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What we know is this: While travelling through the forest, a samourai and his wife were attacked by a wandering bandit. The samourai is dead. The woman has been dishonoured. But what actually happened? Four very different accounts, provided during the inquiry into the crime, reveal more about the nature of the characters than they do the events in Akira Kurosawa’s complex consideration of truth and justice.
As the scuffle in the forest is recounted by witnesses, their various points of view give wildly different versions of what occurred there. It also becomes clear that someone – presumably, everyone – is not telling the whole truth, whether to conceal their actions, or to make themselves appear as they would like to be seen. How, in the face of such ambiguity, can justice possibly be served?
As in life, costume here differentiates the social role of each character – the samourai’s station is reflected in his dignified, rich fabrics, while his wife is enveloped in a sheer white veil that indicates she is not to be seen or touched. But where is the samourai’s dignity when he drags himself through the mud, begging for his life? How can a veil protect a woman from the advances of a madman? Here, it would seem, clothes are simply another lie we tell ourselves in our ongoing attempts to distance ourselves from our base humanity.