Readers Write In #243: Rashomon and Rashomon Effect

Posted on August 15, 2020

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(by Radhakrishnan Mahalikudi)

“Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.”   — Akira Kurosawa

Official Trailer:

In the words of Richard Feynman: “From a long view of the history of mankind – seen from, say, ten thousand years from now – there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the nineteenth century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade.” Whether it is Maxwell, Newton, or Einstein, more than the beauty of their findings and simple (but so much power packed in them) equations, to me the wonder is how did they think about them in the first place. How did they dream about it? What was the trigger? Their wiring must be different, I guess 🤔

To borrow Feynman’s words shamelessly, I get the same feeling, when I think about Rashomon. Of course, I wouldn’t take it as far to 10000 years. Ever after 70 years, Rashomon is still riveting and fascinating to watch, both the movie and its message has withstood the test of time. I got to watch the movie first time early 90s, thanks to Blockbuster video rental store, and post that every time I watched it or thought about it (too many occasions what with all kinds of conflicting news going around), I always end up with huge admiration and wonderment, how did the thought, to make a movie like this, occur to Akira Kurosawa. Many later movies like Courage under fire and Vantage Point in Hollywood, Andha Naal and Virumandi in Tamil, have used the narrative structure of Rashomon. There are many which have used the unreliable narrator techniques like Usual Suspects. Of course,they are good, but none of them were able to present the core message, perspective distorts reality and makes the truth unknowable, as powerful and as intense as Rashomon.

The film opens beneath Rashomon city gate where a woodcutter, priest, and a commoner has taken shelter from rainstorm. Woodcutter and priest start telling a disturbing event about a bandit, Samurai, and Samurai’s wife. The central tale is entirely presented in flashbacks from the perspectives of four narrators. Rashomon is one of few movies where flashback technique is used effectively, every narrator is retelling the event from their memory and it is played to us in flashbacks. Characters and many details, like rape and murder, remain the same in each narration. But there are variations. In bandit’s account, he refutes the charge of rape, it was an act of mutual consent.He fought with the freed Samurai fiercely and killed him. Bandit agrees to the murder but he did it to save the honor of the wife. In wife’s account, she mentions the bandit raped her and left. She begs her husband to kill her. In a state of high emotion, she passes out and wakes up to find her husband dead with the dagger in his chest. But the dead Samurai’s story (he speaks through the medium)is completely different. Rape happened, but his wife decides to go with the bandit. Wife runs away, bandit frees him, and he kills himself with the dagger. Final narration from the impartial witness, the woodcutter, is a mesh of all the three and comes across as very unreliable.

For the viewer, all the four flashbacks come across as compelling and there is no reason not to believe them. But the challenge is all the four accounts are so divergent it is impossible to piece them together to figure out what really occurred.It is impossible to determine which part of the flashback is true and which is made up. Out of the 4 narrators, 3 claim they committed the murder. Even if you try harder, you can never put the pieces together to get to the absolute truth. Therein lies the brilliance of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Rashomon is not after giving us a closure, who is guilty or who is innocent. Rashomon is after something deeper,our inability to reconstruct truth especially when human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. Next time when you narrate a story about your childhood or college days to your friends stop and ask yourself, how much of it really happened. With multiple retelling we reach a state where we can’t even figure out which part is real, and which is spiced up.

Rashomon demands a lot from its actors, especially the 3 main characters, the bandit, the Samurai, and the wife. Their characters differ in each narration. Depending on the story, the Samurai has to appear to be a man of honor, bad, or cowardly. The wife has to be a seductress, a victim, or a manipulator. Bandit has to appear feared, seductive, brave, or cowardly. We see each one as they see themselves and through the eyes of others. This is as demanding as it can get for any actor. All three, Toshiro Mifune (the bandit), Masayuki Mori (the Samurai), and Machiko Kyo (the wife), bring the characters to life with different shades in each perspective.

Impact of the movie was so much, it led to the term Rashomon Effect. The term refers to unreliability of witnesses. If you hear or read about events where there are contradictory interpretations or descriptions by the individuals involved, step back and take a deep breath. What you have is subjective, self-interested advocacy and not an objective truth. Better to keep it aside and wait rather than getting to a conclusion.

So, why talk about Rashomon, a movie that came 70 hears back and describe Rashomon effect now, in 2020? I think the message it conveys is highly relevant even for our current times. With 24 hours news channels, online news, biased media – print, TV, and online, Rashomon is all the more appropriate now. It advocates reasoning, question what you hear and see before you jump to a conclusion. It cautions us not to get carried away by narratives that rely less on facts and more on imagined stories, and exaggerations. When history is written by victors how can one be so sure what really occurred? Our history talks about kings and queens and not about ordinary people, farmers or weavers or slaves or discriminated people. When narration is controlled by the majority, saner voices get drowned. How can one be sure what stood in a particular place 500+ years back? What drives people to massacre fellow human beings when we don’t know the objective truth? One would expect 9 minutes video of George Floyd’s murder to unite the population and put an end to systemic oppression. No, rather the split has widened and has opened the fault lines. We ended up with so many Yeah….buts. You may wonder what is the connection between Rashomon Effect, Mandir, and George Floyd? As a society we are not able to come to terms with the reality. In our perceived reality, if there is a place and argument for killing 2000+ people to build a structure or choke an unarmed man to death just because he is of different color or fly planes loaded with fuel into skyscrapers resulting in death of 4000+ people or bomb places of worship just because they happen to believe in a different god, then it is a hugely flawed one with a gaping hole in it.

In the end, we are left with the profound recognition that the objective truth will never be found. We can go after and aspire for it but can never reconstruct the objective truth.We end up making assumptions, judgements, and approximations. We are left with this unsettling feeling that….Truth,Memory, History … are fictions after all. Stories we have imagined and chose to believe because it is convenient; stories we have been told and continue to believe because we are asked never to question; stories we believe to conform even though it has holes because our friends and family believe in it; stories we believe more because of loyalty than fact – I am part of the community or organization; stories we believe because we are just lazy to take the time to reason out. As a start, can we agree on the current reality that we have made phenomenal progress in the last 200 years but still have systemic oppression, discrimination, and man-made poverty? Collectively focus on eliminating oppression, discrimination, and poverty than fighting over mythic idyllic past? And yes, start appreciating the beauty in Maxwell, Newton, Euler, and Einstein’s equations.