is interrupted by a character’s recollection and narration of past action. Another technique he uses is repetition. Different characters recollect and narrate the same time sequence, one after the other. While time progresses for the audience, time in the film is jumping backwards and forwards. Linear time is suspended, making reality no longer a solid concept.

Flashbacks are common time distortion techniques used in film. The film opens with a woodcutter, a priest, and a commoner gathered under the Rashomon gate. Then the woodcutter and the priest both recollect their stories, interspersed with returns to the scene under the gate. This gives the audience a fragmented account of reality which it must then piece together on its own. Within the flashbacks, there are more flashbacks, causing even more fragmentation. The priest and the woodcutter both have flashbacks to the forest, and to the court scene. The characters in their narratives also have flashbacks to the events that occurred in forest. Finally, to complete the fragmentation, the woodcutter has another flashback to the forest which neither expands on his original narrative nor confirms the account of any other character. Each character who recounts the events from the forest flashes back to the same segment in time. Since each of the four characters’ stories are different, the audience sees the same time segment in variation. Questions such as, ‘Which is the way it really happened?’ are raised. The incongruities of the stories together with the repetition successfully render the film’s portrayal of reality as completely subjective. The movie provides nothing consistent to audience. The only thread tying these fragments together is the setting under the Rashomon gate, which takes place after the events in the forest, even though it is the first thing that we encounter and the camera continues to return to it.

The use of repeating but different segments is a popular technique for conveying the sense that reality is mutable. Each character gives a different account of the events in the forest. They each transform a traumatic experience into something that they themselves can believe and accept. A parallel can be drawn to the German film “Run Lola Run”. That story is presented in three repeating segments, each one of which is different because the main character makes different choices. In “Rashomon”, the different characters make the same choices, but the outcome is still different for each of them because their subjective experience determines how they will see things. The audience sees the events from everyone’s perspective. Rather than watching the single event from start to finish, the audience sees the linear progression of time completely disrupted. Kurosawa’s film successfully questions the perception of reality.

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