If you’ve spent much time thinking about narrative, or about truth-telling in general, you have probably encountered the word Rashōmon.
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.
Continue reading “The Myth of the Rashōmon Effect: A Film Misremembered”
For my new introductory course in American studies, which began last week, I wanted to explain the concept of American cultural narratives—a term fundamental to my framing of the course—through a discussion activity rather than a lecture. So for our second class meeting, I prepared a slate of four primary sources for us to examine together.
I wanted this discussion activity to establish (or begin establishing) several ideas at once:
- Concepts of American national identity take the form of shared narratives.
- Narratives of national identity and of personal identity are interrelated.
- Contrasting, even contradictory, narratives of American identity are nothing new.
- Narratives can be read in sources that do not appear to take the form of a story.
To make my argument for these ideas—or ideally to help my students make the argument on their own—I combined a simple slideshow of images and a stack of photocopy handouts. I entitled the slideshow “The Stories We Tell: Setting an Agenda for Study.”
In class, to set a scene, I explained that we were going to be visiting the era of the American Revolution today. In some cases, we would be focusing on the region around Philadelphia, the new (sometime) national capital, which also happens to be the city in which our course is happening in 2020.
Source 1: Winthrop Chandler, Homestead of General Timothy Ruggles, 1770
I wanted to begin with a source that might shake up preconceptions a bit, and which would require virtually no background historical knowledge.
Continue reading “American Narratives and Identities: A Primary Source Activity”