Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Adventure classics -- Death & betrayal at the gate of life

"Rashomon/"In a Grove"

by Ryunosuke Akutagawa


When I first decided to feature only Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s 1915 short story “Rashomon” as the final post of this year, I didn‘t realize that the plot I had in mind, the one made famous by the movie of the same name, was actually the plot of a second Akutagawa story, “In a Grove.”

Groundbreaking Japanese director Akira Kurosawa combined the plot of “In A Grove”, the depiction of a rape and murder from conflicting viewpoints, with the twelfth-century setting of “Rashomon,” named for the ancient city gate of the old Japanese capital of Kyoto.

Possibly Kurosawa feared a more modern setting would make the film’s subject matter too controversial for censors of the then-occupying U.S. forces. Or perhaps that its depiction of deadly duplicity would be too painful and bitter a pill for his fellow citizens to swallow.

In either case, Kurosawa’s borrowing itself paid homage to a previous generation’s literary hero, Akutagawa, who based “Rashomon” on a centuries-earlier Noh play. By that time, the proud main city gate, Rashomon, had degenerated into a haunt of ill-repute. “For the past few years the city of Kyoto had been visited by (such) a series of calamities,” Akutagawa wrote, “that the repair of the Rashomon was out of the question.” Haunted by thieves and robber, “eventually it became customary to bring unclaimed corpses to this gate and abandon them.”

It is in the ruins of this ghastly structure that a servant cast off by his samurai master takes shelter. After deciding nothing is left to him except to turn robber, the servant encounters an old woman plucking the hair of the castoff dead to sell for wigs. At first disgusted by the woman’s occupation, the servant soon finds himself also plundering this thief of the dead. Whose actions are the worse?

The gate’s name in modern Japanese is Rajomon (city gate). The alternate reading, Rashomon (gate of life) was popularized by the fifteenth-century Noh play Akutagawa’s story referred to. Today, although a modern marker stands on the spot, no trace of the gate itself remains.

The play on names makes the gate even more fitting for the plot of deception, even self-deception, of “In a Grove.”

In this second story, Akutagawa told the now-classic story of the murder of a samurai and the rape of his wife through the viewpoints of the wife, the murdered man (through the aid of a medium), the bandit accused of the crimes, and the man who found the samurai’s body. Unfortunately for the investigating police commissioner, none of the stories agree.

Was the wife the bandit’s willing participant? Did she fight the bandit, or was she a helpless victim? Did the husband die fighting the bandit, or by his own hand out of shame, or by the hand of his scorned wife?

Kurosawa’s 1950 film would add a more hopeful ending than that of either of the original stories it was based on, and brought international fame to the Japanese film industry. Akutagawa would be considered the founding father of Japanese short story writing, but in life, he struggled against the mental illness that had stricken his mother soon after his birth.

In 1921, he traveled to China as a reporter. Although he managed to publish “In a Grove” after his return in 1922, the stresses of the journey had broken his health. Devastated by fears of encroaching insanity, he killed himself with a drug overdose at the age of 35.

(Next month, Adventure classics starts a January of nonfiction adventures with Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet. Also next month, Adventure classics posts will move to Fridays, starting January 9, 2015.)

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