Next up on my brother’s Japanese Literature syllabus was Rashōmon by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. A series of short stories, we were only assigned the first two, but I think I will read a few others because I really did like these selections.
In the first story, entitled Rashōmon, we meet a servant who has been recently fired. He is hungry and has no where to go but can’t decide if he should resort to theft to survive. He knows of an abandoned house where, rumor has it, people are putting dead bodies because they cannot afford burials. Still contemplating his options, he heads to the house and makes his way to the attic. Sure enough, corpses line the room and he is overwhelmed by the stench. But, he quickly notices an old woman who is bizarrely stealing hair from the heads of the dead bodies. He surprises her and demands to know what she is doing. She confesses that she steals the hair to make wigs in order to make a living. She justifies her actions much as he had justified his resort to thievery. So, the servant decides that he too will steal in order to survive and he begins by stealing the woman’s clothes and leaving her naked among the corpses. Random, random story, but pretty darn interesting. The servant struggles with the idea of theft, but once he is reassured it is acceptable, he turns the person that he should most identify with.
The second story, In the Grove, was just as interesting. It is various versions or viewpoints of a murder. We hear from the man who found the body; a priest who met the dead man, who was accompanied by his wife, earlier in the day; the man who captured the suspected murderer; and the mother of the missing wife. We then also hear from the suspected murderer, who confesses, saying that he raped the wife then challenged the husband to a swordfight (why not just kill him, right?). Now moving away from the courtroom scene, we hear the account from the missing wife who says she was raped and then saw how disgusted her husband was by her so she killed him and unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide. Finally, we hear from the dead man himself who says that he was in fact disgusted by his wife, not because she had been raped but because she was willing to run off with the murderer. He then says he was killed by the man and his wife fled, but as he was dying he heard someone come back to steal his sword. Each account varies greatly and there are even inconsistencies with the stories of the people who are not involved directly with the murder. No one account can be completely true and, to me, this was the most interesting aspect of the story. The short story seems to take note of the moral complexities of our behavior and interactions with others, even if we are not truly in the center of the account. We all make concessions for some people or ourselves, wish we behaved one way while behaving in another, and justify our actions even when even we know they are not right.