Butterfly Dreams

Well, I’ve officially entered the realm of Buffy studies. For my most recent paper in my Encounters class, I decided to study doubt in the Japanese film Rashomon (1950). To do so, however, I got to do something incredibly fun: I brought in an episode of Buffy, entitled “Normal Again,” and used the two texts together to illuminate the use of doubt in both. The essay, in fact, was so fun to write that it was a massive challenge to keep it under the word limit.

Since I didn’t really want to lose all the thought I put into this, here’s the full version of the essay for your perusal. It’s a really interesting topic, and if I didn’t have other things to do in my studious life, I might write even more about it, exploring other episodes such as “Restless.”

A note on citations: At certain points, I cite clips from Rashomon in the following format: (1.1:15-30). This citation refers to the clips of Rashomon on YouTube, as noted in the Works Cited page. The citation given would mean Part 1, from timestamp 1:15 to timestamp 1:30. Hopefully, this clears up any confusion.

The full essay is available after the break.


Once Zhuang Zhou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuang Zhou.
Zhuangzi

The tale is a familiar one: an ancient Chinese philosopher dreamed so vividly that he was a butterfly that when he woke, he doubted whether he was actually a man. Questions about reality are no less frequent today. In “Normal Again,” an episode of the popular TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the titular heroine flashes in and out of an alternate reality wherein she is not a fate-chosen, super-powered demon slayer, but instead a delusional schizophrenic in a psychiatric institution, who has hallucinated the past six years of her fantastical life. The visions are so vivid that, like Zhuangzi, she cannot determine which reality is to be believed, and she and the audience are together thrown into doubt. Director Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (1950) also explores doubt and similarly leaves the audience guessing, but although the effects are similar, a close examination reveals that the two texts use incredibly different methods to evoke doubt. As I will attempt to show in this paper, both texts evoke doubt by comparing two or more claims; however, the different methods used to evoke this doubt imply vastly different perspectives regarding morality and human nature.

First, I will examine the source of doubt in “Normal Again,” a source I refer to as parallel credibility. I will illuminate where and how the episode establishes the credibility of both realities it presents. Using that analysis, I will similarly examine Rashomon, first demonstrating how it evokes doubt, and then addressing the difference between the doubt Rashomon evokes and the doubt caused by watching “Normal Again.” After detailing the philosophical implications of both approaches to doubt, I will conclude by addressing possible challenges.

Before beginning, it is necessary to define “doubt,” since the term will be used frequently in this paper. “Doubt,” for the purposes of this essay, refers to uncertainty. Specifically, to doubt is to question and be uncertain of what one can know. Note that this is a neutral term that implies nothing about the veracity of the contending claims. An individual could doubt because all claims seemed true, or because all claims seemed false. A related term, “dubiousness,” will also be used, but in this essay, it is a strictly negative term. A claim is dubious if it is for some reason difficult or impossible to believe. A dubious claim seems to have at least an element of falsity. Finally, a third related term is “credibility,” which is the positive opposite of dubiousness. A credible claim is easy to believe, and seems like it could be true. Although the three words may be related in normal usage, they will be used quite differently from each other in this essay.

In “Normal Again,” director Rick Rosenthal and writer Diego Gutierrez create doubt in the viewer’s mind through use of parallel credibility, or an establishment of multiple credible claims that could each sufficiently explain reality. To demonstrate this, I will examine the various scenes set in the psychiatric institution, occasionally referring to scenes set in the show’s standard setting, Sunnydale, in order to provide context and contrast. For a viewer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, after all, Sunnydale is inherently credible. The serial nature of Buffy allows for a multifaceted mythology, the depth and detail of which makes Sunnydale a familiar setting to dedicated viewers, despite the prevalence of monsters and magic. New audience members are also driven to accept the credibility of Sunnydale due to suspension of disbelief: an audience is willing to accept a fictional world as reality in order to enjoy the stories presented.

Three different realities from Buffy

Image A: Stills from “Normal Again” (top, center) and “Restless” (bottom)

“Normal Again” sows the seeds of doubt by presenting a secondary reality that seems just as believable as Sunnydale. First, it does this by maintaining a visual consistency between the two realities. Although the sets are remarkably different, the suspension of disbelief is maintained because both are presented in the same way; there are no blatant differences in lighting or film quality, for instance, that would make one reality seem “fake.” An earlier Buffy episode, “Restless,” provides a number of stark counter-examples, scenes were obviously dubious due to the visual treatment they were given. Image A demonstrates this. Image A consists of three stills, the top from the Sunnydale reality in “Normal Again,” the middle from the asylum reality, and the bottom from “Restless.” Whereas there is a clear difference in visual style between normal Sunnydale and the shot from “Restless”–the latter is shot in black and white, with exaggerated contrast–there is no such distinction between the asylum and Sunnydale. The camera treats both realities equally, and since the audience accepts Sunnydale, they are compelled to accept the asylum equally.

Rosenthal and Gutierrez also create doubt by speaking directly to the audience’s perception of reality. They do so by putting the viewers in Buffy’s position as she doubts her world. When Buffy first finds herself in the institution, the camera alternates between close-ups on her face and point-of-view shots looking upward at the doctors around her. The tilt-up point-of-view shots evoke a feeling of helplessness and vulnerability, especially when characters loom large in the frame, such as the doctor in Image B. This links the viewer emotionally with Buffy, who is experiencing similar feelings. Following that, in the scene in the doctor’s office (the center still in Image A), the episode further equates the viewer and Buffy by forcing them to reconsider what they know is believable. In this scene, the doctor describes Buffy’s condition to her parents using esoteric medical terms and jargon, such as “undifferentiated type of schizophrenia.” As Buffy and the audience are both reminded, magic, demons, and vampires are fictional constructs, and to seriously believe in them could be considered a sign of insanity–yet despite this, they accept as credible the reality of Sunnydale. By describing the fantasy world of Sunnydale with precise medical terminology, the doctor firmly reminds Buffy and the audience that what they have accepted until now is dubious. The institution reality in “Normal Again” speaks to the reality that the audience inhabits every day, which requires no suspension of disbelief whatsoever. In that way it is even more credible than Sunnydale, and the parallel credibility of both the contending claims makes the audience doubt.

Imposing doctor

Image B: Still from “Normal Again.”

The doubt Kurosawa creates is of a notably different nature than that in “Normal Again.” If Kurosawa created doubt in the same way as Rosenthal and Gutierrez, the audience would not know which claim to believe because every witness’s testimony would seem credible. This, however, is not the case. The audience is driven to doubt not because all testimonies seem credible, but because they all seem dubious. As seen in the courtyard scenes, Kurosawa establishes this dubiousness by using acting and writing, filming and cinematographic techniques, and editing to contrasting the testimonies with a credible base claim. After all, in order for a claim to appear dubious, there must be a comparison claim that has a known measure of credibility, just like Sunnydale in “Normal Again.” Kurosawa establishes this standard of credibility before introducing any claims, representing certainty with visual consistency and simplicity, seen in the courtyard during the woodcutter’s testimony (2.1:01-52).

In this scene, the woodcutter presents the basic facts of the case, listing the items he found. Save for a short musical sting at the beginning of the scene, there is no sound but the woodcutter’s voice, not even the voice of the judge to whom he is responding. Additionally, the woodcutter’s speech is uniform in cadence and volume. By removing all conflicting or shocking sounds in this way, the focus is put squarely upon the woodcutter and what he is saying. The composition of the shot amplifies this effect. Like the minimalist audio, the frame is devoid of anything but the woodcutter. The woodcutter sits in the exact center of the screen, shot from a flat, direct angle that never changes, which again places the focus on him and the incontrovertible truth of the basic facts he is enumerating. Finally, the background elements, such as the shadow, the wall, and the sky, visually reinforce this notion of fundamental credibility; from the flat perspective of the camera, they form parallel horizontal lines that suggest a solid, layered structure. By suggesting a stable construction, Kurosawa evokes feelings of reliability and trustworthiness. The careful crafting of the woodcutter’s testimony scene establishes a baseline for credibility that the following testimonies violate.

The testimony of Tajomaru, the bandit, is the first claim that seems dubious. Although the audience has not yet heard another account of what happened in the grove, they are nevertheless led to distrust Tajomaru because the presentation of his claim starkly contrasts the woodcutter’s testimony. Whereas the woodcutter’s claim was shot with a minimalist serenity, the energy in Tajomaru’s courtyard scenes is coarse and shocking, as seen when the bandit delivers his deafening, wild laugh. This laugh, in fact, is one of many examples of Tajomaru’s blusterous personality, which further undermine his credibility. Although he attempts to appear bold and unrestrained, when he laughs to himself (4.4:28-9), his laugh is quiet and genuine. Additionally, the bandit is seen calmly admiring the beauty of the clouds before his testimony begins. Combined with his self-glorifying statements, such as “No one had ever crossed swords with me more than twenty times,” it becomes obvious that, unlike the woodcutter’s simple testimony, Tajomaru’s is complicated, his approach to the truth marred by his desire to stoke his own ego.

The woman’s testimony, although short, again seems dubious due to its contrast with the woodcutter’s. Like Tajomaru’s testimony, the woman’s loses credibility due to its dramatic emotions; the woman’s incessant histrionics give the impression that, as the anonymous stranger at the gate suggests, she is attempting to sway the judge through the force of her emotions. Her testimony, however, loses more credibility due to two shots that break from the compositional norm established by the woodcutter’s scene. The first (4, 7:32) puts the camera in a new angle, not yet used in a testimony scene: it looks at her from above. Unlike the flat angle of most of the testimonies, this angle suggests judgment, calling us to look down upon the woman. Later, when she finishes recounting her tale (5.4:18), the woman is framed lounging across the screen. This casual pose suggests she does not take the case seriously, and in contrast with the woodcutter’s tight, formal position, harms her credibility to the audience. Furthermore, in contrast with her wild emotions earlier, this pose seems impossibly blasé. These elements combine to make the wife’s claim dubious.

Although the following three testimonies all appear dubious due to their violation of the established simplicity, the testimony of the samurai through the spirit medium provides the most stark contrast and thus demonstrates best how Rashomon establishes doubt differently than “Normal Again.” The final courtyard testimony is that of the samurai, who speaks through a medium. The incredulous stranger back at Rashomon gate questions the ability of a dead man to testify, and the seeming absurdity of this proposition makes the samurai’s claims dubious to begin. Further compounding this, the samurai’s testimony scene is easily the furthest from the minimalist simplicity of the woodcutter’s (5.8:39). From an aural perspective, there are a number of sharp distinctions. The woodcutter’s scene drew focus to his testimony by excluding all conflicting or shocking sounds. The samurai’s courtyard scene begins with a shocking sound, jumping suddenly from the sound of pouring rain to the metallic jangling of rings. It then adds more loud noises to the mix, including a low, haunting moan, and deep drumbeats. Even when the medium speaks, the beats continue underneath the speech, introducing the very complexity that the woodcutter’s testimony avoided. There is another disturbing aural shock that comes when the medium speaks: she speaks with the voice of a man. This aural touch of the fantastically unreal, when contrasted with the simple honesty of the woodcutter’s testimony, makes the samurai’s claim highly dubious.

The claim, however, is weakened even further through the scene’s visuals. While the woodcutter’s testimony evoked solid certainty through its stillness, there is nothing still at all about the samurai’s testimony. The camera spins and bows, following the jangling staff. When it is not moving, the scene still is, such as when the camera, from a fixed position, looks down upon the medium, who is dancing in circles around the altar. What’s more, a strong wind is present in the scene, blowing things such as the thin branches and white paper strips wildly, so that in shots that would otherwise be still, such as the close-up of the medium’s face, there is still dynamic movement. Finally, between the close-up shots of the medium’s face, the shots of the jangling staff, and the shot looking down upon the dancing medium, the strong horizontal bars of the background, present in the woodcutter’s testimony, are absent for most of the scene, robbing it of that sense of stable trustworthiness. All of the testimonies seem dubious due to their contrast with the woodcutter’s scene, and since the samurai’s entire testimony is jarringly dynamic, his claim seems the most dubious of them all.

The two different ways of evoking doubt, the parallel credibility of “Normal Again” and the parallel dubiousness of Rashomon, have significantly different philosophical implications. A case involving parallel credibility, such as “Normal Again,” implies that doubt is a result of objectively differing realities. As humans, we doubt simply because the scenario is inherently unknowable. Dubiousness, however, as seen in Rashomon, blames humans for doubt. We doubt the messages presented in Rashomon because we have reasons to doubt the messengers, who do not give seeming honest accounts of reality. This implies that those involved are either dishonest and are deliberately obscuring the truth, or are dimwitted and cannot perceive the truth. Either way, the dubiousness of the conflicting stories in Rashomon spells out a pessimistic message, which is only reinforced by the numerous lines in the script regarding the loss of faith in humanity. Conversely, “Normal Again” reflects the implications of the parallel credibility that it uses and adopts an empowering tone, especially during the climax, when the heroine makes the conscious decision to reject the asylum reality and live in Sunnydale. Although viewers of Rashomon and “Normal Again” could be similarly confused by either text, their resounding messages are quite different.

Some viewers of Rashomon may claim that it does in fact deal with parallel credibility; after all, both the bandit, Tajomaru, and the samurai are given narrative credibility. Tajomaru says, since he’s going to die, he has no reason to lie, and the priest at the gate claims that spirits of the dead cannot lie. Such viewers, however, would be mistaken in believing that these examples of narrative credibility change the type of doubt evoked by the film. Despite the narrative reasons to believe or disbelieve them, the claims are presented to the audience in ways that make them dubious through the use of various stylistic techniques as described above. Additionally, the nature of the presentation suggests dubiousness; whereas “Normal Again” presented the contending realities objectively, from the reliable lens of the camera, the contending realities in Rashomon are presented subjectively, through human messengers. Despite narrative credibility, the presentation of the claims in Rashomon creates doubt by parallel dubiousness.

Other viewers could suggest that Rashomon in fact makes a positive statement about humanity, given the way the film ends and the seeming credibility of the woodcutter’s account. Although the audience is driven to believe the woodcutter’s final account, this in fact further violates our notion of reliability. We are inspired to believe the woodcutter because of the simple nature of his testimony, and we base our future evaluations of credibility on that standard. As he confesses, however, he lied in his testimony and kept the valuable knife for himself. Regardless of his motives, this revelation completely undermines the notion of credibility that we retained throughout the entire film. We trusted that the woodcutter was telling the truth, but his confession shows that we were very wrong in doing so. This betrayal of trust drives the film’s pessimistic message further, speaking to the difficulties of trusting any human being, despite how honest or credible they may seem. Although the film’s ending may seem optimistic, the rest of the text makes a very negative statement.

As both Rashomon and “Normal Again” demonstrate, the question of reality that Zhaungzi posed thousands of years ago still confounds and intrigues thinkers today. What’s more, it inspires the creators of popular entertainment to strive for deeper significance in their work. From 1950’s Japanese cinema to cult television shows in the late ’90’s and early 2000’s, including blockbuster films such as The Matrix (1999), artists around the world have drawn inspiration from this philosophical question, producing works that not only entertain, but implore their audiences to think deeper about the world they live in. Although, as shown in this essay, these works can carry clashing philosophical statements depending on how they evoke doubt, the fact that they carry significant philosophical weight at all is to be commended, and makes them stand out among other forms of entertainment today.

Works Cited

“Normal Again.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Prod. Joss Whedon and Marti Noxon. Dir. Rick Rosenthal. By Diego Gutierrez. Perf. Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alysson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, Anthony Stewart Head, James Marsters. 20th Century Fox, 2005. DVD.

“Restless.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Prod. Joss Whedon and Marti Noxon. Dir. Joss Whedon. By Joss Whedon. Perf. Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alysson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, Anthony Stewart Head, James Marsters. 20th Century Fox, 2005. DVD.

Rashomon. Dir. Akira Kurosawa. Perf. Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori and Takashi Shimura. Criterion, 1951. YouTube. 20 Apr. 2009. Web. 18 Mar. 2010. Viewed online.

Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi: Basic Writings. Trans. Burton Watson. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. Print.

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1 Comment

  1. Michelle

    I love this. You should be really proud of it, hon. It’s great!

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