Rashōmon!? or How to annoy your friends with Japanese Modernism

If you are like me and absolutely love to be a know-it-all and interject into friendly conversations with an unasked for, often irrelevant, fact, statistic or anything that you half remember, with a “WELL, did you know…”, in order to turn the conversation back to you and your brilliance…then this is for you! Here we can top cinephiles who love to let you know they have watched any Akira Kurosawa film, as they love to do (WELL, did you know Star Wars was inspired by the Hidden Fortress?), you can top this by steering them into talking about Kurosawa’s classic Rashōmon, then you drop down a “WELL, did you know that Kurosawa’s Rashōmon come more from Akutagawa’s short story In a Grove, rather than its namesake Rashōmon?” Proceed to bask in the jealous eye rolls directed at you for grinding conversation to a halt with your superior knowledge of films and early 20th Century Japanese literature. Applause.

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa first published In a Grove or Yabu no Naka in 1922 as a modernist take on a classic Japanese folk story where readers are presented three conflicting accounts of the death of a samurai. To briefly explain (but it really is worth reading the story itself): a bandit named, Tajōmaru lures a samurai and his wife into a bamboo grove where he tries up the samurai and rapes his wife and it is here that the stories of the bandit, the wife and the (ghost) samurai diverge. The bandit says he then unties the samurai so they can duel for the samurai’s wife and he then kills the samurai; the wife says the bandit runs away and she kills the samurai, before attempting to kill herself, because they cant live with the shame caused by the bandit. Meanwhile, the ghost of the samurai says that his wife is swayed to join the bandit and begs him to murder her husband, which he declines and they both run away separately leaving the samurai to kill himself in his grief (and then then a forth, perhaps unknown, person is added into the mix, which gave me chills. Seriously read the story, it takes like fifteen minutes).

Commentaries on In a Grove (and Kurosawa’s Rashōmon) absolutely love to talk about how it is a commentary on the relative and unknowable nature of truth, and some even more irreverently try to solve the mystery, so I don’t feel the need to cover that well-trod ground. In his introduction to the Penguin edition of the story, author Haruki Murakami says that writers, such as Akutagawa, are given national status if, among other things, they reflect the mentality of the Japanese in the age in which they are writing, so instead, I will try to see what Akutagawa might be commenting on early 20th Century Japan through his In a Grove.

The question of what represents the true version of events is, based solely on the information provided to the reader, purposely unanswerable, however it is the the Magistrate, who is used as a framing device for all the characters to deliver their accounts, rather then the reader who must determine the truth. If the Magistrate has been given the same information as the reader, then it is an impossible task, and regardless of this, authorities would require an official version of events. After all, who should be held responsible for murdering the samurai: the bandit, his wife, or was it suicide? Tellingly, it is the bandit Tajōmaru, the only named character, who questions the authority of the Magistrate to determine the truth and fate of those involved, by saying that while he robs and kills people it is those that the Magistrate represents who truly destroy others. Tajōmaru denounces the instruments of power, money, words and influence that are used by authorities, maybe without performing any physically violent acts, but wreaking more destruction upon the lives of those they must judge than Tajōmaru himself ever could, and it is these people whom decide what is truth.

Akutagawa himself was writing at a time when Japan was struggling with its own national identity, having only recently becoming open to foreigners, which created a tension between the traditional Japan based on isolationism, and the modern Japan, based on new introduced Western ideals. Akutagawa straddled the chasm of old and new, East and West, where his writing is influenced by modernist ideals however he lived in an environment where only a single generation ago samurai were actually living and dying in bamboo groves. In a society in such transition, it is easy to imagine a proportion of the population feeling an ideological alienation from that those who determine what is truth and what is not. Akutagawa was perhaps trying to reconcile his unease that in the society in which he lived governance was carried out, laws were made, traditions were enforced, truths were decided, answers to unknowable questions were posed, by an authority alien to his own outward perception and senses of the world.

Anyway, I could go on and on, comparing In a Grove to Rashōmon (story) and further explore the tensions between traditional and modern Japan, or the prevalence of unresolved, conflicting narratives as a story telling device in fiction today (seen in Serial, the Affair – even episodes of the X-Files). Akutagawa is a very interesting person, writing at an interesting time, but I feel I’ve already gone on a bit too long. (In my defence, who doesn’t get excited by modernist Japanese literature?)

So, go forth and read In a Grove and Rashōmon and then annoy your friends by insisting you watch Kurosawa’s Rashōmon and complain that “WELL, did you know that according to the original source material…”


Sources:

Akutagawa, R (2009), Rashōmon and seventeen other stories: with introduction by Haruki Murakam, J Rubin (trans.), Penguin, London.

There were other articles i read for this, however I really disliked them so I  don’t feel the need to mention them here.

Although I did read an interesting article about the Japanese Gothic genre called Familiarity of the strange: Japans gothic tradition, by Henry J Hughes, shout out!

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