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The Human Mind Is In the Dark

November 9, 2008


Rashomon and Other Stories

Rashomon and Other Stories

Rashomon and Other Stories
Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Transl. Takashi Kojima

One of my goals while I was in Tokyo this summer was to consume as much Japanese fiction as I could. Loving books as I do, I believe that literature is one of the best paths to understanding a culture. And so, in the course of six weeks, I read six novels and 19 short stories by Japanese authors. For the short amount of time that I had, I believe I had a fairly broad survey of authors and styles, enough at least to feel like I had a sharpened ability to talk about Japanese literature. I devoured these books every morning and every afternoon on the train.

Occasionally, the story would be so engaging that I would almost miss my stop. One of these hypnotic pieces was found in The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories (ed. Theodore Goosen): “In a Grove,” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. I have never read a short story that held me with such vise-like intensity.

“In a Grove”
A masterful and thrilling mystery, this story uses seven court testimonies to reconstruct a rape and a murder. The woodcutter gives the first testimony, supplying the basic details of a man’s corpse he found in the forest. A traveling Buddhist priest follows his report with a description of the dead man’s wife on horseback, and then a policeman states that he has arrested a notorious murderer and rapist, Tajomaru, who is suspected of the crime. An old woman, the wife’s mother, presents a tearful lament for her dead son-in-law and missing daughter, giving their names and ages. But it’s the final three accounts that are utterly astounding in their scope and contradiction. Tajomaru, the rapist and robber, speaks first; Masago, the young wife, is second; and Takehiko, the murdered man, tells his story through a medium. Though I am reluctant to give anything away, it is necessary to note that the brilliance of this work lies in its presentation of the mutability of memory and truth. Akutagawa, with this story, would remind his readers that truth comes in shades of gray and that what may be reality to one is not reality to another. Because it’s so incredible, I think you need to read it right now (it’s a very short story), so follow this link.

“In a Grove” is included in a collection of Akutagawa’s short stories, Rashomon and Other Stories, translated by Takashi Kojima and recommended by Francine Prose in her list, “Books to be Read Immediately,” contained in her book Reading Like a Writer. The stories are short and accessible, supported by Kojima’s light and literal translation. I won’t review all of the stories, but rather close with these two, which also ranked in my favorites:

Akutagawa is remembered largely because director Akira Kurosawa memorialized this story in his film by the same title. It is a brief and strange tale of a luckless samurai’s servant who dashes under the Rashomon, which was the largest gate in imperial Kyoto, for shelter from the rain. He climbs the stairs to a tower, where he finds the room, consistent with rumor, littered with corpses. In the corner, he spots an old woman crouched over a girl’s body, plucking out the corpse’s hair. He is suddenly possessed by unnatural anger and fear, convinced that this old woman is the incarnation of evil, and rushes on her with a knife. While holding her down, he demands to know what she is doing. Trembling with fear, she says she is only collecting hair to make a wig. Temporarily satisfied, he releases her, but then he changes his mind and tears off her clothes and all her possessions and runs away with them. And that’s the whole story. I’m not sure myself what it means entirely, but it raises the answerless question, What is the source of human behavior? Why do people commit evil? Akutagawa is increasingly concerned with this question, and it figures in all of the stories contained in this book.

“Kesa and Morito”
Returning to the form of varying narrators, Akutagawa captures the confessions of a man and a woman caught in an affair, and in a plot to murder the woman’s husband. Morito admits that he was filled with lust for Kesa. Even though he respected her husband, Wataru, he could not keep himself from her and he rapes her one night. Afterward, he whispers in her ear, “Let’s kill Wataru.” Reluctantly, she agrees. But as Morito is now meditating on this plan, he comes to an astonishing conclusion: He does not love Kesa and he does not want to kill her husband. He says, plainly, “And tonight I am going to murder a man I do not hate, for the sake of a woman I do not love.” Morito is resolved to go through with the murder for fear of Kesa’s retaliation. Kesa speaks next, overwhelmed with shame because of the rape, and grief because she has agreed to be an accomplice to her husband’s murder. She does not want to go through with it anymore than Morito does, but swears to herself never to reveal it. Kesa is unbearably heartsick: “Oh, not only am I unworthy of living, but unworthy of dying.”

Violence or the threat of violence figures heavily in Akutagawa’s stories. His characters are transfixed by the potential to damage or destroy, uncertain of the factors that propel them to action. These stories are unbelievably good and compelling because of their powerful simplicity, their driving prose that begs one to ask, What lies at the bottom of the human heart? What lives in the sludge of the spirit? Akutagawa will not tell us the answer. Instead, he gives his haunting characters voices.

At the end of Morito’s confession, he is pacing in his room and he hears a ballad rising out of the night–a song that is a fitting summary of Akutagawa’s conception of the human condition:

“The human mind is in the dark,
With not a light to shine upon.
It burns a fire of worldly cares,
To go and fade in but a span.”

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