The Rashomon Effect Explained

The story goes like this: A bandit lures a samurai off a beaten mountain path to admire a stash of ancient swords. But he deceived the samurai, tied him to a tree and seduced his wife. He then tied up the samurai and fought him to the death in a sword fight. The bandit emerged victorious, but when he turned his attention to the samurai’s wife, she was gone. And so he went about his day. At least that’s one version of events.

Directed by Akira Kurosawa from a screenplay he co-wrote with Shinobu Hashimoto. Rashomon (1950) features four eyewitnesses, each with their own take on the events that set off the plot: the murder of a samurai. Obviously, this project has its roots in the present story method or phenomenon. In essence, the Rashomon Effect can be described as any situation in which groups of eyewitnesses make differing, and often conflicting, accounts of the same event.

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They can never agree on the legitimate outcome and often craft their own story to present themselves in the best possible light. As an example of effect, there is no better story than the main source of the famous Japanese director himself: Kurosawa Rashomon.

The Origin – Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa

Rashomon movie
Daiei film

In the city of Kyoto during the Heian era, a priest and a woodcutter took shelter under the city gate of Rashōmon while rain showers fell all around them. They are joined by a commoner, staying dry himself, and they tell each other the story of a recent two-part crime: the murder of a samurai and the rape of his wife.

The infamous bandit named Tajōmaru had already made his claim, saying he fought honorably with the samurai and never actually attacked the woman, instead seducing her. The samurai gives an alternate account of the event. Already dead, the samurai transmits his version of events through a medium, a Shinto psychic.

He says Tajōmaru raped his wife and she still wanted to go with Tajōmaru. Therefore, Tajōmaru gave the samurai a choice: let them go or kill them. But she had already fled, and when Tajōmaru left as well, the samurai thrust the woman’s dagger into his chest and committed suicide. Of course, their statement is different.

The woman says Tajōmaru attacked her and left. She then fainted upon seeing her husband’s freezing reaction. When she came to, the dagger pierced his chest. Not entirely different, but it shows them in a much more faithful light. Then there is the lumberjack named Kikori.

He claims to have found the body of a murdered samurai three days earlier. Eventually, it turns out that Kikori witnessed a fight, some rather clumsy blows ensued between the two fighters, and that the samurai was actually killed with a sword and not a dagger. This has little impact on Kikori’s overall ranking, but each story still has implications for the story of the film itself.

The Rashomon Effect – What does it mean?

Daiei film

The term permeates a wide range of media, from psychology and jurisprudence to sociology and literature. But as a storytelling device, The Rashomon Effect creates suspense and confusion in every subsequent scene. To best explain its overall effect on audiences, refer to the parable of the blind man and the elephant.

One day, a group of blind people trip over an elephant. They had never seen an elephant until that day and wanted to know what one looked like. Each blind man grabbed a different part of the elephant’s body and then described its characteristics to create a magnificent, unique picture.

They each grab a part of the elephant, such as the tusk or the tail. But when one blind man describes his role as a wall, another as a snake, followed by a tree, spear, fan, or rope, it becomes confusing for all involved. This is essentially the Rashomon Effect. They suspect that the next blind person is being dishonest in their feelings, with the general message that people tend to believe something is the truth because of their experiences of limitation and subjectivity. But then they turn around and ignore the similarly limited and subjective experience of those closest to them.

Referring to The Bandit in RashomonThe priest notes that men even lie to themselves because they are weak. At one point in The Samurai it is pointed out that dead men have no reason to lie. Meanwhile, regarding The Wife, The Commoner notes that women use their tears to hide lies and end up fooling themselves. Each description lends new meaning to the subjectivity of each experience and provides a kind of unconscious motive for those involved. Of course, for other examples, there are dozens of movies to watch from across the medium.

Related: Best Samurai Movies Of All Time, Ranked

Its use throughout the film

The police clash in The Usual Suspects.
Gramercy images

Since the release of the original film in the early 1950s, filmmakers around the world have taken advantage of this phenomenon in their films. As a storytelling device, it can be found in lesser-known titles, e.g Go (1999), a crime comedy directed by Doug Liman, along with elephant (2003), a psychological drama directed by Gus Van Sant. There are also Talvar (2015), a Hindi language thriller that arguably makes better use of this device than anything that came after its predecessor.

The two most famous films that use the Rashomon Effect – aside from the Kurosawa Project itself – would be The usual suspects (1995) by Bryan Singer and Ex girlfriend (2014) by David Fincher. These are two famous modern-day neo-noir mystery films, both of which were among the most popular and respected of their respective years. And both used the Rashomon Effect to produce brilliant results in terms of suspense, conflict, and storytelling in general.

But in the end, nothing will ever make it better than the original. The best example of the Rashomon Effect is obviously the Kurosawa title, from which the title is derived. And oddly enough, upon release, Rashomon actually received modest reviews from Japanese critics. They were quite confused when they found out that the film was such a hit abroad. But in hindsight, Kurosawa considers the masterful project Rashomon should go down in history as a masterpiece of cinema if only this phenomenon were not widespread.

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