The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The title Rashmon and Other Stories has been used for several collections of Rynosuke Akutagawa’s work. “In a Grove” (published in Japanese as “Yabu no naka,” 1922), the opening story and centerpiece of this 1952 anthology, consists of the testimony of several different speakers responding to a government official’s investigation of a woman’s rape and her husband’s subsequent death in a secluded forest. The most intriguing testimony springs from the bandit who raped the wife, the wife herself, and the dead husband, who speaks through a spirit medium. Each of the three recounts with dogged assuredness a version of the events that is radically different from those of the others; each version elevates the motives of the speaker at the expense of the perceived motives of the other two persons present. The mixture of cogency and implausibility in all three accounts suggests that nobody can be certain about all the details of that day in the grove—or throughout much of recorded history.

The story “Rashmon” is named for the largest city gate in medieval Kyto, Japan’s former capital. This gate and the corpse-laden room in it serve as the story’s setting, and its state of disrepair is emblematic of the grim period of famine and concomitant moral decay gripping Japan at that time. Desperate to earn money with which to buy food, a shriveled old woman is pulling the hair from corpses in the gate in order to make wigs from it. The...

(The entire section is 475 words.)

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In the course of the story, Akutagawa uses imagery not only to establish the setting, but also to portray his characters. The servant is first compared to the lone cricket, which “clings” to the pillar but later abandons his “perch”—much like the fleeing servant. When he climbs up the loft ladder, the servant is “quiet as a lizard” and stealthy “as a cat.” He fears that his corpse will be thrown into the loft as would a “stray dog’s.” The old woman’s arm is like a chicken’s, and she is twice compared to a monkey. Through his imagery, Akutagawa suggests that these two characters have forsaken their humanity and have become caught up in a struggle for survival. When he describes the old woman’s eyes as being those of a “bird of prey,” he also ties the characters to the crows that prey on the dead.

Even though such imagery does not present the characters favorably, Akutagawa treats the old woman and the servant with light irony: The author is rather condescending, but he is not harsh or contemptuous of the thieves. For the most part, Akutagawa uses the third-person point of view but filters much of the story through the mind of the servant. On the other hand, the narrator occasionally editorializes about the servant so that his audience will not have any doubts about the servant’s motives or his self-deception. The narrator uses the phrases “in fact” and “the truth is that” when he first discusses the servant’s...

(The entire section is 442 words.)