Rashomon and Blowup: A Study of Truth
In a story, things are often not quite what they seem to be. Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up are good examples of stories that are not what they first appear to be. Through the medium of film, these stories unfold in different and exiting ways that give us interesting arguments on the nature of truth and reality.
Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon tells the story of a murder. It flashes back to the event four times, each time as told by a different person. The present-time section of the plot occurs at a gate under which some characters take shelter from the rain. Three men can be found there – a woodcutter who repeatedly proclaims his misunderstanding, a priest who says that what has occurred is worse than anything else, and a third man who runs in from the rain for shelter and merely seems interested in a good story, as long as it’s not a “sermon” from the priest. At the prompting of the third man, the woodcutter tells the story – providing the interesting story device of stories (the murder from 4 perspectives) within a story (the trial) within a story (the men at the gate). The tale he tells revolves around a bandit, Tajomaru, who has attacked a couple wandering through the woods, tying the husband up and forcing himself on the wife. The woodcutter found the husband dead in the forest, but what actually happened between these people is inconclusive. Tajomaru, the wife, the husband (through a medium), and the woodcutter all present different and irreconcilable versions of the events in question to the authorities.
The first version, as told by Tajomaru, portrays him in a brave light. It has him taking the woman and falling in love with her. He fights a duel with the husband, displaying dazzling swordsmanship, and kills him. Tajomaru’s story seems plausible until the wife tells her story. In her version, she is violated and then rejected by her husband because of her violation. The film is not terribly clear on how the husband dies in this version. The husband is next to tell his version of the story, and it is again wildly divergent. His version has the woman begging Tajomaru to take her with him and to kill the husband. This causes Tajomaru to reject the woman and free the husband. The husband claims that he took his own life and that someone stole an expensive dagger from his breast after he killed himself. It is after these three tales that we return to the men at the gate. The third man sees through the woodcutter and deduces that the man actually saw the event and did not tell this to the court. He forces the woodcutter’s story out of him. The woodcutter’s version is perhaps the most believable of all, and perhaps that’s because it portrays everyone at their lowest common denominator. Yet his story could also be completely fictional, as if he had merely combined various parts from the previous tales. Perhaps by telling this lie and believing it, he is attempting to resolve his confusion over the issue.
The woodcutter’s rendition begins with Tajomaru trying to persuade the woman to go away with him. She wants the men to fight for her, but the husband is disgusted with her and refuses. However, the wife quickly turns her tears into laughter and attacks the men’s pride until they reluctantly begin their combat. The blundering sword fight that results contrasts sharply with the bravery and skill Tajomaru described earlier. It’s interesting that the earlier fight seemed perfectly plausible within the framework of the story until the woodcutter’s more realistic version makes it seem unlikely.
Rashomon plays with what we can perceive as truth. It paints a picture for us, and then tears it down when presenting another possibility which is equally likely. The film leaves us with myriad questions. What, here, is truth? Which tale, if any, is what truly happened? Do any of these stories have any truth in them? The image of the crumbling, rotted structure of the gate that the three men huddle under is a powerful metaphor suggesting the decayed notion of an absolute truth. Could it that each story contains its own grain of truth, which is expanded in each character’s mind so that it blots out the details of the greater story, leaving only the image of that fragment and erasing the overall fabric of truth? Kurosawa’s overall film seems to be suggesting that facts cannot be seen in black-and-white absolutes but rather should be viewed in more questionable, gray uncertainties where truth and fiction are side by side and perhaps mated. As the third man under the gate says, “we all want to forget something so we create stories. It’s easier that way.” “I don’t mind a lie, if it’s interesting.”
Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup also plays with truth and reality in intriguing and different ways. Its main character is Thomas, a hot young photographer with a Beatles haircut, a Rolls convertible and girls hammering on his studio door for a chance to pose and put out for him. Thomas is bored and isolated in his everyday life, trapped in his job as a fashion photographer. He is working on a book of photos, which seems to be one of the few things that will arouse any passion in him. To close his book, he feels he needs something lighter than the dark material he already has, something with a little joie de vivre. He takes pictures of a couple frolicking in a park. However, the woman notices him taking these pictures and she chases after him trying to get the film from him. Later she shows up at his apartment, trying to retrieve the film. Not wanting to give up the end piece to his book, he gives her the wrong roll of film, and develops what he took in the park. Blowing up the photos, he notices something strange about them. In a fascinating scene where the detached and aloof Thomas sinks himself into his craft, he slowly analyzes and blows up further his pictures, until he discovers what may be a murder in progress.
With his camera, a device designed to capture the image of reality, he has taken what appear to be perfectly innocent pictures. But through the developing technology, Thomas is able to focus in further and further into the minor details of the photos. He blows up the image of reality, and seemingly achieves a clearer image of what truly took place. But is the image really clearer? Blowing the scene up further and further, he achieves a closer and closer look at what seems to be a man in the trees holding a gun. The woman in the park is looking at this gunman. Thomas also seems to have an “after” shot of what appears to be a body lying in the bushes, dead. But by blowing up the images, he brings them into less and less focus, creating more abstract images than a true picture of reality. Do these pixels really create the shape of a gunman, or is he simply seeing the play of shadows in the trees? Is that really a body, or a bushy outgrowth? Burrowing further and further after the truth, analyzing deeper into the picture the blowups seem to in fact be removing themselves further from a concrete reality and into a blurry abstraction of what may or may not be the truth.
Thomas goes back to the park to find the body, and he does, which seems to lend credence to the blurry images in his photographs. But when he returns to his studio, he finds that his pictures are gone, stolen. All he is left with is a close blowup, really a pixilated abstraction. He tries to convince others of what he has found, and chases after phantom images of the woman in the street. In one memorable scene, he fights with a crowd over a piece of broken guitar thrown off the stage by a band. And yet, when he leaves the club the band is playing in, he throws the guitar piece away. As was suggested in class, this seems to be suggesting that anything brought out of context becomes meaningless, as could be argued with the blowups as well. So concentrated does his blowups of small little details of the pictures become that he loses the bigger picture, he loses the reality.
Early the next morning, Thomas returns to the park to take a picture of the body, to make this unreality real, to prove that a murder had really taken place. But there is no body to be found, and the place where he saw it before looks like nothing had ever lain there. In the end, no reality has been found, no facts have been established. All he is left with is a grainy, blurry blowup of what could be a body or just as easily could be a bush. The film ends with Thomas watching some white faced students mime at playing imaginary tennis. Interested, he watches and even begins to participate with them, throwing back the imaginary ball when it bounces out of the court. And in the last scene, we see that he has disappeared from where he was standing. This is Antonioni’s final thought, that everything shown is unreal, that there is no truth to be established here. The harder we seek for truth, the less there is to discover.
Both films give us intriguing insights into the nature of truth. From Rashomon we see the argument that absolute truth cannot be discovered, that the notion of truth itself is a decaying thing. Kurosawa seems to argue that truth may in fact be a relative thing and that a whole truth, a pure truth can never be discovered. Antonioni’s Blowup seems to argue that truth is like Thomas’s blow up – to fix upon and blow up a piece of reality, serves only to bring it into greater abstraction, and perhaps further from the truth. In both of these stories, things are not what they first appear to be, and when they are examined to discover the truth, it escapes us, perhaps because of the very attempt.
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