There are many ways of telling the same reality, since each one can perceive the world in a radically different way from the rest of their fellow human beings, giving rise to misunderstandings and multiple visions of the same fact.

And this is what the curious Rashomon effect refers to , a phenomenon whose origin lies in a film by one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century , who, through his particular film, represented a before and after in the history of cinema.

We will look more deeply into this phenomenon, what implications it has beyond fictional narrative and what importance it has shown to play in fields such as justice and psychology.

What is the Rashomon effect?

The Rashomon effect is a phenomenon that is produced because of the subjectivity and personal perception of each person when telling the same real event. That is to say, it is the fact that several people, who have lived the same event, try to describe it, but mixing their perception of what they have lived, which makes each one explain it in his own way , forgetting or exaggerating some aspects or others. Despite the number of versions that may arise, these turn out to be plausible, making it difficult to choose just one.

This effect is very recurrent in narrative, that is, whether in a special episode of a series, part of a movie or chapter of a book, it is very common to find several characters who expose their reality, from their own point of view, which is, as can be understood, totally subjective. Resorting to this type of resource, in which the first-person narrator or the omniscient disappears to give way to characters who may be more testimonial, helps to break the monotony of many fictions.

With the case of the Rashomon effect it is understood that reality in a given story is something that depends completely on one’s own subjectivity , and that factors such as the limitation of information received, age, gender, memory, the influence of others or someone’s beliefs are aspects that influence the way in which a story is revived. The stories told by the characters may be true and, in turn, seem incompatible, unless one of them is lying.

Origin of this effect

We owe the name of this effect to the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa who, in 1950, presented the film Rashōmon, a film based on two stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. The plot of the film is the murder of a samurai and subsequent rape of his wife in 12th century Japan, and how various characters try to find out, through their testimony, who was really guilty of such an atrocious act, before deciding to execute the person who is supposed to be the material author of the events.

Throughout the film, each character remembers by means of flashbacks, presenting the stories within other stories, and seeing each one of them as something potentially true, which makes the plot complicated. At Rashōmon it is shown how all these stories, from a certain perspective, are something that cannot be taken as false , that the reality they describe depends on the context, background and conditions of each subject.

Kurosawa’s influence on general culture

With this way of describing the plot of his film, Kurosawa made his film have an important impact worldwide. Moreover, this influence was not only in the world of the arts, but also in the fields of law, psychology and philosophy.

With Rashōmon many series, films and books tried to imitate this same style, in which there is no specific narrator . All these stories, combined, allow a deep knowledge of the real situation.

Just to mention a few series and films, below is a list of these works of fiction in which the Rashomon effect has been used at some point: How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014), Lost (2004-2010), The Affair (2014), Captives of Evil (Vincente Minnelli, 1952), The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995), Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999), Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001), Tape (Richard Linklater, 2001), Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002) and Lost (David Fincher, 2014).

But, as we have seen, this effect is not only a matter of directors and writers. In the legal sphere, the Rashomon effect is mentioned when you have a case in which witnesses are indicating testimony that is either apparently contradictory to one another, or too much happened to take just one of their stories as valid.

Turning to the social sciences, especially social psychology, the term “rashomon effect” is used to refer to situations in which the importance of a certain event, value or objective, in abstract terms, is not disputed, but there are several visions or assessments regarding the why, the how, the who and the what for .

The effect and the media

Although the media try to be platforms whose objective is to describe reality as objectively as possible, the truth is that on many occasions they fail in this attempt. One could say that their way of seeing things and (why not say it more directly?) their ideology are mixed up with the way they give a certain fact. That’s why the idea that the media are deceiving us is very widespread .

Each media outlet deals with the same news item in a different way, omitting some data and highlighting others. This would fall into the category of disinformation, but it serves as a clear example of how capricious the Rashomon effect can be, which can be perfectly unnoticed.

Given that there are so many media outlets and that each one explains what is convenient for it, one can understand that there are many stories that are broadcast on our television screens, or come to us on the Internet and in newspapers, and that, all together, they would allow us to know as deeply as possible what has really happened. Although, of course, this would imply having to review the same news but in various media.

Bibliographic references:

  • “The Rashomon Effect: When Ethnographers Disagree”, by Karl G. Heider (American Anthropologist, March 1988, Vol. 90 No. 1, pp. 73-81).
  • Davenport, C. (2010). “Rashomon Effect, Observation, and Data Generation.” Media Bias, Perspective, and State Repression: The Black Panther Party. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 52-73, esp. 55
  • Anderson, Robert (2016). “The Rashomon Effect and Communication. Canadian Journal of Communication. Vancouver Canada (41(2)): 250-265. ISSN 0705-3657
  • Davis, Blair; Anderson, Robert; and Walls, Jan, eds. (2015). Rashomon Effects: Kurosawa, Rashomon and Their Legacies. Routledge Advances in Film Studies. Abingdon, ENG: Routledge. ISBN 1138827096. Retrieved 28 September 2016. See also the citation of individual chapters.