by Ryūnosuke Niihara

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Akutagawa is one of Japan’s most famous writers, and “Rashmon” has been cited as establishing his style and becoming the prototype for historical fiction in Japan. Most of Akutagawa’s fiction contains a core of realism embellished with the casual incorporation of fantasy. Akutagawa’s work thus resembles that of the late twentieth century Latin American Magical Realists, whom he anticipated by roughly half a century.

“In a Grove” was the primary inspiration for Akira Kurosawa’s award-winning film Rashmon (1951) and is Akutagawa’s most famous story internationally. It also is his most experimental short story, for it involves seven different narrators, none of whom can be said to be central in terms of reliability or thoroughness of presentation.

“In a Grove” contains neither a prologue nor a conclusion or denouement, leaving readers with no overarching authorial interpretation to help resolve the numerous conflicting points of testimony. In this way, Akutagawa’s scenario differs substantially from that of Kurosawa, who inserted a woodcutter’s eyewitness account of the rape and suicide near the film’s conclusion in order to tie together the loose ends intentionally left dangling by Akutagawa. The self-deluded aspects of the testimony of Tajmaru (the bandit), Masago (the wife), and Takehiro (the husband) remain implicit with Akutagawa, whereas Kurosawa makes them explicit in his film.

The major difference among the three conflicting testimonies is the nature of Takehiro’s death. Tajmaru claims to have stabbed Takehiro to death after a lengthy and valiant sword fight. In contrast, Masago testifies that after witnessing the rape, a dumbstruck Takehiro shamefacedly agreed to her plan for a double suicide; she stabbed him to death shortly before failing in an attempt to cut her own throat. Finally, Takehiro’s ghost claims that he committed suicide in despair over his wife’s urging of Tajmaru to kill him where he sat, tied to a tree, shortly after he witnessed Tajmaru rape her.

Tajmaru’s account of the final spirited sword fight with Takehiro is implausible, in that risking one’s life to duel with a captive seems out of character for a bandit who had used underhanded schemes to tie Takehiro to a tree and rape Masago. The crux of the controversy over Takehiro’s death thus lies in the conflicts between the accounts of Takehiro and Masago. Takehiro’s cold and despondent gaze in Masago’s direction after the rape suggests that he believed that she had not struggled tenaciously enough with Tajmaru before succumbing to his erotic aggression and perhaps had found it even more to her taste than her husband’s weak and tepid embrace. Blaming his sorely deflated manhood on Masago instead of the rapist, Takehiro goes so far as to imagine that his raped wife had implored Tajmaru to kill him so that she could belong to the bandit body and soul thenceforth. Masago’s account also refers to Takehiro’s cold and silent stare, but she excises the painful element of Takehiro’s resentment toward her, explaining away his subsequent death in sketchy terms and lamenting the worthlessness of her present reclusive existence.

What really happened during a particular incident such as this may be impossible to ascertain, but it does not follow that truth itself is an impossibility, as some pessimistic commentators have concluded with alarm. Despite uncertainties hanging over the specifics of these events, readers can confidently conclude that Tajmaru’s rude intrusion sparked a severe breakdown in communication and trust between Takehiro and Masago that would doom the couple’s prospects for eventually resuming a normal existence.

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