The film Rashomon

Here is ethnographer Karl G. Heider's description of a film made in 1959 by Akira Kurosawa.

Rashomon book jacket.jpg

"The film is set in 12th-centuryJapan and concerns the encounter in the forest between a bandit and a samurai and his wife. The mystery of the film comes from four quite different accounts of the same event. [...] As each of the four testifies, we see that particular version of the events on film, so that the apparent truthfulness of the visual image supports each testimony in turn. But unlike the familiar detective story on film, where accounts that are later impeached are given only verbally, Rashomon commits itself to, and convinces us of, the truth of each version in turn. And unlike the detective story, we are not given an explanation wrapped up nicely in truth at the end."


The Rashomon Effect

The Rashomon Effect is Heider's name for situations when ethnographers disagree.

Apparently, this was something of a rare occurrence, at least until the late 1980s (Heider's article was published in the journal American Anthropologist  in 1988. I hope with ethnography becoming a more diverse profession, disagreements are more common.)

For Heider, such rare situations are "puzzles of great importance".  

The Rashomon Effect as an Improvisational Game

I first learned of Kurosawa's movie from my father. He was a stage actor (of some note) and an acting teacher. His special field was improvisation. I don't know if he invented Rashomon as a game, but he was the first to lead me as an actor through it.

Here's how it's played:  

Actor 1 & 2 play a scripted scene.  

Game leader asks each in turn, what he made of the character opposite him. The game leader is looking for attributes (in other words, descriptive adjectives). Actor 1 hears the description of his character given by Actor 2, and vice versa.

Each actor is given the instruction: heighten the attribute you've just heard. The scene is played again.

The cycle repeats 3, 4 even half a dozen times. The audience (other trainees) watches as the same script morphs. Being MORE OF the attribute your scene partner sees can actually transform your own performance. 

As an audience member, you may have experienced this when drama slips into self-parody. It's the effect of hyperbole.  

Rashomon & StoryFORMing

Rashomon comes to mind in triangular relationships.  

A triangular relationship exists when three parties have different stakes in the same "offer". The perspective each has on who the hero is and what such heroes need or want are different in irreducible ways.

This doesn't make any of them wrong.  It simply means: prepare a StoryFORM canvas for each. 

Having StoryFORMed each perspective ask yourself: 

  • Does "new normal" look unrecognisably different when comparing the different canvases?
  • Will the outcomes or unintended consequences of one interfere with or disrupt the value or "new normal" of a related canvas?
  • If yes, how can we manage this conflict? How can we change the offer to reduce the likelihood? What capabilities can we bring to bear on the situation so that any risks we've imagined can be limited? 


Karl  G. Heider, "The Rashomon Effect: When Ethnographers Disagree," American Anthropologist  Vol 90, No 1 (Mar 1988): 73-81.

Photo credit: 

This is the book jacket of the 1952 edition published by Charles E Tuttle Company, ISBN 1135617546.  I saw it first in the online catalog of online bookseller Silk Pagoda.



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