by Ryūnosuke Niihara

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In “Rashmon,” Rynosuke Akutagawa depicts the plight of an out-of-work servant who ponders his fate at Rashmon, the gate of a dilapidated building in twelfth century Kyoto. The servant knows, or believes, that in order to survive he must resort to theft, but he is at first reluctant to steal. In the course of the story, however, his encounter with an old woman, herself a thief, causes him to change his mind, or it enables him to rationalize resorting to theft as a way of life. His decision to steal is undoubtedly influenced not only by the unsettled times, but also by the deathly atmosphere of Rashmon. It was precisely that setting that appealed to Akira Kurosawa, the film director who used Rashmon to convey a sense of corruption and decay in his film Rashmon (1950), which has as its sources not only Akutagawa’s “Rashmon,” but also his “In a Grove.”

Rashmon, with its peeling paint and weather-beaten pillars, serves as a symbol for the ruins of Kyoto, which has been plagued by a series of disasters such as earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, and famines. The gate has become a refuge for wild animals and thieves, a depository for unclaimed bodies, and a haunt for crows, which feed off the bodies. In this gloomy setting—it is dusk, and a steady rain is falling—a dismissed servant thinks about his future and reluctantly concludes that if he is to survive he must steal. In an effort to find better shelter from the rain and the cold he climbs a ladder into the loft, where he sees a light. As he approaches the light, he sees that it is held by an old woman, who is pulling the hair out of the head of one of the decaying corpses.

As he watches the woman, the servant grows increasingly angry and self-righteous until he finally gains the courage to confront her. Sword in hand, he springs into the loft, blocks the woman’s escape, asks her what she is doing, and throws her to the floor of the loft. When he realizes that she is at his mercy, he assures her that he is not a police officer and again demands to know what she is doing in the corpse-filled loft. This time she gasps out the answer that she uses the hair to make wigs. The woman, who fears for her life, desperately tries to justify her action by stating that she is sure that the dead would not mind her taking their hair, and then she adds that the woman before her had committed the crime of selling snakes as dried fish. Comparing her crime with the dead woman’s, the old woman explains that no “wrong” was involved since both would have starved otherwise and that both consequently had no choice. She ends by reiterating her belief that the dead woman would forgive her.

The old woman’s justification of her actions ironically serves in turn to justify the servant’s decision to steal from her because he, too, would otherwise starve. He rips off her kimono, flings her among the corpses, and flees into the night and into obscurity. After he leaves, the old woman recovers, crawls to the loft ladder, and stares into the darkness.

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