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Reality Check: ‘Immortal Hulk’ #3’s Rashomon effect

A common, yet unsettling truth about perception.

The Rashomon Effect takes its name from the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon, in which the same murder is described in four different and contradictory ways by four eyewitnesses. Similarly, Immortal Hulk #3 presents us with a cop, an old lady, and a priest, all of whom witness the character called Hotshot taking hostages in a church, until he is apprehended by the Hulk. Additionally, a bartender, who has had a run-in with Bruce Banner just prior to the incident, is thrown into the mix for comic relief.

The idea behind the Rashomon effect is not that the eyewitnesses are lying. Each is giving their account of what they saw, to the best of their recollection. But that recollection is shaped by each witness’s prior experiences, and how their brain tries to make sense of what it’s seeing under unfamiliar, emotionally charged circumstances.

For example, the Old Lady clearly has a “thing” for James Dean; unconsciously she hopes to see him or some reasonable facsimile thereof, and her brain obligingly superimposes her memory of James Dean’s visage on the green-skinned pseudo-villain, Hotshot.

At least in this version, there is some “bleed-over” of the witnesses’ perceptions of one protagonist/antagonist onto another. The Old Lady, who has already mentally cast James Dean as Hotshot, also sees the priest as young and handsome – even though the padre sees himself as worn and craggy. And while both see the Hulk as monstrous – perhaps even “the Devil himself” – the cop sees him as a classic comic book hero, which is emphasized by depicting his recollections  in classic-comic book style color-dot-overlay.

A common example of the Rashomon effect is found in online reviews on sites like Yelp, wherein different users will visit the same restaurant on the same night, and yet post wildly contradictory reviews. User A might write, “A casual and understated place with comforting menu selections and attentive service;” User B says, “Plain, boring décor, uninspired cuisine, and a disorganized waitstaff.” Yet they ate at the same place off the same menu within hours of each other. Both are giving their honest impressions, as they recall the experience.

This is one of the reasons why eyewitness accounts provided to the police, long a staple used to charge and convict persons of crimes, are now considered notoriously unreliable. Many guilty convictions based on eyewitness testimony have been overturned years later by non-corroborative DNA evidence. Even when multiple witnesses give the same account, the power of suggestion can take over, leading people to see and recall what they expected to see, and not what actually occurred.

Johnny Tall Bear’s murder conviction was overturned by DNA evidence in June, after being convicted in 1992 due to “an alleged eyewitness who claimed to have seen Tall Bear fighting with the victim but later expressed doubts about his identification.” Photo by Nick Oxford.

In the end, though, the Rashomon effect serves as a stark reminder that humans are not cameras; our brains interpret, rather than faithfully record, the information they receive from our eyes. Recollection often consists of unconsciously filling in the narrative gaps with what sounds plausible to us, even though the truth may be very different. Just because someone insists, “Hey, I know what I saw,” it does not mean what they saw is an accurate reflection of objective reality.

Richard Schloss is a Board-Certified psychiatrist and frequent contributor to AiPT! Science on the depictions of psychological phenomena in entertainment.

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