Themes and Meanings

In “Rashmon,” Akutagawa probes the subtle relationship between setting and character. Twelfth century Kyoto becomes an emblem for desolation, decay, and death: The entire city has been plagued by natural disasters (earthquakes, tornadoes, and fires) and by famine, but the spiritual “famine” is no less important. In order to survive (and the story concerns the conflict between morality and survival), people have smashed the Buddhist icons and sold the pieces for firewood. In effect, then, Akutagawa indicates that in desperate situations people not only abandon morality but also use and exploit it as they would any other material at hand. Given his need to survive, the servant who steals the kimono is merely acting as the townspeople have acted.

Set against this general picture of physical and spiritual desolation is Rashmon, which represents the entire city. With its peeling paint and weather-beaten pillars, the dilapidated structure serves as a haven for wild animals and thieves and as a repository for unclaimed corpses. The only other visitors are the crows, which feed on the dead bodies. Thus, in his description of the gate, Akutagawa has provided images of decay, immorality, and predatory behavior. The crows prey on the dead bodies; the old woman preys on dead bodies; the dead woman had preyed on her customer; the servant preys on the old woman—all in the name of survival. (In fact, the servant’s dismissal may have been caused by his...

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