The Myth of the Rashōmon Effect: A Film Misremembered

If you’ve spent much time thinking about narrative, or about truth-telling in general, you have probably encountered the word Rashōmon.

Cover of the Criterion Collection Blu-ray for the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon.

The 1950 film by that name, directed by Kurosawa Akira, made a deep impression on American storytellers and critics. Not only has it been credited with “effectively opening the world of Japanese cinema to the West,” in the words of Roger Ebert. Its title also has given us an irreplaceable metaphor in English: the Rashōmon effect.”

Unfortunately, most Americans’ impression of this film is wrong. It contradicts both the details and the argument of Kurosawa’s movie. (Yes, I appreciate the irony.)

The movie definitely has an argument. The director said so. And the film itself isn’t exactly subtle about it. Of course, viewers should form their own opinions about any work of art, and anyone who tries to tell true stories—including a history teacher—may benefit from watching Kurosawa’s classic film for themselves. But if you do that, I recommend trying to experience it without the preconceptions that American popular culture has grafted onto it.

You may find, as I did, that this great work of art speaks to you in ways we have not been led to expect.

(One word of caution: The plot of the film involves suicide and sexual assault. Though I will avoid discussing the latter here, both are central to the story.)

A model of Kyoto’s Rajōmon, via Wikimedia Commons

The titular Rajōmon, or city gate, was a real place: a landmark in Japan’s imperial capital. In the early 20th century, the long-vanished ruins of this gate in Kyoto became the setting for a short story. This tale, “Rashōmon,” by a university student named Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, would become the basis for the framing narrative used 35 years later in Kurosawa’s film.

Counterintuitively, however, the movie’s main plot actually comes from a different Akutagawa short story. It was this cryptic later work, “In a Grove,” that supplied the radically fractured and contradictory narrative that made the film famous.

This fact is important: Adapting Akutagawa’s work, Kurosawa stripped most of the plot from one of his stories in order to turn it into his own commentary on the other. This matters for grasping the story Kurosawa ultimately told in Rashōmon.

Kurosawa’s movie opens with a downpour. Rain batters the ruins of Kyoto’s ancient city gate, where a middle-aged woodcutter and a young priest have taken shelter. The first words spoken in the film belong to the woodcutter: “I don’t understand. I just don’t understand.” A rather vulgar third man, known to us simply as a “commoner,” arrives to take refuge from the storm. His curiosity piqued, this newcomer begins to interrogate the woodcutter and priest about what strange thing they have seen.

From the discussion that follows, we learn that this is a time of wars and natural disasters—a generally violent age. But the priest and woodcutter are fixated on a single murder trial they have just witnessed, which has shaken their faith in humanity itself. They tell the story this way:

Three days earlier, in a clearing deep in the forest, a samurai turned up dead. The woodcutter himself stumbled over the body and informed the police. Subsequently, a notorious bandit was captured and tried for the crime. At the trial, however—earlier on the same day as the storm—the woodcutter and the priest heard the three key eyewitnesses give contradictory accounts.

Strangely, the bandit did not deny killing the samurai. But he claimed that he did it reluctantly, and in a fair fight, in a brilliant performance of swordplay, at the behest of the victim’s wife. The grieving woman, for her part, testified that she killed her own husband with a different weapon entirely. Then the dead samurai, speaking from the underworld through a medium, contradicted them both. He testified that—long story short—he died by suicide.

The woodcutter, disgusted, now accuses all three of these eyewitnesses of lying. By doing this, he implicates himself in a lie, since it means he, too, saw the crime unfold, contrary to what he told the court (because “I didn’t want to get involved”).

According to the version of events he relates now, the woodcutter saw the samurai die fighting with the bandit over his wife—much as the bandit later claimed. But the fight started because the samurai treated his wife with great cruelty, and the ensuing combat was cowardly and farcical on both sides. During the fight, the samurai lost his sword, and he died begging in vain for mercy.

If the woodcutter’s tale is true, then each of the other three witnesses to the samurai’s death gave an account that was deeply self-incriminating, yet also somehow pride-preserving. Each witness, in confessing to the killing, was apparently trying (either consciously or not) to hide something else they considered more shameful.

Yet the story isn’t done. The third man at the city gate, the commoner, laughs cruelly. He accuses the woodcutter of lying too. The commoner has realized that the woodcutter must have stolen and sold one of the weapons at the murder scene. The woodcutter, deeply ashamed, appears to acknowledge that this is correct. He, too, shares in the general depravity that the trial exposed.

The film ends with the three men finding an abandoned infant, crying in a corner of the city gate. The commoner steals the kimono the child is swaddled in, telling the others, “If you’re not selfish, you can’t survive.” But the woodcutter, in a final act of moral fortitude, adopts the child as his own, even though he’s a poor man caring for six children already.

As contemporary Americans often use the term, the “Rashōmon effect” is somewhere between banal and meretricious. Different observers experience and remember an event differently; thus, no absolute truth exists. Or perhaps, less radically, the objective truth lies somewhere in the middle of contradictory claims, and we may or may not be able to discover it.

Sheila Marie Orfano, for instance, in a recent, widely viewed TED-Ed video, says the cultural metaphor of the Rashōmon effect “has transformed our understanding of truth, justice, and human memory” as it “undermines the very idea of a singular, objective truth.”

“Its theme is the relativity of truth.” A brief notice in the San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 17, 1952

This notion seems to have originated very early. On Feb. 15, 1952, the day Rashōmon opened in local theaters, the San Francisco Chronicle critic Luther Nichols described it in a review as a meditation on “the subjective nature of truth,” in which objectivity proves impossible “as each teller colors his tale with his own emotions and self-interest.” From the start, then, some American viewers understood the film in the way that has become culturally canonical.

A few weeks later, though, Dean A. Myers of the Columbus Dispatch offered moviegoers in Ohio a somewhat different interpretation. He described the film in a March 19 review as showing “what a slippery thing truth is when men, in seeking to grasp it, twist it to their own view of things until each man has his own little standard of right and wrong—but not the truth.” For Myers, Rashōmon was about sordid lies and self-delusion, not diverse perspectives or imperfections of memory.

From what I can tell, most American reviewers encountering the new film in early 1952 actually favored the gloss of Myers. They typically perceived Rashōmon to be a dramatization of evil, not mere subjectivity. But a version of the interpretation given by Nichols has become dominant over time, among Americans at large if not among film critics.

Kurosawa himself interpreted the film in starkly moralistic terms for his assistant directors. It was, he said, an exploration of the human compulsion to lie:

Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings—the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. It even shows the sinful need for flattering falsehood going beyond the grave …. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem. This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego.

— Kurosawa Akira, Something Like an Autobiography, from the notes included with the Criterion DVD edition

“Surviving without lies”; a “sinful need”; “flattering falsehood”—this does not sound like the language of any kind of relativism. Quite the opposite.

As the film critic Alexander Jacoby notes in his Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors (Stone Bridge Press, 2013), “honesty was a key theme” across several of Kurosawa’s movies in the 1950s. Seen in this light, Rashōmon represents a fairly didactic appeal for “personal integrity.”

Kurosawa’s film does almost nothing to settle the question of how much the witnesses in the story privately believe the contradictory accounts they provide in court. The film’s argument is the same regardless of whether most of the witnesses realize they’re lying. What matters in the film is that each witness is apparently unable to dispense with their own lies. Whether or not their stories are sincere delusions, these characters are all liars. (Except possibly for the priest; we don’t really know about him.)

Of course, if we viewers want to solve the murder mystery at the heart of the film, we can certainly try to imagine the objective reality of the samurai’s death in the forest. We can assume certain aspects of the eyewitness testimony are true, others are misleading subjective interpretations, and others are simply false, and we can try to guess which are which. Playing this game would allow us to interpret the film’s narrative as an example of the so-called Rashōmon effect after all.

But that’s not what the film invites us to do.

True, the biggest differences between the bandit’s story and the woodcutter’s (though not necessarily the other stories) may be understood as a matter of subjective impressions of a complex event. But by the time it’s done, the film gives us three different up-close eyewitness accounts of who killed the samurai, two different up-close eyewitness accounts of which weapon was used, and three different accounts of who was present at the scene when the blade went in. Indeed, we get two fundamentally contradictory accounts just from the woodcutter—who acknowledges outright that at least one of his stories was a deliberate lie.

Given all the framing that the characters at the city gate provide, passing off the witness accounts as four valid subjective impressions—four potentially honest recollections by observers with different viewpoints and imperfect memories—simply won’t do.

Because fundamentally, Rashōmon is not about our ability to reconstruct the past accurately. It’s about what human deceitfulness means for our ability to live truthfully in the present and future.