25 May 2005 3:30pm - 7:00pm CRASSH


The Rashomon-Effect: Dialogue and Negotiation
Why is a 55-year-old Japanese film essential to understanding our complex situations?

15.30-17.00: Screening of Rashomon
17.00-19.00: Discussion, including excerpts from Copenhagen

Venue: CRASSH, 17 Mill Lane, Cambridge, CB2 1RX

Session led by Prof Robert Anderson, Visiting Fellow, Clare Hall

We are often faced with the Rashomon-effect in which we meet three or more equally plausible explanations of an incident set in a context where we feel pressured for an opinion or judgment. We cannot avoid the implications of such incidents and pressures because they are accompanied by 'facts' which leave us uncomfortable if unexplained. Because of this discomfort we experience a pressure for closure, and we thus look for a more persuasive version of events. But none is offered, none is forthcoming, and in fact none may exist. Accounts of the incident vary, including by eyewitnesses and experts, but no explanation is found superior. Since no definitive method for choosing between these equally plausible accounts is evident in the situation, we experience a frustrating pressure in which we are haunted by our unanswered questions about it.

Although this phenomenon is ancient its modern meaning was crystallized in Rashomon, Kurosawa's 1950 film that launched his astonishing international reputation. It is a film used more and more to understand a phenomenon which interests judicial, historical, literary, and all the social science communities, and thus it has given its name to the Rashomon-effect. The film portrays dialogue in the rain under the gate, and negotiation in the forest. When these are taken together, and only then, the film helps us to understand the situation in its complexity.

More importantly, careful analysis of the film suggests ways to address the puzzling and frustrating paradox of everyday life in which we live with unresolved questions because in these particular cases our dilemmas appear to be irresolvable. As Kurosawa showed, we actually identify these special situations through a combination of dialogue and negotiation – not alone but through communication with others – others in whom we detect a trace of our own dissatisfaction and discomfort.

For those who have not recently seen Rashomon I will refresh our memories with excerpts from the film. For a quintessential example of these situations we will examine the famous conversation about the atomic bomb between physicists Niles Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in Copenhagen in 1941, a conversation celebrated by playwright Michael Frayn. An excerpt from the film version of Copenhagen will clarify why that conversation is such a good illustration of the dilemma.

Note: Robert Anderson is also Professor of Communication at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada. With others, he is presently writing a book called Kurosawa, Rashomon, and their Legacies.


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