06 March 2023

The Rashomon Effect

My February SleuthSayers slot missed Valentine's Day, so I'm belatedly sharing a link (at end of this post) to my love story published on Yellow Mama at that time, a flash-plus piece you might find cynical. But it really isn't. Rather, it uses the Rashomon effect to demonstrate, as all such tales do, that truth is in the experience of the individual. In the original Japanese movie Rashomon (1950), filmmaker Akira Kurosawa showed an event, the death of a samurai, from four different points of view, without reconciling them or concluding the story with a version of what "really happened."

Since then, much has been written about the Rashomon Effect in movies, literature, and real life, even in the courtroom. Kurosawa's great theme, the ambiguity of truth, is more or less important to each storyteller who uses this powerful technique. I suspect this is why some of the examples often cited are better examples of the unreliable narrator—or unreliable narrative, with its deceptive twists and turns—than of the Rashomon Effect. The Usual Suspects, for example, appears on Rashomon lists, but does it belong there? How about Gone Girl?

For fun, I watched a couple of movies I hadn't seen in many years that are always cited as Rashomon Effect stories: Les Girls (1957) and Courage Under Fire (1996).

Les Girls was a musical that won the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Comedy or Musical). It's still lots of fun, silly in the way that all Fifties musicals were, and worth seeing for Cole Porter's songs, Gene Kelly and Mitzi Gaynor's apache dance, and Kay Kendall's performance, which won her a Golden Globe for Best Actress (Comedy or Musical). Her drunken rendition of Carmen's "Habanera" alone was worth the $2.99 I paid to see the movie on Amazon Prime. The Rashomon Effect is applied to events that occurred many years before the present, in Paris in the spring, where Gene Kelly's act, Les Girls, was appearing, featuring three young women: an American (Gaynor), an Englishwoman (Kendall), and a Frenchwoman (Taina Elg). Now Kendall has published a book about those events. She is being sued by Elg. Each of them has a different story to tell about which one had a fling with Kelly, which of them tried to kill herself . . . you get the idea. Finally, Kelly appears as a surprise witness to offer yet another version that actually is the truth—though maybe not the whole truth. Filmmaker George Cukor, less subtle than Kurosawa, pounds the Rashomon message home with a guy pacing back and forth in front of the courthouse carrying a sandwich board that says, in giant letters, WHAT IS TRUTH?

Courage Under Fire paired Denzel Washington, as a Gulf War commander tormented by the memory of a fatal error in combat, with Meg Ryan, breaking out from her usual romcom roles, as a candidate for a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor. Investigating the incident that made her a dead hero to evaluate her worthiness for this high honor, Washington finds that each of the men she saved tells a different story. In the end, it turns out they all lied.

If it's a solvable mystery, is it still a Rashomon story?

Here's my story, "Perfect," in Yellow Mama #96.


  1. >What do you do during an English country house weekend when there is no murder?

    A perfect story, Liz. Very clever.

  2. I can kinda sorta see the argument for The Usual Suspects making Rashomon lists, but I agree Gone Girl, much as I liked it, doesn't qualify. What rules out The Usual Suspects?

    Now you have me thinking about Eric Ambler's The Mask of Dimitrios, Liz. Parts of it might quality.

    1. I think it's more a story with a lot of misdirection and a very, very clever twist at the end. After watching Courage Under Fire again last night, I'm wondering if anybody but Kurosawa ever created a genuine Rashomon story, in which every character's perception not only appeared to be different, but actually was different.

    2. And mine, of course. It shouldn't be that hard to do, as long as each character thinks, "It's all about me."

  3. I think "Picnic at Hanging Rock" is a Roshomon - all those viewpoints, all those hints (the science teacher walking up the Rock alone, without her skirt & petticoats), all those revelations - and we never are told what the truth is. It's one of the reasons I love it so much.


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