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 male protagonist, who happens by, threatens to kill her in disgust for defiling the dead, but she convinces him to relent by arguing that many of these dead people had benefited from shady business practices when still alive. He spares her and leaves, but not before stealing her kimono.
The remaining four stories are interesting, even if they do not rivet one’s attention like the first two. “Yam Gruel” recounts the story of a low-ranking samurai often mocked as a provincial pauper. His intense yearning for a rare dessert delicacy, yam gruel, leads him into encounters with a supernatural fox, at which point he begins to realize the hollowness of his craving. In “The Martyr,” a young priest accused of impregnating an unmarried young woman is driven from his church in Nagasaki and must resort to begging for a living. When the young woman’s baby daughter is caught in a burning house, nobody but the excommunicated priest dares to rush in to save the infant. Although the infant escapes harm, the priest soon dies from severe burns. It turns out that the priest was in fact a woman and thus blameless from the start. “The Dragon” portrays the excitement surrounding a dragon sighting, and “Kesa and Morito” renders the monologues of two guilt-ridden adulterous lovers who feel compelled either to murder or to be murdered.
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...
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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 desperate plight. When the servant grows increasingly angry with the old woman’s theft from the dead, he is being a hypocrite, for he has already decided to steal to survive. The narrator points out the hypocrisy: “He had, of course, already forgotten that only a few minutes earlier he himself had made up his mind to become a thief.” From this point on the narrator suggests that the servant, knowing he controls the situation, manipulates his emotions in order to justify his actions: “His hatred returned, only this time he controlled it.” When he uses the old woman’s rationalization, the servant joins her in the predatory behavior symbolized by the crows and encouraged by the setting of death and decay. The servant’s moral decay is his inner corruption, which is mirrored by his physical corruption and affliction: On his cheek there is a festering pimple that oozes “red pus.” Until he finds the rationalization he seeks, the servant picks at his cheek; he uses that same hand to steal from the old woman when he is finally free of nagging moral scruples.