In a Grove

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"In a Grove" (藪の中 Yabu no Naka?) is a short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, first appearing in the January 1922 edition of the Japanese literature monthly Shinchō. Akira Kurosawa used this story as the basis for the plot of his award-winning movie Rashōmon.

"In a Grove" is an early modernist short story, as well as a blending of the modernist search for identity with themes from historic Japanese literature, and as such is perhaps the iconic work of Akutagawa's career. It presents three varying accounts of the murder of a samurai, Kanazawa no Takehiro, whose corpse has been found in a bamboo forest near Kyoto. Each section simultaneously clarifies and obfuscates what the reader knows about the murder, eventually creating a complex and contradictory vision of events that brings into question humanity's ability or willingness to perceive and transmit objective truth.

Plot summary[edit]

The story opens with the account of a woodcutter who has found a man's body in the woods. The woodcutter reports that man died of a single sword stroke to the chest, and that the trampled leaves around the body showed there had been a violent struggle, but otherwise lacked any significant evidence as to what actually happened. There were no weapons nearby, and no horses—only a single piece of rope, a comb and a lot of blood.

The next account is delivered by a traveling Buddhist priest. He says that he met the man, who was accompanied by a woman on horseback, on the road, around noon the day before the murder. The man was carrying a sword, a bow and a black quiver. All of these, along with the woman's horse, a tall, short-maned palomino, were missing when the woodcutter discovered the body.

The next person to testify is a hōmen (放免, a released prisoner working under contract to the police, similar to a bounty hunter). He has captured an infamous criminal named Tajōmaru. Tajōmaru was injured when thrown from a horse (a tall, short-maned palomino), and he was carrying a bow and a black quiver, which did not belong in his usual arsenal. This proves, he says, that Tajōmaru was the perpetrator. Tajōmaru was not carrying the dead man's sword, however.

The next testimony is from an old woman, who identifies herself as the mother of the missing girl. Her daughter is a beautiful, strong-willed 19-year-old named Masago, married to Kanazawa no Takehiro—a 26-year-old samurai from Wakasa. Her daughter, she says, has never been with a man other than Takehiro. She begs the police to find her daughter.

Next, Tajōmaru confesses. He says that he met them on the road in the forest, and upon first seeing Masago, decided that he was going to rape her. In order to rape Masago unhindered, he separated the couple, luring Takehiro into the woods with the promise of buried treasure. He then stuffed his mouth full of leaves, tied him to a tree and fetched Masago. When Masago saw her husband tied to the tree, she pulled a dagger from her bosom and tried to stab Tajōmaru, but he knocked the knife out of her hand, and he had his way with her. Originally, he had no intention of killing the man, he claims, but after the rape, she begged him to either kill her husband or kill himself—she could not live if two men knew her shame. She would leave with the last man standing. Tajōmaru did not wish to kill Takehiro in a cowardly manner, so he untied him and they had a swordfight. During the duel, Masago fled. Tajōmaru dispatched the man and took the man's sword, bow, and quiver, as well as the woman's horse. He says that he sold the sword before he was captured by the bounty hunter.

The second-to-last account is that of Masago. According to her, after the rape, Tajōmaru fled, and her husband, still tied to the tree, looked at her with great disdain. She was ashamed that she had been raped, and no longer wished to live, but she wanted him to die with her. He agreed, or so she believed—he couldn't actually say anything because his mouth was still stuffed full of leaves—and she plunged her dagger into his chest. She then cut the rope that bound Takehiro, and ran into the forest, whereupon she attempted to commit suicide numerous times, she said, but her spirit was too strong to die. At the end of her confession, she weeps.

The final account comes from Takehiro's ghost, as delivered through a spirit medium. The ghost says that after the rape, Tajōmaru persuaded Masago to leave her husband and become his own wife, which she agreed to do under one condition: He would have to kill Takehiro. Tajōmaru became enraged at the suggestion, kicked her to the ground, and asked Takehiro if he should kill the dishonorable woman. Hearing this, Masago fled into the forest. Tajōmaru then cut Takehiro's bonds and ran away. Takehiro grabbed Masago's fallen dagger and plunged it into his chest. Shortly before he died, he sensed someone creep up to him and steal the dagger from his chest. Throughout, it is obvious that he is furious at his wife.

Analysis[edit]

All analyses proceed from these premises:

  • Takehiro is dead.
  • Tajōmaru raped Masago.
  • Tajōmaru stole Takehiro's bow and quiver, as well as the woman's horse.
  • In each of the accounts, Masago wishes Takehiro dead, although the details vary.
  • Masago and Tajōmaru did not live together.

The differences between the characters' stories range from the trivial to the fundamental. What follows is a list of discrepancies between the characters' testimonies.

  • The comb mentioned by the woodcutter is not mentioned by any of the other characters.
  • The "violent struggle" that trampled the leaves, mentioned by the woodcutter, seems to occur only in Tajōmaru's version of the story—the swordfight.
  • The woodcutter also claims that the man was killed by a single sword slash across the chest, but in both Masago's and Takehiro's versions of the story, he was killed by a dagger thrust to the chest.
  • The woodcutter claims that Takehiro was wearing a Kyōto-style hat called a "sabi-eboshi", however Masago's mother says that he was not from Kyōto. We know that the author wanted to draw significance to this fact, because he specifically had the police investigator ask her if Takehiro was from Kyōto.
  • The traveling priest says that he "clearly remember[s] that there were more than 20 arrows" in the man's quiver. The bounty hunter says that there were only 17.
  • The woodcutter says that Takehiro was wearing a blue kimono and the Buddhist priest says Masago was wearing a lilac kimono. In Masago's account, Takehiro is wearing a lilac kimono.
  • Tajōmaru does not mention how Masago's dagger disappeared from the crime scene.
  • In Tajōmaru's and Takehiro's accounts, Masago and Tajōmaru have a long conversation after the rape, after which, she is willing to leave with Tajōmaru, so long as her husband is dead. Masago's account omits this completely.
  • Masago does not mention how Takehiro's sword disappeared from the crime scene.
  • It seems unlikely that Masago would fail at suicide so many times, particularly considering the first method she supposedly tried: driving her dagger into her neck.
  • Masago says that Takehiro was repulsed by her after the rape. This is not true according to the other accounts. From Takehiro's story, it is clear that he is furious at her, but he claims that this is because she asked Tajōmaru to kill him. In Tajōmaru's version, he still loves her so much that he is willing to fight to the death for her.
  • Takehiro introduces a new and unlikely character: the person who stole the dagger from his chest, conveniently, mere seconds before his death. (The film Rashomon explains this by having the Woodcutter later admit to stealing the dagger, but this confession is not present in the original story. This actually isn't what the woodcutter's testimony shows, because he mentioned that all the blood had dried up and Takehiro claims that as the small sword was retrieved from his chest, "more blood flowed into my mouth".)
  • Masago and Takehiro claim that Tajōmaru violently kicked her after the rape. Tajōmaru does not mention this.

In short, every character says at least one thing that is refuted by another.

In movies[edit]

The following movies have been based on the story of "In a Grove":

In popular culture[edit]

"In a Grove" is the favorite story of "Ghost Dog", the main character from the movie Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. The seventh episode of R.O.D the TV, titled "In a Grove", deals with a similarly confusing mix of truth and lies, reality and pretense. The plot of The X-Files episode "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" also deals with conflicting testimonies from characters involved in an alien abduction case. In the same way, the plot of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "A Matter of Perspective" concerns similarly conflicting testimonies from characters involved in a homicide investigation - however, here, in contrast to the thesis of "In a Grove", an objectively true account of what happened is eventually discovered.

The name of the story has become an idiom in Japan, used to signify a situation where no conclusion can be drawn, because evidence is insufficient or contradictory. Similar terms include "in the dark" (闇の中 yami no naka?) and "in the fog" (霧の中 kiri no naka?).

Translation notes[edit]

Contrary to what some foreign-language versions of the story may imply, Masago does not confess to the police. This is clear in the Japanese version of the text. The title of this section is:「清水寺に来れる女の懺悔」(kiyomizu-dera ni kitareru onna no zange, translated in Giles as "The Confession of the Woman Visitor to Kiyomizudera Temple") The word 懺悔 (zange) is often translated as "confession", but the word also has heavy religious connotations, similar to "repentance" or "penitence". Although it can mean "to confess to other people", it almost always means "to confess to Buddha/God". Contrast this with Tajōmaru's confession to the police, referred to as 白状 (hakujō) in the text. This raises the question: The woman's story seems highly unlikely, but why would she lie to Buddha and ask him to forgive her for a crime that she didn't commit? Without this important detail, we could be led to believe that Masago was lying to the police in an effort to save face. Jay Rubin translated the title to "Penitent Confession of a Woman in the Kiyomizu Temple".

Additionally, Rubin translated the title to In a Bamboo Grove.

References[edit]

  • Murray, Giles (2003). Breaking into Japanese Literature. Kodansha. ISBN 4-7700-2899-7.  A bilingual book containing "In a Grove"
  • Some of the content of this article comes from the equivalent Japanese-language Wikipedia article (retrieved April 5, 2006).

External links and further reading[edit]