The “Rashomon effect” describes the tendency of witnesses to or participants in the same events to give mutually contradictory accounts of what happened due to the subjectivity and fallibility of human memory. It’s named after the 1950 film Rashomon, directed by Akira Kurosawa, in which four witnesses to a murder give contradictory accounts of what happened. The term is bandied about a lot in pop psychology (and philosophy) articles, and one of its more recent applications is, of course, This Age of Trump, This Age of Brexit. In the aftermath of the two major political upsets of 2016, the mainstream media churned out hundreds of handwringing articles about the “post-truth world”, because it’s insufficient for cloistered political and media elites to have merely been wrong, their opinions and expertise are so important that if they were wrong, the only explanation was that the fundamental human ability to distinguish reality from fiction had completely disintegrated.
With its emphasis on an immutable failing of human nature – a fundamental inability to ever truly recall events accurately or, in effect, to know the world at all – it was inevitable that the Rashomon effect would be trotted out as a buzzy term to explain the new reality. Michael Wolff even mentions it in his insider account of the Trump administration, Fire and Fury. The appeal of the term is easy to understand: it describes a basic and insurmountable flaw, so it absolves everyone of responsibility to think about how and why falsehoods may have played a more decisive role in recent politics than in a supposed past era where people were more honest, or at least where the public was harder to hoodwink. I’m not saying they have done – I’m sceptical of the notion of a “post-truth world” – but if they did, I could think of reasons other than the Rashomon effect. Off the top of my head, it’s possible formerly authoritative news sources destroyed their credibility with the public by, among other things, helping the Bush administration manufacture the pretext for a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people. I’m no expert, but I have to wonder if perhaps public trust in the media was damaged when literally no one lost their job over one of the most massive and systemic failures of journalism in recent times.
Of course, that’s just my interpretation, and here’s where I should be putting the obvious joke about how it’s just like in Rashomon, where everyone remembers things differently. But there’s a problem. Unlike most people who reference the Rashomon effect, I’ve seen Rashomon. And Rashomon isn’t about the subjectivity and fallibility of memory. It’s about lying.
Briefly, the plot of Rashomon goes as follows: three men – a woodcutter, a priest and a commoner – sheltering from the rain at the ruined gates of Rashomon discuss a recent inquisition into the murder of a samurai. Two of them were witnesses – the priest saw the samurai and his wife before the murder and the woodcutter discovered the scene of the crime, but their testimonies are brief. The main testimonies are those of a bandit, the samurai’s wife and the dead samurai himself, communicating through a medium. Everyone agrees the bandit tricked the samurai and his wife into accompanying him to a secluded grove, where he knocked out and then tied up the samurai, but offer different accounts of what followed.
The bandit claims he seduced the wife and then defeated the samurai in an honourable duel to the death because the wife didn’t want to live with the shame of two men knowing she betrayed her marriage, after which the wife fled. The wife claims the bandit raped her and then left, and that she asked her husband first to forgive her for being raped and then to kill her to spare her the shame, but that he simply sat and stared silently at her until she became hysterical and blacked out. When she woke up, he was dead with her dagger in his chest, with the implication being that she’d killed him during the blackout. She fled and later tried and failed to kill herself. The samurai claims his wife was raped by the bandit, but that afterwards she agreed to become his companion if he killed her husband. The bandit was appalled by her request and offered to kill the wife on the samurai’s behalf. The wife then fled, followed by the bandit, who failed to capture her, but returned to set the samurai free. The samurai then killed himself with his wife’s dagger, which she had left behind.
Even from these brief descriptions of their testimonies, it’s clear no one is simply misremembering the events in the grove. The discrepancies aren’t the kind of details that our memories are just bad at storing (e.g. the colour of a car involved in a hit and run) or self-serving interpretations of people’s behaviour (e.g. whether someone was rude out of malice or thoughtlessness). They are completely divergent accounts of what happened – whether the bandit and the samurai duelled or the bandit left immediately after raping the wife couldn’t possibly be two honestly-held but differing perspectives on the same event. At least two of the three people are lying, and possibly all three, as the woodcutter subsequently confesses to the priest and the commoner that he didn’t just discover the scene of the crime, but saw the crime itself. In his account, the bandit begged the wife to marry him after raping her, but she refused and freed her husband, who initially refused to fight the bandit for her, as he did not want to risk his life over a spoiled woman. The wife then questioned the manliness of both for refusing to fight for her love, and they reluctantly crossed swords in a desperate, pitiful duel that ended with the bandit’s victory. The wife fled, the bandit tried to catch her but failed, and left after taking the samurai’s sword.
Throughout the film, both the woodcutter and especially the priest express their horror, disbelief and confusion at what transpired at the trial, but not, as the term “Rashomon effect” implies, because the fickleness of human memory made it impossible to know the truth. Their horror was at the inability to reach a conclusion because everyone was lying, and, moreover, I’d argue, because all the liars confessed to the crime, even though that would seem to be against their interests. To the extent it’s a film about unknowability, it’s less about how we can’t know events than how we can’t understand each other’s motivations, and to the extent it’s about how we can’t know events, it’s about how we can’t know events because of dishonesty, not because of imperfect recollection. Maybe this seems a pedantic point, but the idea that Rashomon is about subjectivity and memory isn’t just present in pop psychology. Film critics and filmmakers have also misapprehended this point to a greater or lesser extent over the years, and I’m convinced the idea of the “Rashomon effect” has played a part in that by priming people to view Rashomon that way, similar to how years of debating whether Deckard from Blade Runner is a replicant has primed people to watch Blade Runner as if whether or not Deckard is a replicant is a core question of the film (it’s not).
When I started researching this piece, I went looking for critical writing about Rashomon as a film about deceit rather than memory and came up empty-handed. It’s possible there’s tons of academic writing about it that fits the bill, but I can’t afford to go behind academic paywalls, so maybe I’m way off here. But the closest I came was this short piece from the Australian Centre for the Moving Image called “Everyone is selfish and dishonest”. I thought I’d finally hit the jackpot, and there is admittedly a bit where it asks “All the testimonies cannot be true, so which characters are lying? Which are telling the truth?” But in literally the next paragraph, it says “Kurosawa makes us see what the characters see – which doesn’t necessarily align with the truth of the incident.” From there on, it’s right back to the Rashomon effect stuff:
“What the film seems to meditate on is questions of the foibles of human memory. Are our memories, shaped by our inclinations, preconceived notions and fantasies, so distorted that correct recount is impossible? As [the bandit] remembers the events through a valiant, honourable lens, and the Wife remembers herself as contrite and racked with grief, Kurosawa notates that veracity can be unattainable in circumstances of human recollection.”
Both that piece and Roger Ebert’s review of Rashomon for his “Great Movies” series do point to a reason why this confusion may have initially arose, but it’s a frustrating one: “It was the first use of flashbacks that disagreed about the action they were flashing back to.” And yes, that’s true, but it actually undersells how transformative Kurosawa’s use of the flashback in Rashomon really is. The trick is not just that the flashbacks disagree, but that they’re not flashbacks at all, at least not in the traditional sense. They’re not representations of the characters’ memories, but representations of their testimonies at the trial. Ebert says later on, describing the influence of Rashomon: “Because we see the events in flashbacks, we assume they reflect truth. But all they reflect is a point of view, sometimes lied about.” But he’s blurring two different things together: inaccurate flashbacks based on point of view and deceitful “flashbacks” based on lies. For example, I was inspired to write this article after reading an interview with director Scott Derrickson about his film The Exorcism of Emily Rose where both he and the interviewer reference Rashomon as an influence on Emily Rose, but Emily Rose’s differing flashbacks actually do depict pretty much the same physical events, but differ on whether their causes are medical or spiritual.
Rashomon, by contrast, depicts completely different accounts, and doesn’t implicate anyone’s subjectivity at all, just their honesty. Even if that’s not clear from the differing accounts of the bandit, the wife and the samurai, the film hammers it home with the woodcutter. The film opens with a “flashback” to his testimony at the trial, wherein he simply stumbles on the scene of the crime, but later shows a different “flashback” after he admits he arrived while the crime was in progress. In that case, it’s not just disagreement between the testimonies of different people, but disagreement between accounts from the same person. The whole twist of the woodcutter’s confession should wake the audience up to the fact that none of the “flashbacks” are actual representations of memory, but the idea the bandit, the wife and the samurai are lying doesn’t seem to carry much water with critics. Ebert says “although the stories are in radical disagreement, it is [unlikely] any of the original participants are lying for their own advantage, since each claims to be the murderer”, and I suspect that assumption is also implicit in others’ misapprehensions of Rashomon, but it reflects a serious misunderstanding of reality (people confess to crimes they didn’t commit literally all the time, for lots of reasons) and of the characters themselves. When I watched Rashomon, it wasn’t that hard for me to imagine why each of the characters might lie: the bandit says he killed the samurai in a fierce duel because of his swaggering macho ego; the wife says she killed her husband because she wants to die and hopes to be executed; the samurai says he killed himself because that’s how samurai who have brought shame upon themselves may nonetheless die with honour.
I’m not saying these are airtight interpretations, and I freely admit they are just interpretations, but they feel closer to an accurate understanding of Rashomon than any interpretations based on the notion their testimonies disagree due to faulty recollection. And while the distinction might seem minor, it matters a lot, for the reasons I alluded to at the start of this piece: fallible memory is no one’s fault, but lying is an act we choose to do, and which therefore has moral implications. There’s an obvious moral difference between a witness to a crime who honestly does their best to accurately recall what happened but makes mistakes because of memory’s imperfections (à la the Rashomon effect) and a witness who lies about what they saw because they don’t want to get involved (the woodcutter’s initial explanation for why he lied at the trial). The woodcutter hindered the course of public justice and potentially allowed the bandit to get away with his crimes (we don’t see the result of the trial). You can’t help having a bad memory but lying is a decision and you’re morally responsible for its consequences.
When we scrub Rashomon of that moral dimension, it diminishes a very important and beautiful film about morality. The story ends with the woodcutter taking in an abandoned child, even though he already has six children at home to feed, and his generosity restores the priest’s faith in humanity after it was trampled by the events of the trial. Rashomon is, in part, about how humans, as flawed as we may be, can still be good, how even the sinner can do the right thing, and how we can continue to hope for the future even when the present seems so bleak. That seems a lot more meaningful than a film about how, man, memory is weird, right?