In a Grove (Yabo no Naka) by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, 1921

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IN A GROVE (Yabo no naka)
by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, 1921

Ryunosuke Akutagawa's "In a Grove" ("Yabo no naka"; 1921) is one of the great underappreciated classics of world literature. Anticipating by more than a decade such American experiments with multiple-voiced narration as those of John Dos Passos and William Faulkner, Akutagawa acknowledged his debt to Robert Browning even as he pioneered a turn away from the Victorian quest for certainty to a darker, modernist analysis of human self-deception.

Just as Browning took the story for The Ring and the Book from an eighteenth-century Roman murder case, so Akutagawa took his story of theft, rape, and death from the Konjaku Monogatari. In both Browning and Akutagawa different witnesses tell what they know about a crime in an attempt to discover the truth through a judicial process. As each witness speaks in the dramatic monologues invented by Browning, each reveals his own character, limitations, and desires. The paths then diverge, and Browning's characters seek the truth and attempt to assess responsibility for the murder. Akutagawa's characters reveal that human truths are not only partial and self-seeking but also incommensurable, and the story puts the murder itself in doubt. Akutagawa's "detective story" investigates characters and their responsibilities, but the crime can neither be solved nor left unsolved without the reader's revealing both his assumptions about human nature and his own character as surely as the characters have revealed theirs.

The story of "In a Grove" is simple. A samurai is dead, his wife has disappeared, and a notorious robber has been arrested. The story proceeds by assembling diverse testimonies to the events that are given in answer to the questions of the high police commissioner. There is no narrative frame. The first to testify is the woodcutter who found the body in the grove and who reluctantly admits to having also found a comb. The evidence he gives is precise and clear: the victim wore a bluish silk kimono, his breast was pierced by a single sword stroke, the area was trampled, the blood was dried up, and the location was 150 meters from the Yamashina stage road. Next a traveling Buddhist priest describes the couple he saw on the road the day before—her lilac clothes, his arrows—and he pities the evanescence of human life, as brief as dew or a lightning flash. As other testimonies are given, the reader, like the high police commissioner, learns more about the characters involved in the incident and pieces together a narrative that will satisfy curiosity and justice.

The testimonies culminate in Tajomaru's confession. The notorious robber, thrown from what appears to be the woman's horse, possesses the samurai's arrows and confesses boldly that he killed the samurai in a fight for the woman and then took the woman and the arrows. The culprit is detected, the crime solved, and justice served. The high police commissioner's involvement ends. Tajomaru will be executed for the crimes, and all is resolved, save that the woman is still missing.

Although the testimonies end with the robber's confession, Akutagawa's story continues with another confession and a story: "The Confession of a Woman Who Has Come to the Shimizu Temple" and "The Story of the Murdered Man, As Told through a Medium." These additional accounts confirm Tajomaru's confession at several key points but contradict it on the most important point—who killed the samurai? Paradoxically, instead of everyone asserting his innocence, everyone claims to be guilty. In each account the robber raped the woman, the woman said something about shame or killing, and the teller of the tale killed the samurai. In Tajomaru's account he killed the samurai in a fair fight with the 23rd stroke. In the woman's account she killed her husband after the rapist had knocked her down and run away. In the samurai's account he killed himself with his wife's small sword. Great care is taken to make each of these incompatible accounts fit the external evidence and mesh with the other accounts. In the jigsaw all of the pieces fit, but they make different pictures.

Two questions arise at once: Who really killed the samurai? And why should everyone involved claim to have killed him? At one level the motives are clear. Each confession restores self-esteem and control over fate to the speaker. In taking responsibility, each person ceases to be entirely a victim and reclaims the honor otherwise lost in the incident. The robber becomes heroic, a lover not a rapist, a brave man not a tricky coward. He can defy the powerful who rob without shedding blood and who share the greed that brought the samurai into the grove. The shamed wife killed the husband who hated her for having been raped. Although both men say that she wanted her husband or the rapist to die, she has no recollection of demanding that the robber kill her husband. Now she cannot kill herself. Hers is the most complex situation psychologically and the only obviously inconsistent one. When she describes killing her husband, she makes his kimono lilac, the color of her clothing, not his. In the husband's account he acts like a samurai. He is no longer a man tied to a tree whose wife, raped in front of him, is willing to run away with the robber if the robber first kills her husband. In the husband's account the robber offers to kill the wife and then cuts his bonds and leaves him, freeing the samurai to kill himself. The samurai forgives the robber but not his wife.

Since all three versions cannot be true, the reader is invited to reveal himself or herself by proposing that what must have happened is a sordid tale that disgraces each participant. The wife said, "Kill him," and the robber did so, stabbing the man bound to the tree, perhaps cutting through the rope at the same time. When he turned for the wife, she had run away. She later came back, wept, and then fled again. In this antithetical version the evidence shames the actors. Their shame accounts for the stories they tell themselves and others. Although the wife's is the story that is most obviously false, hers is the only one that is metaphorically or psychologically true. She feels that she killed her husband and lives; the men boast and die. Yet other versions of the events are possible.

What is clear is that the version the reader develops will reveal how noble or sordid, simple or complex, his or her view of human nature is. Even if the reader refuses to develop a version, he is caught. If the reader pursues the evidence, he reveals that he thinks that truth matters. If he refuses the challenge, he refuses the difficulty of reaching truth by denying its possibility. More evasively, the reader may dismiss the story as too tricky and too much trouble to try to figure out, since "it all depends on your point of view." All readers condemn themselves to a fixed position even though, just like the story's characters, they may not know it.

In 1952 Akira Kurosawa filmed the story as Rashomon, taking the title from another story in the same collection. Brilliant as the film is, Kurosawa solves the crime by introducing an independent witness. The director supplies the narrative point of view and the certainty Akutagawa has so carefully subtracted. False to Akutagawa's metaphysics, Kurosawa is true, however, to Akutagawa's skepticism about human nature. The demystifying, corrosive interpretation Kurosawa offers is consistent with Akutagawa's satiric vision in such stories as "Rashomon" itself and in "In a Grove." Revealing the limitations of film as a medium, however, Kurosawa chose closure over the vertiginous ambiguity possible to literature.

—Regina Janes