A New Year's Lesson from an Old Japanese Movie

Akira Kurosawa’s movie Rashomon (1950) tells the story of the rape of a woman and the murder of her husband. There are four witnesses to the crime, but each relate a different version of what happened.

Who’s right?
What’s the truth?

Though the acting is a bit melodramatic, the movie is visually haunting and ahead of its time, with a message that’s universal and timeless. (Yes, I  know it’s in black and white…with subtitles!) Many still consider it one of the best films of all times. And the concept of the movie—several observers relate different accounts of the same incident—captured the interest and imagination of many who have continued to study the phenomenon which has even become known as the “Rashomon Effect.”

Example: Four people of varying ages, genders, occupations and interests go together to see a movie. What was important or interesting to one person might not have even registered with another. One might be offended by the profanity, while another was captured by the leading actor/actress. One could be focused on the historic accuracy as another concentrated on the scenery. If you asked for an analysis, you’d probably end up with four dissimilar reviews because each person watched it through their own “eyes.”
(At the bottom of this entry I provide some examples from TV and movies)

The Rashomon story demonstrates an unavoidable subjectivity of perception that each of us brings to any shared event. We “see” from our individual, personal point of view, and our perception is a direct correlation to who we are—our background, our personality, our frame of reference, our values, our integrity, etc. It doesn’t mean that people aren’t telling the truth (though that is sometimes the situation), it’s just that we see things differently. Also, it’s not necessarily about true versus false or who is right and who’s wrong; it’s an acknowledgment that we are individually distinctive, which includes the fact that we interpret what happens around us differently. (P.S. At the end of the movie, we still don’t know who’s telling the truth.)

Author’s Note: There is also a valid application of this principle when it comes to biblical interpretation, but that’s a discussion for another post.

Please stay with me here, ‘cause this isn’t a movie film history lesson.

Unless you have access to an alternate space-time continuum (or an untimely end of life), we will all  go through the SAME 2014—from January to December. We’ll encounter a variety of Mondays, Fridays, weekends and holidays. There will be good times and there will be…not-so-good times. Some of what might happen in 2014 will be shared, such as the death of a well-known person, or a national tragedy.

Like the characters in Rashomon, we will each “see” the new year from our own personal perspective because we each bring ourselves into the experience—our hopes, our expectations, our dreams. And even if we go through the exact same events, we will perceive them differently. Maybe it is as simple as the old saying, "It's all in how you look at it."

Will 2014 be a good year?

I can’t say for certain, but I can say two things with total certainty:
2014 will be my year.
2014 will be your year.

Let’s compare notes in December!

The “Rashomon Effect” was a unique technique when Kurosawa used it in his film, but it’s now become common in movies and TV. Since I’ve long been fascinated with this concept, it’s a quirky pastime of mine to notice when I see it on screen. I could give numerous examples, but here’s just a few:

  • The movie Vantage Point tells the story of an assassination from several perspectives, and the audience doesn’t know which one is correct. (Crash is another example, but I refuse to highlight that movie since it wrongly beat out Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture Oscar that year.)
  • All in the Family did a show where the bigoted Archie and his son-in-law Mike tell vastly conflicting stories of an encounter with a refrigerator repairman and his black apprentice.
  • An episode of Gray’s Anatomy about the death of a patient deals with the varying accounts by those involved with the patient.
  • "A Matter of Perspective" is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Commander William Riker is accused of murder, and while getting to the truth, several different versions of the events are related by those who were involved.
  • “The Rashomon Job” was an episode of the cable show Leverage where four of the main characters give clashing recollections of an event from several years earlier.

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