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rashomon effect - international relations

What can IR students learn from the Movie “Rashomon”?

Let me tell you a story of Rashomon!

Say a man – specifically a samurai – is killed in the woods in a seemingly remote village forest in Japan. One by one, each witness is brought before the court and told to narrate the story.

First comes the woodcutter, who claims to have witnessed the horror of seeing the samurai’s dead body. Then comes a priest, who testifies against the likely attacker, a bandit.

Then, Tajomaru (an infamous bandit) narrates his side of the story, which entails how he killed the samurai.

Then appears the wife, who was seduced and assaulted before the samurai to give her accounts of events – and she claims that the bandit had not killed the husband (but something else may have happened).

And finally, the dead samurai speaks (of course, through an agent) about his side of the story, which gives an even more conflicting tell-a-tale about his side of events.

rashomon movie
A still from Rashomon movie (1950).

In his interpretation of the story, after Tajomaru sleeps with his wife, the bandit begs to take him as her husband, and she willingly agrees to marry upon the condition of killing her husband. However, the bandit takes the side of the samurai, frees him – and abandons the woman. However, after the bandit leaves the scene, the samurai dies by suicide.

As one grapple through the already seemingly multiple storylines and interpretations, in the end, we are introduced to Woodcutter’s version, who had silently been the witness to the whole scene but was scared to tell his version before the court.

The version, as seen by a witness, goes like this: Once, after Tajomaru sleeps with the samurai’s wife, he begs her to marry him. The samurai’s wife agrees to marry the one who wins the fight – so Tajomaru frees the samurai and challenges him to fight.

However, the samurai disagrees to fight him for a virtueless woman (who slept with two men). Despite that, the woman convinces both to fight, and Tajomaru kills the samurai in the sword fight. This version is the latest, as seen by a witness. Now, the challenge is to whom to believe.

In essence, this story in Rashomon is about perspectives.

The 1950 film Rashomon, directed by Akira Kurasawa, is a uniquely scripted story about perspectives and how each individual carries a story of what they claim to have believed as reality. And such realities (or events) are often mediated by social conditions of shame, envy, hatred, desire, lust, and other affective drivers.

With its exquisite storytelling, Rashomon compels one to sit through a densely descriptive movie with interesting philosophical insights. I watched Rashomon for the first time in the early days of my bachelor’s in CHRIST, Bengaluru, India.

At the time, I was certain that I wouldn’t say I liked the movie as much as I did the second time. Not only did I watch the film the second time, but I also thought that the movie provides interesting insights about social life in particular and international relations in general.

What is so philosophical about Rashomon?

Inquisitively, Rashomon asks us multiple philosophical questions: Are we really sure what we believe we did? If everyone has a seemingly different interpretation of events, will there be a way to ever know anything for sure?

Moreover, if all that is just interpretations, are there truths to things? And are we inherently good or bad? How do we then mediate between what is good and bad? Who is to judge for what happens (and is good and bad) in society?

rashomon movie IR students

Now, one may ask: where were all these questions, anyway (in this seemly dull and boring movie—and how baffling of this author to think of it otherwise)? And what is IR in all this? Indeed, you may then wonder if Rashomon could tell us about IR, then everything else would! But let us decipher them one by one.

IR students should always observe – but, at times, not blindly trust what they see.

As one sees beneath the storyline of Rashomon, the viewer is left puzzled about how seemingly philosophers (and IR scholars) are obsessed with rationality. What is real is rational, and what is rational is real. So, the reality, they claim, is observable and empirically available for us to observe.

Now, observing is a tricky thing to do. Observations – like interpretations – are tricky, fuzzy, and also complex. Our desires and motivations drive us as much as our ability to grasp things. Sometimes, we leave out things to fit into our frame of analysis, no matter how hard we try not to.

IR students must always ask hard and uncomfortable questions.

From Rashomon, IR students can learn that everything they think – when they analyse world events – must not be rationalised, so much so that they forget to be sceptical about things. Scepticism is healthy and essential for IR scholars. As students of IR, we should not take things as they exist. We need to ask: what is the context? Is there more to what we already know? What are the hidden motives? What fears and values drive an event? Rather than trying to make sense of things through rationalist frames of thinking, we must be open to new interpretations.

We are all oscillating between the good and the bad and all that in between.

One of the important running tropes of this movie, Rashomon, is about good and bad. Unlike Nietzsche’s genealogical reading of “what is the Good and the Bad”, this movie looks at our current understanding of what is deemed good and evil by placing the priest, woodcutter, and the bandit at the centre of the narration. It revolves around their understanding of the world.

The priest is what in IR lingua franca called an idealist – who sees through the inherent goodness of humans and the society around it. As a realist, the commoner sees humans as the cause of all the misery in a world where each is at war with the other.

The commoner asks: “But is there anyone who’s really good? Maybe goodness is just make-believe”. He adds: “Man just wants to forget the bad stuff and believe in the made-up good stuff. It’s easier that way.” The priest, on the other hand, says: “It’s horrifying. If men don’t trust each other, this earth might as well be hell.” And he adds: “No! I believe in men. I don’t want this place to be hell”.

There is a constant struggle between the two. But there are also those that exist in between. There is the woodcutter, who feels inherently good despite his choosing not to tell the truth before the court. Hidden emotions drive your actions at times.

And how do we account for that? In international relations, too, there is a constant tussle between what the world truly is – an anarchic system where power rules all else, and a world that ought to exist –a utopian desire for a world where peace and cooperation trump power. However, there is more to what meets our eyes.

The world we live in is shaped by the ideas and interests that we share with one another. We have a constant iteration of ideas and interests in how the world shapes itself. Like everything else, ideas matter as much as motives and intentions matter. Therefore, IR students must not shift away from the critical gaze they would have for any world event.

The problem of autobiographical writings.

Interpretation is vital to the storyline of Rashomon. The story depends on who narrates the story. Despite all the efforts at narrating the story, there is always something that motivates who is narrating the story.

Drawing contrasts between incidences as told through multiple perspectives forces the audience to question the reliability of every subsequent narration and their underlying conditions and motives. Subtle and noticeable narration variations in each account keep the viewers engaged throughout the movie.

But it also tells us something about autobiographies. Autobiographies are written through the lens of a protagonist – and as a protagonist, your worldview is always shaped by your own skewed beliefs about things, about what you value more, about what you want the world not to know, as much as what you want the world to know.

Autobiographical writings are narratives told through a gaze – and deeming them too much value would inevitably introduce biases in our understanding of the world.

Now, how do we connect this with IR? In international relations, we often read many books written by Ambassadors (more so, in the Indian case) about what they believed happened. They tell the stories, the events, like they happened before them, with them at the centre of the event. Like, without their presence, it would not have happened.

They fix the gaze of the event onto themselves. This is a very important problem in IR writing. So, the next time you sit and listen to retired diplomats, decipher how much of what they say is skewed by their gaze and distil it. Never blindly trust everything. Always ask questions.

When someone tells you something, see through what they value the most.

As one listens to these multiple, oft-contradictory narrations in Rashomon, the careful audience can easily decipher what each character values the most. For the men, it was pride, courage and valour, and for the woman, it was virtuous integrity of herself and her value in a patriarchal society.

In this story, for the bandit, the feeling of weakness (the instance of his begging the woman to marry him) became the aspect that ought course correction in his narration.

For the woman (samurai’s wife), the rejection by both men to accept her needed correction in her narration (thereby allowing her to change her narration through the envious gaze of her husband). And for the dead samurai, it was his rejection of his wife and failure to win over the bandit (allowed him to narrate a story of suicide).

When you decipher what they value the most, you will know what they fear the most. We should read every philosophical text through these two questions: what did the philosopher value the most? And what did they fear the most?

Likewise, each of us values different things differently. As IR students, we should look at the world through filters (that the world actors cloak themselves in). When you decipher what they value the most, you will know what they fear the most. We should read every philosophical text through these two questions: what do you value the most?

And what did you fear the most? Some value freedom more, others value pride more, and others something else… Knowing the answers to one of these questions will make it easier for you to understand the world better. You can understand it beyond the usual rationalist comprehension of state and statistical gaze.

IR students should learn to take the “Rashomon Effect” seriously.

Named after the movie Rashomon, the “Rashomon Effect” refers to how a single event is perceived and described differently, due to the unreliability problem of multiple witnesses. An easy example is that ten blindfolded persons touch different parts of an elephant’s body, and they would give you a very different interpretation of what the creature may have been.

These multiplicities are rooted in, and emerge from, different social and cultural conditionings in information capturing and processing. Therefore, each witness may present a different and contradictory interpretation to one another. Today, the term “Rashomon Effect” has both captured the entertainment space and entered public discourses.

As students of IR, we consume multiple world events every day. But we are also fed a certain trope of understanding of world events – through the lens of national interest, power dynamics, great power politics, foreign policy strategies, balancing, hedging, etc.

Now, you need to ask: all this is okay, but is there more to it? Depending on where you look at and understand the event, you will get a different understanding. As Christian Davenport, a professor of peace studies, notes: “One of the reasons we have violent conflict is that people perceive events in different ways. We disagree on facts, and we act on the basis of those perceptions.”

The Russia-Ukraine War and the Rashomon Effect.

For example, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. If you see through the lens of Ukraine, you will understand that they have no other means to survive except for fighting – if they don’t want to survive as a satellite state of Russia. For Russia, Ukraine has always been a part of a larger Russian empire.

Therefore, we want Ukraine to be in the Russian sphere of influence. Now, ask, do all Russians believe so? Or is it only the ruling elite who believe in this view? If so, why do they do so? And if not, why are elites pushing for larger empire-like designs?

For the United States, Ukraine’s freedom is paramount to sustaining a society not coerced by other major powers (despite how rhetorical and hypocritical it may sound). For India, it may be the West’s problem. Does everyone subscribe to their state’s policies? If so, why? If not, why not? And if some, why some? It all depends on where you are – and how you look at world events.

As a student of IR, you have to be mindful of the lens. And understand that there exist multiple lenses. Like the “Rashomon Effect”, the integrity of a world event depends on who is narrating an event – and what social baggage they carry with them.

There is no objectivity in any analysis but a mere cloak of objectivity. There are no hard, objective truths but perspectives on events. And they are essential. We see different perspectives of an event depending on where we stand and look at them. Therefore, keep your lens intact – and be mindful of others.

IR students must be more empathetic.  

The Buddhist priest laments:

War, earthquake, winds, fire, famine, the plague. Year after year, it’s been nothing but disasters. And bandits descend upon us every night. I’ve seen so many men getting killed like insects, but even I have never heard a story as horrible as this. Yes. So horrible. This time, I may finally lose my faith in the human soul. It’s worse than bandits, the plague, famine, fire or wars.

In global politics, human suffering is a constant reality – and that is a given. Despite all the clamour for war, we always hope for peace. Even the realist reading of IR seeks to propose “conditions for peace” in an anarchic system.

As IR students, we should understand the operative part of studying “war and peace” and be mindful that human lives are at stake in many of our assessments about the world. Therefore, we must be empathetic.


Watch Rashomon here for free on Plex.


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