- The Rashomon Effect demonstrates that eyewitness testimony can be unreliable due to bias, flawed memory, and differences in perception.
- The conflicting testimonies in Rashomon highlight the limitations of relying solely on eyewitness accounts.
- The woodcutter’s admission of his own flaws and willingness to do good restores the priest’s faith in humanity, emphasizing that nobody is perfect and that people can still try to make good decisions despite the unknowability of absolute truth.
The end of Rashomon shows that people can be untrustworthy, and sometimes the truth is unknowable, but everyone can still try their best to make good decisions with the information available to them. Rashomon is a 1950 movie written and directed by the legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. It won an honorary Academy Award for “best foreign-language film” years before “Best International Feature Film” was an official Oscar category.
Rashomon features three characters, a priest, a woodcutter, and a beggar taking shelter under a dilapidated Rashomon city gate as they discuss a troubling murder case they’d witnessed at court that day. A samurai and his wife were traveling through town when the samurai was killed and a bandit, Tajomaru, was apprehended as the primary suspect. The trial included testimony from Tajomaru himself, the samurai’s wife, and the dead samurai’s spirit via a medium. The contradictory nature of the testimonies made it impossible to know who was actually telling the truth, greatly disturbing the men at the gate, who begin to lose faith in humanity.
What is the Rashomon Effect?
Why eyewitness testimony, especially from conflicting sources, can’t always be trusted.
Rashomon‘s multiple unreliable narratives are the inspiration for the “Rashomon effect,” which hasn’t only been utilized in other movies, television, and literature, but is even cited in journalism and legal proceedings. Like the characters in Rashomon, the “Rashomon effect” describes the unreliability of eyewitness accounts. While elements of truth can be derived from eyewitnesses, bias, self-interest, flawed memory, and differences in perception can all consciously and unconsciously shape or re-shape the narrative to the point that two people can witness the same event and give contradictory statements describing what actually happened.
The Rashomon effect was even prominently cited by the Supreme Court of Queensland, Australia, in the case of The Australian Institute for Progress Ltd v The Electoral Commission of Queensland & Ors.
The Rashomon effect isn’t meant to invalidate eyewitness testimony entirely but to show its limitations and the need for additional objective context to understand the true reality of a situation. Eyewitness accounts can provide tremendously helpful information in a trial, for example, but if it’s not paired with more objective evidence like DNA or photographs, eyewitness testimony alone can (and has) resulted in false convictions.
What Do All Three Stories Have in Common?
Do Tojamoru, the wife, and the samurai agree on anything?
After the Woodcutter discovers the dead body of the samurai, a bandit, Tajomaru, is discovered with the samurai’s horse and possessions, and the wife is found hiding in town. Tajomaru and the wife and a medium channeling the spirit of the dead samurai testify in court with different accounts of how the samurai died, giving three conflicting testimonies. Tajomaru goes first, saying he’ll tell the whole truth since he has nothing to lose, claiming he beat the samurai in a fair duel. The wife claims she passed out, and he was dead when she woke up, and through the medium, the samurai says he killed himself.
While the stories have notable differences, there’s a few areas of overlap. All three accounts agree that the Bandit tricked the samurai into leaving the path, tied him up, and assaulted his wife. Tajomaru says he seduced her, although the wife and the spirit of the samurai both suggest it was less consensual, unfortunately, she’s still assumed to be accountable by all three accounts, and her assault isn’t a component of the proceedings. Tajomaru says he defeated the samurai with his sword in a duel, while the samurai and the wife both claim he was killed by the wife’s dagger.
Tajomaru’s account is the most suspect. While he says he has nothing to lose, so he’ll tell the full truth, his version of events conveniently only serve to improve his reputation at every step. He frames his assault on the wife as seduction and the duel with the husband as a more honorable slaying. While the samurai and his wife give very similar accounts, both of which are somewhat more self-deprecating than the bandit, once again, each perspective serves to shift the teller into a somewhat more favorable light. Unfortunately, there’s not enough clear points of agreement to distill a more accurate version of the story relying purely on these three testimonies.
What Really Happened?
Is it possible to know who was telling the truth?
After recounting the testimonies he witnessed in court, the woodcutter reveals he knew they were all lying because he’d actually witnessed the entire encounter. His version of the story is an amalgamation of the least flattering version of each person’s testimony. He says Tajomaru wanted the samurai’s wife to marry him, but she instead released her husband so he could take revenge on Tajomaru. When her husband blamed her for the encounter, she criticized them both and shamed them into a half-hearted duel, which Tajomaru won while the wife ran away. While his version seems most plausible, he’s already hurt his credibility by lying about the story in the first place.
Despite his credibility issues, the woodcutter is the only neutral party and his testimony doesn’t have any apparent bias or conflicts of interest like the other testimonies do. The samurai would rather people thought he killed himself than know his wife rejected him and a bandit killed him. The wife would rather everyone think she had fainted, and the Tajomaru doesn’t want everyone to know he won a cowardly duel demanded by the samurai’s wife simply because the samurai slipped.
The Baby and the True Meaning of Rashomon’s Ending Explained
Is the woodcutter telling the truth?
After the woodcutter finishes his account, a baby begins crying and the men find an abandoned child in a bassinet with a kimono and amulet. The beggar steals the kimono and amulet, and when the priest and woodcutter criticize him and lament that everyone in the world is selfish and dishonest, the beggar accuses the woodcutter of stealing the wife’s dagger – the real reason he didn’t come forward with his testimony. While his story may be true, his behavior betrays he’s just as flawed as everyone else, a fact the beggar uses to justify seizing the kimono and amulet left with the baby for himself.
The woodcutter offers to take care of the baby himself because he already has six kids of his own. While the priest initially doesn’t trust him, the woodcutter repents: “I’m the one who should be ashamed. I don’t understand my own soul.” Despite his noble gesture, the priest – and the audience – still doesn’t have enough information to know who’s actually trustworthy; however, it’s notable that the woodcutter is the first to admit his own flaws. Nobody is perfect, and Rashomon shows even people with the best intentions could be unreliable narrators to their own lives, but the priest’s faith in humanity is ultimately restored by the woodcutter’s willingness to admit his flaws and try to do good anyway.