Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Seven characters speak to a magistrate about their knowledge of a man found stabbed in the chest in the woods near Kyoto after a woodcutter discovers a dead samurai soldier in a secluded grove. The woodcutter reports to the magistrate the details of the scene of the crime and the condition of the body, recounting that the well-dressed victim was stabbed in the chest, but that there was no sword nearby. A priest saw the soldier with a woman and a horse the day before. The man had a bow and a lacquered quiver holding more than twenty arrows. An officer has arrested a notorious thief named Tajomaru and has no doubt that this criminal committed the murder. Tajomaru’s weakness for women and his violent activities are well known, explains the officer; the fact that the lacquered bow and arrows found in Tajomaru’s possession belonged to the dead man further convince the officer that he has arrested the right man. The quiver, however, contains only seventeen arrows. The thief also has a horse that matches the description given by the priest. An old woman approaches the magistrate and asks the court to find her missing daughter. She defensively acknowledges her daughter was spirited, but she insists that the young woman was devoted to her husband, twenty-six-year-old Takehiro.
Tajomaru confesses that he has murdered the samurai because he wanted the man’s wife: When he saw the couple, he decided he must have the woman. He lured Takehiro into the dense grove by appealing to his greed, promising to sell him some valuable swords and mirrors at a bargain. He...
(The entire section is 642 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
“In a Grove” (sometimes translated as “In a Bamboo Grove”) gained worldwide renown for serving as the basis for director Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashmon (1950), which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. A Heian era morality tale that in message—what should be considered good or evil depends upon the circumstances—“In a Grove” echoes Akutagawa’s earlier story “Rashmon.” “In a Grove” was probably inspired by some or all of several sources. They include an early Japanese story, “The Tale of the Bound Man Who Was Accompanying His Wife to Tanba” (twelfth century), which deals with a man forced to witness the rape of his wife; Ambrose Bierce’s short story “The Moonlit Road” (1893), which concerns the use of a medium to obtain the account of a dead woman regarding her murder; and Robert Browning’s long narrative poem The Ring and the Book (1868-1869), which presents a murder from twelve points of view.
It is to Akutagawa’s credit that whatever his inspiration, he constructed a short fictional piece uniquely his own. In the process, he devised a clever, intriguing, and memorable mystery story, which anticipates the modern law enforcement precept of the unreliability of eyewitnesses.
The three-thousand-word story consists solely of the verbal testimony of seven different individuals—a woodcutter, an itinerant Buddhist priest, a policeman, an old woman, the confessed thief and murderer (Tajomaru), the woman who was assaulted (Masago), and a dead man (Takehiko, summoned through the assistance of a medium)—regarding the supposed murder of a man, the alleged rape of his wife, and the presumed theft of their belongings. Each deposition, given in a distinctive voice that by its style helps identify the speaker, adds details to the previous account, which seems to clarify the sequence of events but actually serves to confuse the issue. Discrepancies and contradictions abound; several people admit to various crimes, and many pertinent questions remain unanswered. Since each individual brings a personal agenda to his or her report, has a particular perspective on events, notices different details, and has difficulty being objective, none of the statements can be fully trusted. Takehiko is certainly dead, and Tajomaru was definitely found in possession of stolen goods, but beyond those scant facts lurks a host of unknowns.