The Rashomon Effect: The Phenomenon, Named After Akira Kurosawa’s Classic Film, Where Each of Us Remembers the Same Event Differently

Toward the end of The Simp­sons’ gold­en age, one episode sent the tit­u­lar fam­i­ly off to Japan, not with­out resis­tance from its famous­ly lazy patri­arch. “Come on, Homer,” Marge insists, “Japan will be fun! You liked Rashomon.” To which Homer nat­u­ral­ly replies, “That’s not how I remem­ber it!” This joke must have writ­ten itself, not as a high-mid­dle­brow cul­tur­al ref­er­ence (as, say, Frasi­er would lat­er name-check Tam­popo) but as a play on a uni­ver­sal­ly under­stood byword for the nature of human mem­o­ry. Even those of us who’ve nev­er seen Rashomon, the peri­od crime dra­ma that made its direc­tor Aki­ra Kuro­sawa a house­hold name in the West, know what its title rep­re­sents: the ten­den­cy of each human being to remem­ber the same event in his own way.

“A samu­rai is found dead in a qui­et bam­boo grove,” says the nar­ra­tor of the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son above. “One by one, the crime’s only known wit­ness­es recount their ver­sion of the events that tran­spired. But as they each tell their tale, it becomes clear that every tes­ti­mo­ny is plau­si­ble, yet dif­fer­ent, and each wit­ness impli­cates them­selves.”

So goes “In a Grove,” a sto­ry by cel­e­brat­ed ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry writer Ryūno­suke Aku­ta­gawa. An avid read­er, Kuro­sawa com­bined that lit­er­ary work with anoth­er of Aku­ta­gawa’s to cre­ate the script for Rashomon. Both Aku­ta­gawa and Kuro­sawa “use the tools of their media to give each char­ac­ter’s tes­ti­mo­ny equal weight, trans­form­ing each wit­ness into an unre­li­able nar­ra­tor.” Nei­ther read­er nor view­er can trust any­one — nor, ulti­mate­ly, can they arrive at a defen­si­ble con­clu­sion as to the iden­ti­ty of the killer.

Such con­flicts of mem­o­ry and per­cep­tion occur every­where in human affairs: this TED-Ed les­son finds exam­ples in biol­o­gy, anthro­pol­o­gy, pol­i­tics, and media. Suf­fi­cient­ly many psy­cho­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­na con­verge to give rise to the Rashomon effect that it seems almost overde­ter­mined; it may be more illu­mi­nat­ing to ask under what con­di­tions does­n’t it occur. But it also makes us ask even tougher ques­tions: “What is truth, any­way? Are there sit­u­a­tions when an objec­tive truth does­n’t exist? What can dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the same event tell us about the time, place, and peo­ple involved? And how can we make group deci­sions if we’re all work­ing with dif­fer­ent infor­ma­tion, back­grounds, and bias­es?” We seem to be no clos­er to defin­i­tive answers than we were when Rashomon came out more than 70 years ago — only one of the rea­sons the film holds up so well still today.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Why Time Seems to Fly By As You Get Old­er, and How to Slow It Down: A Sci­en­tif­ic Expla­na­tion by Neu­ro­sci­en­tist David Eagle­man

How to Improve Your Mem­o­ry: Four TED Talks Explain the Tech­niques to Remem­ber Any­thing

How Did Aki­ra Kuro­sawa Make Such Pow­er­ful & Endur­ing Films? A Wealth of Video Essays Break Down His Cin­e­mat­ic Genius

What Is Déjà Vu? Michio Kaku Won­ders If It’s Trig­gered by Par­al­lel Uni­vers­es

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Lou says:

    You seem to remem­ber Rashomon dif­fer­ent­ly than I do. My take is that it was­n’t as much about memory/perception as it was about self-inter­est and moti­va­tion. Every­one lied, for their own per­son­al rea­sons. No one pre­sent­ed their actu­al mem­o­ries, just plau­si­ble sto­ries that would serve them best.

  • Gerard Croce says:

    I have a dif­fer­ent inter­pre­ta­tion of the for­est scenes. I see the three scenes with three roles as being an argu­ment that human­i­ty as a whole is not wor­thy of redemp­tion in the reli­gious or spir­i­tu­al sense. There are a total of nine human arche­types (twelve if you count the jury scenes), not hav­ing char­ac­ter devel­op­ment on the sto­ry, and with­out pos­sess­ing the com­pas­sion which is nec­es­sary for redemp­tion. In this view, the sto­ry has noth­ing to do with per­son­al expe­ri­ences and mem­o­ry. It is meant to enter­tain the view­er, and to make the argu­ment that the hero wood­cut­ter is excep­tion­al when he redeems him­self of the crime of per­jury by res­cu­ing the infant in the last scene.

    The for­mu­la is: suf­fer­ing leads to com­pas­sion, leads to sac­ri­fice, leads to redemp­tion. That’s why the hero had to com­mit theft of the dag­ger and com­mit the per­jury. Redemp­tion requires some sort of guilt or orig­i­nal flaw. This is a com­mon theme, e.g. Chris­tian­i­ty, opera, lit­er­a­ture.

    I also think that Kuro­sawa had a cameo role as the thief. If you exclude all the enter­tain­ing bal­let in the for­est, the thief was on screen for all the impor­tant scenes except the tri­al. He spoke the truth.

  • Fish says:

    I gen­uine­ly can­not tell whether or not this com­ment was made with full aware­ness of its irony.

  • Lou says:

    Then mis­sion accom­plished!

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