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In 1915, during the Taisho period of Japanese history, native Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa created a collection of short stories entitled Rashomon and Other Stories. The progenitor of the modern Japanese short story form, Akutagawa’s collection of allegorical sketches transcends the limits of social, moral, and lingual constructs and has received praise the world over. When it was translated into English in 1952, Rashomon had already accrued a host of fans around the world, including Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, whose 1950 cinematic integration of the first two stories from the novel, “Rashomon” and “In a Grove” is considered one of his finest films. These two stories from Akutagawa’s novel are not simply an excellent format for cinematic interpretation, but a looking glass through which Akutagawa’s literary masterpiece can be interpreted.
A student of Natsume Soseki, the acclaimed author of psychological novels on par with the Russian masters, Akutagawa delves into the psyche and pathos of medieval Japan, creating a stylistic veneer of simple beauty paralleled only by the rich underlying social commentary and observations of Japan’s dizzying entrance into the industrialized world. Born in Tokyo in 1892, Akutagawa lived a childhood of loss and misfortune: he lost his mother to mental illness, and his father gave him up for adoption to his relatives. These early tragedies would cast a shadow over the young Akutagawa that haunted and depressed him for the rest of his life. As solace for his troubled mind, Akutagawa fell in love with the written word, and began studying and writing literature while at the Tokyo Imperial University. The talented young writer’s first work was published even before his graduation from the university. After his successful years at Tokyo Imperial University, Akutagawa visited Russia and China and began teaching English and writing haikus, short stories, and novellas. His depression worsened and persevered throughout his life, extending into his work and into his grim and powerful portrayals of medieval Japan, until his suicide in 1927, at the young age of only 35. His powerful diction and imagery in his painting of the Japanese culture is reminiscent of Kafka’s grim portrait of Prague, or Sinclair’s gritty urban America. His simple yet poignant style, similar to his contemporary Japanese authors, is a subtle throwback to French naturalist fiction. Akutagawa expounds on the naturalist school of thought, and without the limitations of the science oriented style of authors like Honor de Balzac, he captures a vision of Japan through a more subjective eye on humanity itself. His pastoral recollections of the Japanese peasant subjugated under courtesan rule give his readers a personal insight into the Japanese culture of ages past. Through an understanding of that era’s influence, his readers gain an appreciation for the means by which modern Japanese culture came into existence.
Akutagawa opens his novella with the short story “In A Grove”. Written from the perspectives of seven different people about a crime allegedly committed by a robber, Tajomaru, the multi-perspective rendering of the tale is a ground-breaking format that has since been duplicated by authors and filmmakers in the East and the West. The story’s only concrete facts are that a man was found dead in a grove of trees with a single sword wound to his chest. Akutagawa explores the different angles of the story from the perspectives of the woodcutter who discovered the body, a Buddhist priest who encountered the slain man just before his death, a policeman who arrested Tajomaru, the mother of the dead man’s wife, Tajomaru himself, the dead man’s wife, and finally, the dead man himself, through a psychic medium. Each character adds different facts to the story, sometimes conflicting each others’ statements, and sometimes corroborating other witnesses’ accounts. The beauty and simplicity of Akutagawa’s style is in the fact that he never reveals the true story through an omniscient third person narrator. After a cursory reading of the text this may seem to be an omission by the author that leaves his readers wanting resolution to the story, but upon closer examination, this apparent lack of information is actually a method by which Akutagawa proves a very valid point. Akutagawa points out that as in the real world, in his story there is no ultimate truth of reality, or a single conclusive correct answer. Perception is reality, and to each of the characters in the story, their perceptions of the events that took place, and their accounts thereof, are their own inherent realities.
This is not to say, however, that the accounts given by each of the characters are indeed what they truly perceived, or even what they actually believe to have happened. Akutagawa, without literally discussing the medieval Japanese values of samurai honor and shame effectively gives his readers a deeper insight into those ancient values than could be literally transcribed onto paper. Tajomaru admits in his account to both raping the murdered man’s wife while the man watched; bound to the root of cedar tree, and to killing the man himself. However, he claims that he only stabbed the husband because the murdered man’s wife urged him to do so. After crossing swords with the man, and emerging victoriously, Tajomaru turned to find that the woman had fled the grove. The woman’s account differs somewhat, in that she claims that she was the one who murdered her husband in order to preserve his honor. After watching his wife’s violation by another man, the murdered man could not continue to live under the code of honor of a Japanese warrior. After mercifully stabbing her husband, the woman claims to have tried to take her own life by drowning herself, but, unable to complete her suicide, she returned to the village to live on in dishonor. The murdered man’s account differs still. He claims that his wife complied with Tajomaru’s sexual demands, and after a sexual encounter in front of the bound man, agreed to marry Tajomaru, on the condition that Tajomaru killed her husband. There is no honorable way to marry another while her husband still lived, so the only resolution for the woman would be the murder of the man. The murdered man relates that Tajomaru refused to kill the man out of his own honor, and he gave the man the choice of his wife’s fate. While doing so, the man claims his wife ran off, and Tajomaru cut his bonds and fled as well. After being betrayed by his wife in such a way, the man took up his own sword and thrust it into his breast in a sacrificial suicide.
These deviations in the different accounts come not only from differences in perceptions, but also in differences in how each person would like the story to be remembered, both for their own honor, and the honor of their loved ones. Each character’s account portrays them in the best possible light, given the circumstances. The murdered man would like to be remembered not as someone who was killed after losing a battle to another warrior, but as someone who valiantly took his own life in response to the shame and dishonor brought upon him by his wife. At the same time, he does not want to incriminate his wife in any wrongdoing, so even if she had stabbed him out of honor, he could not relate this to the police, as it would make her guilty of his murder. The murdered man’s wife, also following the code of honor, would not dare to reveal anything if in fact there was an amorous connection between herself and Tajomaru, and yet, at the same time would not want her husband to be seen as someone who was struck down in battle, or killed while tied to a tree. Therefore, she relates that she did the honorable thing, and took her husband’s life, and then attempted to take her own. Tajomaru of course does not want to be found guilty of the man’s murder, and thus would not admit to such a thing. At the same time, if he did indeed have an extramarital affair with the man’s wife, he would not want to reveal their infidelity out of respect to the woman he loves.
This intricate web of deceit and misinformation causes Akutagawa’s readers to step back from the individual narratives and examine the story on the whole, and draw their own conclusion as to what was the actual chain of events. Since no single account can be trusted above any another, Akutagawa opens up a world of speculation and imagination that could not be conveyed through more conventional means of storytelling. This breakthrough style has captured the imaginations of countless readers, and opened the floor for debate on the schisms between perception and reality; truth and untruth, and honor and dishonor. This open-ended story format is now an almost archetypal style, often visible in modern society in commercials, novels; such as Christopher McQuarrie’s “The Usual Suspects”, and movies; such as Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” (1992).
Akutagawa’s second story in the Rashomon collection is an eponymous vignette centered on a large dilapidated gate in Kyoto, Japan, named Rashomon. Constructed during the Japanese Heian period in 789, when the capital of Japan was moved to Heian, which is now called Kyoto, the gate fell into disrepair after the abandonment of West Kyoto. A series of natural disasters and a steady decline in the labor force left the gate a mere facade of its once powerful architecture. During this period, Japan continued to refine its cultural heritage, and the land became a model of courtesan living, ever in the pursuit of beauty. While the courtesans flourished, provincial clans also rose to greater levels of power, creating a socioeconomic rift in the land. As the courtesans became further and further removed from life outside the palace walls, the quality of life for the proletariat diminished. As social classes became more separated, a complete disregard for the lower states emerged. The Rashoman, once a proud monument, became a hideout for thieves and murderers. Rats and vermin infested its structure. As the death toll from malnourishment, disease, and various natural disasters increased, unclaimed bodies of the lower class were left abandoned to rot at the gate.
The underlying model of the story is the balance between that which is right, and that which is necessary. Akutagawa’s protagonist in “Rashoman” is a servant who has recently been dismissed from his position. He finds himself to be a man with no master, and is left with few options for his survival. While waiting out a heavy rain at the base of Rashoman, the man decides that he has only two options available to him; he can attempt to pursue honest means of finance, and inevitably face a drawn out starvation, eventually being left to rot like so many others at the gate, or he can become a thief, and hopefully survive these hard times through ill-gotten gains. Lost in thought, the man seeks refuge from the storm inside the wall. After climbing the stairs to the inner recesses of the wall, he sees a ghastly and emaciated old woman, carefully plucking long black hairs out of the head of one of the multitude of corpses lining the floor of the cavernous room. The servant instantly recoils at the sight of the old woman, and Akutagawa relates that had the man then thought about his debate to thieve or live righteously, he most certainly would choose the road of honesty, honor, and inevitable death. He approaches the woman in anger, furious that someone would steal from the deceased in such a manner, and asks her why she is defiling these corpses. Her response startles him. She relates to him that she collects the hair to make a wig, and that the seemingly innocent corpse she is plundering actually belonged to a local merchant woman who sold snake flesh to the city guards, passing it off as dried fish. The old woman rationalized that what the merchant woman did, although deceitful and dishonest, could not be the subject of moral objection, because if she had not deceived the city guards, the merchant woman would have starved to death. So too would the old woman starve if she did not steal the long black hair to fashion into wigs to sell, and thus the merchant woman whose corpse was being defiled would find no objection in the old woman’s actions. This sense of logic at first baffles the man, then seemingly codifies his own choices for him. In what seems to be a moment of anger and clarity, he tells the old woman that he must rob her of her possessions so that he can then sell them, in order that he too not face death from starvation.
Following the old woman’s train of thought, the servant’s actions in stealing her clothing were morally irreprehensible, and yet there is much more to Akutagawa’s story than this. At first it seems that the servant buys into the old woman’s code of survival ethics, takes her clothes, and leaves into the night in order to continue his initial plan of robbery for survival; fortified by his new moral code. Upon closer evaluation of the text however, this does not seem to be the situation. Akutagawa uses this story to sardonically point out differences between the morals and ethics of the Eastern world and the Western world. Western philosophy typically finds morality to come from divine decree. According to Judeo-Christian philosophy, that which is believed to be immoral is wrong because a supreme being deemed it so, and thus it should not be done for fear of divine vengeance. Eastern philosophy does not typify morality in this way. Akutagawa’s protagonist is a servant who has been dismissed from his post, a man with no master or supreme being exerting control over him, much like a follower of Buddhism or Shinto. His actions are accountable to himself, and to those upon which his actions cause effects, be they good or evil. The servant actually seems to realize that death is a better option than dishonor, both for himself and the old woman. By taking her clothes and fleeing into the night, the man is not simply choosing to follow her path, but in actuality is showing her that her code of ethics is flawed and naive. Most likely the old woman will die with no clothing or possessions, but if, as a result of the servant’s actions, she realizes the error in her flawed perceptions of morality before her death, then her death and more importantly the servant’s actions, were not in vain. Akutagawa seems to be trying to point out that the reward for man’s good deeds is not a bigger slice of the Judeo-Christian heaven, but the earthly reciprocation of good acts, or karma.
The story ends with the old hag peering into the darkness at the base of the wall, reflecting on the unknown and unseen that lies ahead for her. So too does the “masterless man” peer into his unknown fate hoping to find resolution and validation in his actions and in the thoughts of his own mind, rather than in the perception of him held by some unearthly deity. So too did Akutagawa peer into his own darkness, with a calm mind and peaceful resolution before taking his own life.
Akutagawa created a timeless classic in his work Rashoman and Other Stories. The format for short story writing he created has been wholeheartedly embraced by members of the literary community in Asia and the rest of the world. His realism and natural style fostered a movement of concision and effective simplicity that may not be fully appreciated for years to come. His insight into the mind of man is truly of a caliber shared with the great psychological authors, his pastoral aesthetic and holistic documentation of the psyche in medieval Japan rivals that of the most talented realists and naturalists, and his subtle yet intriguing moral observations elucidate points often overlooked by contemporary philosophic writers. An unfortunate facet of literary criticism in the Western world is that often talented contemporary writers from Asia can be overlooked. For someone with limited knowledge of Japanese culture and heritage, Akutagawa’s work can be a stepping stone into a richer understanding of culture around the world and different states of perception often not expressed in the work of Western writers. Those with an appreciation for the cultural heritage of Japan can gleam even more from his work, using his words as a medium to relate better to Asian culture. Given the Western world’s history of poor relations with nations in the Easter hemisphere, particularly Japan, it is important that this genre of literature be more thoroughly read globally, not simply for it cultural relevance or implicit beauty, but also for the shared communication and dialogue that literature is able to open up between cultures that seem so very different. Although Akutagawa intentionally points out many cultural differences between Asia and the rest of the world, his work also shines light on many of the basic natural traits, desires, and perspectives that are shared by all humans, and relevant through any cultural lens.
Agatucci, Cora. “Tokugawa and Modern Japan.” 09 December 2002
Akutagawa, Ryunosuke. Rashomon and Other Stories. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1952.
Gilmore, George William. Animism. Boston: Marshall Jones Company, 1919.
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