Was Takehiro murdered or did he commit suicide in the story "In a Grove" by Akutagawa Ryunosuke?

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In the famous short story "In a Grove" by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, a man's body is found in a grove of bamboo and cedars. The story consists of various accounts told to a police commissioner about what happened, and the information in the accounts does not always match.

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In the famous short story "In a Grove" by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, a man's body is found in a grove of bamboo and cedars. The story consists of various accounts told to a police commissioner about what happened, and the information in the accounts does not always match.

The first account is told by a woodcutter who found the body in the forest. He describes where he found the corpse and what the man was wearing. According to the woodcutter, the man was lying flat on his back and had been killed with a single thrust of a sword. The blood had dried up. He found no sword, but only a rope and a comb.

The police commissioner then hears from a traveling Buddhist priest. He came across the dead man traveling with his wife on the previous day. The woman was on horseback. The man carried a sword, a bow, and about twenty arrows in a quiver.

A policeman next gives testimony. He arrested a man named Tajomaru, a notorious robber, after he had fallen from his horse. The bow and arrows that Tajomaru was carrying were similar to the ones owned by the dead man.

Next, an old woman, the mother of the dead man's wife, speaks. She identifies the dead man as a samurai named Takehiro who was married to her nineteen-year-old daughter, Masago. She describes her daughter and begs the police to find her.

Tajomaru, the man the police captured, speaks next. He confesses to the murder, but insists he doesn't know where Masago is. He explains that when he saw her, he decided to capture her without killing her husband. He lured the couple into the grove with the promise of buried treasure, tied the man to a cedar root, and stuffed his mouth with bamboo leaves. The woman drew a small sword, but Tajomaru disarmed her. She then told him that either he or her husband had to be killed, and she would go away with the one left alive. Out of lust, Tajomaru agrees. He frees Takehiro, has a sword fight with him, and kills him. But by this time, Masago has run away. He took the woman's horse as well as the bow and arrows, but he had already disposed of the sword before he was captured.

Next, Masago speaks. She says that after Tajomaru raped her, Takehiro loathed her. After Tajomaru had gone, she tells Takehiro that she intends to kill him and then herself. She kills him and then cuts his bonds, but she does not have the strength to kill herself, so she runs away.

Finally, Takehiro, the murdered man, speaks through a medium. He says that after Tajomaru raped his wife, she decided to go with him and asked him to murder her husband. Tajomaru knocked her down and asked the bound husband whether he should kill or save her, but she ran away before he replied. Tajomaru then freed Takehiro, took the sword, bow, and quiver of arrows, and left. Takehiro, alone in the grove, picked up his wife's small sword and killed himself.

We see, then, that the accounts about the death of Takehiro differ. Tajomaru claims that he murdered Takehiro. Masago claims that she murdered Takehiro. The ghost of Takehiro claims that he committed suicide. There is no way to determine the objective truth from what is written in the story. The conclusion is a matter of personal opinion and whose testimony you believe.

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This famous story provides us with multiple perspectives on the death of Takehiro, perspectives which contradict one another.  There are three possibilities: Takehiro was killed by Tajamuro, the notorious robber, killed by his wife, Masago, or committed suicide. 

Tajamuro testifies that he meant to steal Masago from Takehiro, but killed him because Masago insisted that they duel to the death, with her as the prize.  Masago testifies that she kills Takehiro because since he has witnessed her dishonor, he cannot be left alive.  Through a medium, Takehiro testifies that he has committed suicide.  The limited physical evidence does not establish one explanation definitively, so we are left, like the police commissioner, with only the credibility and motivation of the witnesses to come to a conclusion.

Tajamuro has always struck me as a bit of a braggart, with a reputation as a "bad guy" to maintain. He clearly relishes his story, heaping detail upon detail, to show what a great fighter and lover he is.  He is characterized as "cheerful" at one point as he tells his story, and later he is described as "defiant." (I apologize for no page number citations, but I cannot find my copy of the story. Fortunately, I know the story well enough to know these are accurate quotations.) 

Masago is very young, and her mother describes her as a "spirited, fun-loving girl."  She also takes the time to say that she is sure Masago has never been with a man other than her husband.  These details from the mother have always made me wonder how spirited Masago is and why her mother needs to say anything at all about Masago not having been with any other man. Surely this was presumed in that time and place? I think Masago might be a bit of a flirt and a troublemaker, and she could have concocted her story to show herself in the most innocent light after a dalliance with Tajamuro. 

Assuming one suspends one's disbelief in mediums, Takehiro's testimony is probably the least self-serving.  He relates that Masago agrees to go willingly with Tajamuro, asking first that he kill Takehiro.  Tajamuro declines to do so, offering to kill Masago for Takehiro, since she has betrayed her husband so callously. Takehiro forgives Tajamuro because of this.  It seems that Takehiro kills himself in shame, anger, and jealousy.  A case can be made for any of the three possibilities, but it is my opinion that Takehiro commits suicide because his testimony is the least self-serving of the three. 

The author had no intention of providing a definitive resolution to this death, but rather makes the point that our memories are frail and colored by emotion and motivation, with no way of defining "truth."

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