Rashomon is a 1950 Kurosawa film in which a murder is recounted primarily from four different perspectives. A bandit claims he seduced a samurai’s wife and killed her husband in a duel when she begged him to do so. The wife claims the bandit raped her and her husband was angry with her; she offered to let him kill her but ended up killing him instead. The husband (contacted through a medium) claims the bandit raped his wife and asked her to travel with him, at which point she asked the bandit to kill her husband, so the bandit turned her over to the samurai, who killed himself. A woodcutter who witnessed these events claims that the bandit raped the wife and asked her to come with him, but she said the two men should fight for her rather than just hand her over; they did and the bandit got lucky and won. The woodcutter’s version at first appears to be more objective, since he is an unrelated witness, but it later turns out that he had his own reasons for not being entirely truthful, so ultimately, it is not possible to establish an objective ‘truth’.
The Rashomon effect is the name given to films or episodes of TV shows that similarly present various different perspectives on the same events. The name tends to be applied to any story in which we see more than one point of view, but to really emulate Rashomon, a series or film should be doing something more specific than that. The Simpsons’ Trilogy of Error, for example, is not a Rashomon episode – that episode shows various events from three different characters’ points of view, filling in information other characters didn’t have access to as the episode progresses. Similarly, Star Trek: Voyager’s Living Witness is about a related issue – the corruption of the collective memory in historical writing – but the only available eyewitness’s account is presented as completely reliable, whereas the point of a Rashomon story is that each witness to an event remembers it differently. The point of a Rashomon episode is not that some witnesses’ knowledge is incomplete (though that may be true too) – it’s that different people perceive exactly the same events differently because they come to something with different attitudes and preconceptions.
A true Rashomon episode will have several people witness exactly the same events but (genuinely) remember them differently. Preferably, we’ll see the perspectives of at least three or four witnesses and the different testimonies, while referring to the same events, will dramatically alter our perception of what happened, particularly of who may or may not have committed some kind of crime or generally unpleasant act.
In the examples collected here, we’ve highlighted episodes that focus on how our perception of events is altered by hearing different testimony. We haven’t included episodes like, for example, Supernatural’s Tall Tales – although frequently listed as a Rashomon episode, the slight differences in Sam and Dean’s accounts in that episode are played largely for humour and don’t have any major bearing on how we understand the events of the episode, other than to reveal how the Trickster has manipulated their existing frictions to set them against each other. Although we’ve allowed a couple of only loosely Rashomon-style entries, we’ve tried to focus on episodes in which our understanding of what happened is altered by hearing another character’s perspective.
5. Frasier, Perspectives On Christmas
Although each character’s story tells slightly different events, moving the overall narrative forward with each version, there’s enough of a shift in perspective between stories to make this broadly count as a Rashomon-style episode.
Martin’s story: Martin had been asked to perform in a local church’s Christmas pageant and was worried because he can’t hit the high note in ‘O Holy Night’. Luckily, Frasier and Niles were there to offer support, once Niles was able to tear himself away from perving on Daphne.
Daphne’s story: Daphne thought Martin had started going to church because he’s terminally ill. Luckily, Niles was there to offer supportive hugs and warn her about dangerous falling mistletoe, until she eventually learned the truth.
Niles’ story: Niles picks up the story later, explaining an incident the others didn’t witness in an elevator shaft.
Roz’s story: Roz explains that Frasier accidentally told her mother she was pregnant before she could.
Final analysis: Frasier was at its peak around this period (season five) and this episode is hilarious, getting plenty of mileage out of the audience’s increasing understanding of various characters’ actions while continuing to mine the deep comedy well that was Niles’ crush on Daphne and her complete obviousness to it – for which, of course, a Rashomon episode is perfect. Not quite a true Rashomon story perhaps, but well worth a watch just for the very different way Daphne perceives Niles’ behaviour towards her as compared to everyone else.
4. How I Met Your Mother, No Tomorrow
We only see two perspectives and one wasn’t technically an eye-witness (Marshall heard everything through pocket dials), so this a only loosely a Rashomon-style story (season eight’s The Ashtray is closer to a true Rashomon episode). However, we like this one because the climax of the episode hinges on the discovery that Ted and Marshall have very different perspectives on Ted’s behaviour on St Patrick’s Night.
Ted’s story: Ted had a fantastic night out, and every time he did something wrong (ditching Marshall and Lily, dumping his and Barney’s dates, committing credit card fraud, kissing a married woman), the universe rewards him.
Marshall’s story: Ted got really drunk and was horrible to everyone around him, behaving like an unpleasant lout and committing a fairly serious crime.
Final analysis: Just in case you missed the point that perspective is important, Marshall and Lily’s new apartment is literally crooked – something Marshall and Lily didn’t notice because they liked it so much. This episode deserves a mention, though, for the way in which the final perspective flip is presented, with all Ted’s actions and dialogue exactly the same, just played with him clearly extremely drunk rather than speaking and moving calmly and rationally, and that makes all the difference.
3. Star Trek The Next Generation: A Matter of Perspective
This is by far the closest example here to the film Rashomon and could almost be described as a loose re-telling of it, presenting the perspectives of the bandit (Riker), the wife and the murdered husband (Dr Apgar, through the testimony of his assistant Tayna).
Riker’s story: Dr Apgar was irritable and defensive, while his wife spent the entire time coming on to Riker, who was just trying to be polite. Riker has no idea why the station blew up.
Mrs Apgar’s story: Mrs Apgar was just trying to support her loving husband, but Riker spent the entire visit coming on to her and eventually assaulted her and implied her husband’s project wouldn’t be supported unless she slept with him.
Tayna’s story: Riker assaulted Dr Apgar’s wife, so Dr Apgar sent herself and his wife down to the planet for their own safety just before the station blew up.
Final analysis: The case is eventually solved using computer programming to recreate technological aspects of the incident, with the computer brought in as the ultimate objective observer (even better than a woodcutter). It apparently doesn’t occur to the alien investigator that Picard and Geordie, who clearly have no intention of handing Riker over and don’t even consider that the wife’s testimony might be accurate, could have falsified the data. This is a nice use of the holodeck to bring the Rashomon re-telling to life, though the opening section in which we see different art students’ interpretations of the same model (a life drawing class, of course) is a bit on the nose, as obvious symbolism goes.
2. Farscape, The Ugly Truth
Although complicated by the fact some characters are deliberately lying, this episode provides a really nice example of how different characters perceive each other and their relationships, as well as how differently they perceived a possible crime.
Aeryn’s story: Crais made a reasonable suggestion, to which D’Argo reacted with anger, Crichton agreed with D’Argo and which Zhaan wanted to meditate on. Stark wanted to raise the defence screen when the Plokavians arrived but Aeryn stopped him, and the cannon went off by itself because it malfunctioned.
Zhaan’s story: Crais made a reasonable suggestion and everyone agreed to it except D’Argo (Crichton agreed with everything Aeryn and D’Argo said). Crichton went to disarm the cannon but Aeryn stopped him because he might set it off, at which point it went off by accident.
Stark’s story: Crais is power-mad and his reform is all an act. Crichton knew this, and everyone else followed Crichton’s lead. Crais fired the cannon; the others are protecting Talyn.
D’Argo’s story: Aeryn tried to defend Crais but Crichton agreed with D’Argo that they should break his neck while Stark babbled about how evil the Plokavians are. When the Plokavians arrived, Stark panicked and fired the cannon.
Crichton’s story: Stark was horrified that Crais was meeting with the “Plokavoids” and went to the weapons console. Crichton stopped him and shut it down, but the cannon fired anyway.
Final analysis: There is no truly objective version, though there is a fairly firm conclusion on who fired the cannon; Crichton claims to give it to his interrogators straight, but can’t remember the Plokavians’ name. One of the most interesting things about these different stories is which member of the crew each considers to be the leader – D’Argo sees himself as such, Aeryn herself, Stark thinks it’s Crichton, Crichton splits it largely between himself, Aeryn and D’Argo and Zhaan implies Cricthon but mostly focuses on herself. Like many of the best episodes of Farscape, this is inventive, funny and eventually unutterably depressing.
1. The X-Files, Jose Chung’s From Outer Space
The narrative structure of this one makes it a bit complicated. Only three people tell the story – Scully, a UFO fanatic called Blaine and a cook in a diner – but several different perspectives are included.
Harold’s story: He and his girlfriend Chrissy were abducted by aliens after having sex.
Chrissy’s story: Harold date-raped her. Under hypnosis, she changes her story to include alien abduction and an alien smoking a cigarette. Hypnotised for a second time, she claims she was abducted by the Air Force and brain-washed to believe it was aliens.
Roky’s story: Chrissy and Harold were abducted by two Roswell Grey aliens, and then all four were attacked by a giant third alien called Lord Kinbote, who took Roky to the Earth’s core and told him he must save humanity. A couple of men in black later tried to persuade him he’d seen nothing but the planet Venus.
Scully’s interpretation: The teenagers had consensual sex and are confused by the emotional ramifications of doing so. Roky has a ‘fantasy-prone personality’ and Mulder and the hypnotherapist were leading Chrissy. She also performed an autopsy on an alien body that turned out to be an Air Force pilot in disguise. She has no explanation for how Mulder ended up in her room.
Blaine’s version: Blaine found a dead alien, which was taken away by three men in black, one disguised as a woman and one a ‘mandroid’ (Scully, Mulder and Detective Manners).
Mulder’s story: After hearing Schaefer’s story, Mulder found Scully in a trance in her hotel room, with some men in black (one of whom looks like the host of Jeopardy!). They later find the bodies of the Air Force pilots.
Schaefer’s story: Schaefer and his fellow Air Force pilot were disguised as Roswell Grey aliens when they were abducted by real aliens – he thinks. He’s not sure what’s real any more.
The cook’s version: Mulder came to the diner alone, asking strange questions about UFOs and eating a lot of pie.
Final analysis: Scully and Jose Chung think they’re being objective, but both are too extremely sceptical to be really objective, while everyone else seems rather too ready to believe (apart from the cook). This episode is rightly celebrated as a classic for being not only a compelling and twisty examination of perspective, but a comedy classic as well. Perhaps it’s main flaw is that the comedic drive is so strong, some of the jokes go rather too far – Blaine perceiving Mulder’s blank expression as indicative of a ‘mandroid’ is a bit far-fetched but amusing, but surely there is no way on Earth – or any other planet – that anyone could mistake Gillian Anderson for a man in drag.
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