In 1951 the film Rashomon, by famed Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, premiered at the Venice Film Festival and changed storytelling forever. Rashomon created a plot device so revolutionary that today we call it the Rashomon Effect. Let’s talk about the Rashomon Effect, the film that made it, and how you can use it in your writing. We’ll also look at a few other films that use the Rashomon Effect. There is also a practice section for you to write a scene using the Rashomon Effect at the bottom.
What is the Rashomon Effect?
The Rashomon Effect describes when several eyewitnesses describe a single event differently. Writers have used the Rashomon Effect as a plot structure since the release of Rashomon in 1950. You’ll see it in movies, but it’s also prevalent in sitcoms. This phenomenon also occurs in real life. The Rashomon Effect is often referenced in court cases and academic research.
However, we’re interested in the use of this device in fiction. So, let’s talk about the film that originated the Rashomon Effect plot device.In 1951 the film Rashomon, by famed Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, premiered at the Venice Film Festival and changed storytelling forever. Rashomon created a revolutionary plot device called the Rashomon Effect. Learn how to use the Rashomon… Click To Tweet
Let’s discuss Rashomon, the film that devised the Rashomon Effect. Now, I’m not going to attempt an in-depth analysis of Rashomon or talk about its revolutionary filming techniques because I’m no film critic. I will drop a few links at the bottom of the page for a more in-depth discussion of this film, though.
Rashomon opens with three men taking shelter from a rainstorm under the Rashomon Gate. The men are a priest, a woodcutter, and a commoner. The priest and woodcutter tell the commoner they were just called as witnesses to the murder of a samurai.
We then view a flashback to the court hearing of the thief accused of murdering the samurai. The thief admits he killed the samurai after lusting for the man’s wife. Eventually, the audience, who view the hearing from an unseen judge’s point of view, hear four versions of the samurai’s murder.
We hear a version of events from these four characters: the thief, the wife, the samurai’s ghost, and the woodcutter. Each version of the event is vastly different from the other three, and the only thing that is agreed on is that someone killed the samurai.
Each character tells a version of the story that paints themself in the best light. The thief claims that he killed the samurai after a valiant duel. The wife claims that she asked her husband to kill her but fainted and fell on him with her dagger. The samurai claims to have committed an honorable suicide. The woodcutter claims the samurai and thief’s duel was awkward and cowardly, but he neglects to mention that he stole the wife’s dagger.
So, what’s the truth? Unlike later uses of the Rashomon Effect, the audience never learns the actual version of events. So, why is that? Well, to understand the reasoning behind this film’s cryptic nature, we need to talk about its theme.
Theme in Rashomon
Two big ideas presented within the film Rashomon are objective truth and the subjective nature of human experience. At one point, the commoner states that all humans lie. This statement is true; all humans do lie. The film asks and partially answers the question- why do humans lie?
According to the movie, one primary reason behind a person’s deception is self-interest. All four characters lie to make themselves look better. Because all people are self-interested and this self-interest leads even the noble woodcutter to lie, can we ever know the objective truth? Does human virtue even exist?
The film leaves us with an ambiguous answer to one of these questions, and I encourage you to watch it and draw your conclusions based on the text.
The point to take away, for our purposes, is that in Rashomon, the plot structure is not a gimmick. The structure helps to develop the film’s themes.
Another technique that Rashomon masterfully employs is that of the unreliable narrator.
How to Use the Rashomon Effect
Like any choice in writing, using the Rashomon Effect to structure your plot should have some purpose. Let’s discuss different ways to use this story structure in your narrative.
To develop your theme.
The film Rashomon uses its unique plot structure to highlight themes around truth and human nature. Use this plot structure to develop a theme in your own story. How can you do this?
You can develop a theme by raising questions in your reader’s mind. You can provide answers to some of those questions and leave other questions unanswered. In your plot, ambiguity will force your reader to think about big ideas and draw their conclusions.
To reveal character
At the end of Rashomon, the audience discovers that the woodcutter is lying. He failed to inform the judge that he stole the wife’s dagger after finding the samurai’s body. This revelation is important because, until this point, we assumed that the woodcutter had no reason to lie. Hence, the audience believes that his version of events is truthful.
Throughout the narrative, each character’s story tells us something important about that character. It tells us how the character views themself and how the character wants the audience to view them.
Use the Rashomon Effect to reveal your character’s motivation. What’s important to your character, and what are they trying to hide? How do these things affect your plot?
To create conflict
Opposing viewpoints create conflicts. I don’t think this fact is news to anyone. The most intriguing conflict at the heart of Rashomon is not the conflict between characters. We know, regardless of the truth, the thief’s execution will resolve that dispute.
The most exciting conflict presented in the film is the conflict it creates in the viewers’ minds. We are left to grapple with huge questions involving human nature and objective reality. When using the Rashomon Effect, be sure to make conflict both in your plot and in your reader’s mind.
Examples of the Rashomon Effect in Film
This movie is split in half by two narrators. The story is told from both Nick and Amy’s point of view. Each character has a vested interest in the way the audience perceives them. We get two different versions of their marriage, and, in the end, the truth of their relationship is unclear.
In Usual Suspects, we have one narrator, Verbal Kent, who gives the audience various versions of the same story. By the end, and if you haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin it; we discover that Verbal was lying the whole time. Again, the audience is left with no clear answers.
This movie has obvious similarities to Rashomon. Several gang members give conflicting accounts of a jewel heist gone wrong. Most of the lies told in the film hide the protagonist’s real motivation.
The Last Jedi
You know the scene where Luke is standing over Ben with his lightsaber drawn? Classic Rashomon Effect.
Courage Under Fire
This film is a convoluted tale of the death of an Army Captain played by Meg Ryan. She commands a medevac helicopter, and each surviving member of her crew gives a different account of her death. In some versions, the captain is a hero, and in others, she is portrayed as a coward. In the end, along with the film’s protagonist, we discover the truth, which reveals the movie’s broader theme.
Choose a prompt below. Write the scene from each characters’ point of view. Change the story slightly with each POV to reflect character motivation, and create conflict.
You can use the boxes provided to type in. Your text won’t be posted or recorded.
If you love your scene, post it in the comments!
Prompt A: A robber holds up a convenience store. He shoots and kills the clerk. There are four witnesses to the crime.
Write the scene from each character point of view:
- The robber
- The clerk
- An off duty police officer
- An elderly man/woman in line to buy gas
Prompt B: Two servers meet secretly in the alleyway of the restaurant and begin to kiss. A third employee comes out of the fire exit with the night’s trash. The third employee sees the two servers and storms off. One of the servers chases after them.
Write the scene from each character point of view:
- Server 1
- Server 2
Continue reading about the Rashomon Effect: