The “Rashomon Effect” is the effect of the subjectivity of perception on recollection, by which observers of the same event are able to produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it. It is named for Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (1950), in which a crime witnessed by four individuals is described in four mutually contradictory ways. The film is based on two short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “Rashōmon” (for the setting) and “Yabu no naka,” otherwise known as “In a Grove” (for the story line). Later films and TV users of the “Rashomon effect” focus on revealing “the truth” in a now conventional technique that presents the final version of a story as the truth, an approach that only approaches Kurosawa’s film. Here are some examples of the half-ass Rashomon Effect employed in western programing:
- All in the Family “Everybody Tells the Truth.” Archie Bunker and Mike Stivic give conflicting accounts of an incident involving a refrigerator repairman and a black apprentice repairman.
- CSI: Crime Scene Investigation “Rashomama.” The episode required the CSIs, deprived of any of the usual forensic evidence, to rely on the eyewitness accounts of guests at a wedding to solve the case.
- Fame (the TV series) Under a theater marquee, two characters wait out a rainstorm. Only after the entire story has unfolded in flashback does the camera divulge that the theater marquee announces “A Kurosawa Festival.”
- The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air “Will Goes a Courtin.” When Will defies his uncle’s orders by having his friends over by the pool after he refuses to pay his rent to his Uncle Philip unless Philip repairs the air conditioner in Will’s guesthouse, Phil sues the two stubborn men and they plead their cases in court before Judge Reynolds. Uncle Phil, and Will and Carlton respectively, paint very different pictures before the judge of the same incident.
- Grey’s Anatomy “I Saw What I Saw.” A patient dies because of a mistake and Chief Webber interviews Owen, Cristina, Bailey, Alex, Lexie, Jackson, Reed and April and gets all differing versions of what transpired that night to determine who made the mistake.
- Happy Days “Fonzie Gets Shot.” Fonzie is shot on a weekend camping lodge trip with Potsie, Chachi, and Roger. At the hospital, they all offer different versions of how the Fonz was shot, each of which is transformed to make the speaker look more heroic.
Kurosawa’s film is based on two short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “Rashōmon” (for the setting) and “Yabu no naka”, otherwise known as “In a Grove” (for the story line). Rashomon is the film that introduced Kurosawa and the cinema of Japan to Western audiences, albeit to a small number of theatres, and is one of his masterpieces. The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and received an Academy Honorary Award at the 24th Academy Awards.
Now the Show
The film opens on a woodcutter and a priest sitting beneath the Rashōmon gate to stay dry in a downpour. A commoner joins them and they tell him that they’ve witnessed a disturbing story, and begin recounting it to him. The woodcutter claims he found the body of a murdered samurai three days earlier while looking for wood in the forest; upon discovering the body, he says, he fled in a panic to notify the authorities. The priest says that he saw the samurai and the woman traveling the same day the murder happened. Both men were then summoned to testify in court, where they met the captured bandit Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune), who claimed responsibility for the rape and murder.
The Bandit’s Version
Tajōmaru, a notorious outlaw, claims that he tricked the samurai to step off the mountain trail with him and look at a cache of ancient swords he discovered. In the grove, he tied the samurai to a tree, then brought his wife there. She initially tried to defend herself with a dagger, but was eventually “seduced” by the bandit. The woman, filled with shame, then begged him to duel to the death with her husband, to save her from the guilt and shame of having two men know her dishonor. Tajōmaru honorably set the samurai free and dueled with him. In Tajōmaru’s version, they each fought skillfully and fiercely, but in the end Tajōmaru was the victor and the woman ran away. At the end of the story to the court, he is asked about an expensive dagger owned by the samurai’s wife: he says that, in the confusion, he forgot all about it, and that it was foolish of him to leave behind such a valuable object.
The samurai’s wife tells a different story to the court. She says that Tajōmaru left after raping her. She begged her husband to forgive her, but he simply looked at her coldly. She then freed him and begged him to kill her so that she would be at peace. He continued to stare at her with a look of loathing. His expression disturbed her so much that she fainted with dagger in hand. She awoke to find her husband dead with the dagger in his chest. She attempted to kill herself, but failed in all her efforts.
The Samurai’s Story
The court then hears the story of the deceased samurai, told through a spiritual medium. The samurai claims that Tajōmaru, after raping his wife, asked her to travel with him. She accepted and asked Tajōmaru to kill her husband so that she would not feel the guilt of belonging to two men. Tajōmaru, shocked by this request, grabbed her, and gave the samurai a choice of letting the woman go or killing her. “For these words alone,” the dead samurai recounted, “I was ready to pardon his crime.” The woman fled, and Tajōmaru, after attempting to recapture her, gave up and set the samurai free. The samurai then killed himself with his own dagger; later, somebody removed the dagger from his chest.
The Woodcutter’s Story
Back at Rashōmon gate (after the trial), the woodcutter explains to the commoner that the samurai’s story was a lie. The woodcutter had actually witnessed the rape and murder, he says, but just did not want to get too involved at the trial. According to the woodcutter’s new story, Tajōmaru begged the samurai’s wife to marry him, but the woman instead freed her husband. The husband was initially unwilling to fight Tajōmaru, saying he would not risk his life for a spoiled woman, but the woman then criticized both him and Tajōmaru, saying they were not real men and that a real man would fight for a woman’s love. She spurred the men to fight one another, but then hid her face in fear once they raise swords; the men, too, were visibly fearful as they begin fighting. They began a duel that was much more pathetic than Tajōmaru’s account, and Tajōmaru ultimately won through a blind stroke of luck. After some hesitation, he killed the samurai, and the woman fled in horror. Tajōmaru could not catch her, but took the samurai’s sword and left the scene limping.
At the temple, the woodcutter, priest, and commoner are interrupted from their discussion of the woodcutter’s account by the sound of a crying baby. They find the baby abandoned in a basket, and the commoner takes a kimono and an amulet that have been left for the baby. The woodcutter reproaches the commoner for stealing from the abandoned baby, but the commoner chastises him. Having deduced that the woodcutter in fact stole the dagger from the scene of the murder, the commoner mocks him, “a bandit calling another a bandit.” The commoner leaves Rashōmon, claiming that all men are motivated only by self-interest.
These deceptions and lies shake the priest to his very worldview of humanity. He returns to his senses when the woodcutter reaches for the baby in the priest’s arms. The priest is suspicious at first, but the woodcutter explains that he intends to take care of the baby along with his own children, of whom he already has six. The simple revelation recasts the woodcutter’s story and the subsequent theft of the dagger in a whole new light. The priest gives the baby to the woodcutter, saying that the woodcutter has given him reason to continue having hope in humanity. The film closes on the woodcutter, walking home with the baby. The rain has stopped and the clouds have opened revealing the sun in contrast to the beginning where it was overcast.
These stories are mutually contradictory and not even the final version can be seen as unmotivated by factors of ego and the Asian tradition of face. Apparently even the actors kept approaching Kurosawa wanting to know the truth, which he claimed was not the point of the film as he intended it to be an exploration of multiple realities rather than an exposition of a particular truth. Due to its emphasis on the subjectivity of truth and the uncertainty of factual accuracy, Rashomon has been read by some as an allegory of the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II. A little too much of a stretch for my taste but we need to keep professors employed now don’t we?
What can you say about a film when its title has become synonymous with a story-film technique used to this day and not even nearly at the level Rashomon does? For some this movie may seem a little boring, but for the real viewer it will show the origins of a method we have seen numerous times but probably without knowing its nomenclature or origins. Rashomon needed to be reviewed after Vantage Point because I didn’t want JPFmovies readers thinking that Vantage Point employed the use of the Rashomon Effect nearly as fittingly as seen in the Kurosawa source. If you are into films, this is one to see since Kurosawa realized an innovative technique that no one has really been able to duplicate to date.
February 2, 2012 at 6:49 am
Wouldn’t the King of the Hill firefighter episode also be an example of this?
February 2, 2012 at 8:00 am
Yes it would–nice work Emma. I was going for some of the more obscure examples but the firefighter episode is an excellent contemporary example.