by Ryūnosuke Niihara

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Themes and Meanings

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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 master’s need to survive financially.)

Other negative images pervade Akutagawa’s description of Rashmon: the overgrown tall weeds, the crumbling stone steps, and the white bird droppings—all attest Kyoto’s decline, so widespread that the servant’s dismissal seems trivial by comparison. In fact, the individual seems insignificant against the backdrop of physical, cultural, and moral bankruptcy. Adding to the general gloom are the dusk, with its associations of death and ambiguity, and the steady rain, which has forced the servant to seek shelter. In one sentence, Akutagawa combines the dusk and rain with a sense of the ominous: “As evening descended, a low cloud, dark and foreboding, loomed heavily above the corner rooftiles.”

Because the setting is so negatively described, the servant is understandably pessimistic about his fate. Cold, wet, and hungry, he has no prospects of gaining employment and can see only his impending death, unless he resorts to theft. Stealing is, he believes, the “only way out,” but he cannot “bring himself to do it,” primarily because of his weakness: He is a coward who quickly resolves to steal but lacks the will or courage to do it. Because he fears the dead, he clutches the sword at his side; it is only when he sees the old woman, not a strong young man, that he decides to “summon his strength” and attack her. Before he can act, however, he must abhor the old woman’s action so that he can rationalize his action as being motivated by principle. The author thereby establishes the servant as a weak person who seeks both a suitable victim and a justification for his crime. In effect, while the setting does provide a backdrop against which his action seems consistent, the servant does have a choice and cannot evade responsibility for his actions by comparing his crime to the old woman’s or her victim’s.

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Critical Essays