In “Rashomon,” the 1950 classic film by Akira Kurosawa, viewers can be certain of three things: A samurai is dead, his wife has been sexually assaulted, and a bandit is the main suspect. Everything else about the film is open to discussion. Every viewer is entitled to his or her own conclusion.
The movie explores the three facts from four points of view: a woodcutter who’s the closest to a witness in the case, the bandit, the woman, and even her dead husband who speaks through a medium.
I first saw “Rashomon” in a film class in college. I was blown away by it because it was so challenging, in a good way. I recently watched it again on DVD to see if I still like it. I do.
“Rashomon,” based on a short story titled “In a Grove,” offers a number of lessons for writers. Akira Kurosawa’s masterful storytelling will help deepen your understanding of the following elements, which can be found in many novels and short stories. It can help you in writing your manuscript.
(1) The Contradictory Flashback: “Rashomon” is so influential that it gave birth to the term “Rashomon Effect.” It refers to contradictory interpretations of an event, as well as the impact of perception on memory. For writers, the takeaway is that a flashback doesn’t have to be a boring account of the past. When used properly, it can foretell something, or it can cast a doubt on a character’s memory, or shed light on a character’s motives. Gillian Flynn’s best-selling “Gone Girl” is a good example of this lesson from “Rashomon.”
(2) The Unreliable Narrator: In “Rashomon,” all three major characters claim responsibility for the samurai’s death. Are they lying? You don’t get just one but multiple unreliable narrators. Among Hollywood movies, Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects” (1995) makes good use of an unreliable narrator.
(3) A Nonlinear Approach to Storytelling: “Rashomon” shows us that storytelling doesn’t have to start from the beginning. The movie opens after the death of the samurai, with the woodcutter narrating his version of the story while taking shelter from torrential rain in Kyoto’s Rashomon Gate. Even the flashback is nonlinear, with overlapping recollections of the different characters. Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” (2000) is another fine example of nonlinear storytelling.
(4) An Ending without a Solution: This is a classic example of a story without a solution. We get an explanation of what happened, but no definitive answer. This kind of approach opens all kinds of possibilities for the novelist. Don’t feel compelled to end your story with a tidy solution. Donna Tartt’s “Little Friend” is similarly structured.