Rashomon (Rashomon) by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, 1917

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RASHOMON (Rashōmon)
by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, 1917

The reestablishment of the monarchy to hegemony in Japanese society in the Meiji Restoration began in 1868. Along with it came a highly self-conscious effort on the part of Japan to open itself up to Westernization, one effect of which was the translation of vast amounts of Western literature into Japanese that was then read voraciously by that country's highly literate middle and upperclasses. Various European literary movements—notably naturalism and symbolism—and attitudes—for example, the confessional mode of discourse, in which highly personal, even sexual, aspects of authors' lives were treated in literature—were introduced into Japanese literature for the first time and then later emulated.

A prodigious reader of both Japanese and Western writing, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke excelled in the study of English literature at the prestigious Tokyo Imperial University. In 1915, when he was 23 years old, the university's literary journal, Teikoku Bungaku (Imperial Literature), published "Rashomon," only the author's third foray into the short story genre. The work then appeared as the title story of Akutagawa's first collection, published two years later. While the piece did not cause a literary stir when it first appeared, "Rashomon" has come to assume a preeminent position among Akutagawa's more than 100 short stories. It is perhaps his most famous work.

Like nearly all of Akutagawa's best writing, the story was drawn from an earlier literary source, the folktale collection Konjaku Monogatari. These tales were composed during the Heian period (794-1184 C.E.), when Chinese influences, especially Buddhism, were at their zenith in Japan, and were subsequently collected in the Kamakura period (1185-1333 C.E.), the beginning of the feudal era, in which succeeding warrior governments rather than the emperor dominated the country politically and militarily, a situation that obtained until the Meiji period. Again, like many of Akutagawa's stories, the work is set in the distant past, toward the end of the twelfth century. Because of the eclipse of imperial power, the city of Kyoto, along with its largest and once regal Rashomon Gate, constructed 400 years earlier, has fallen into serious neglect and disrepair. Faded Buddhist religious images and objects, once attached to the high gate, are scattered on the ground in heaps like firewood. The opposition of high versus low and, by extension, noble versus base serves as a template for the story.

On a cold evening the former servant of a samurai warrior takes refuge inside the Rashomon Gate against an increasingly fierce rainstorm. The crumbling gate is now a site of wild animals, thieves, and robbers and a place where human corpses are abandoned. The servant is distressed because his samurai master, in these hard times no longer able to afford a servant, has dismissed him. The servant, who remains nameless throughout the story, now has nowhere to go. After a debate with himself as to what he should do next, he concludes that he has two choice: starve or steal. Noticing a stairway leading to the gate tower above, he unsheathes his sword and climbs the staircase. Halfway up he sees a faint flicker of light and wonders what kind of person would be occupying the Rashomon Gate in such a violent storm at this time of night, "The unknown, the evil terrified him."

Creeping up the stairs and then crawling on all fours, he sees in the shadows a number of corpses, whose stench repulses him. He then makes out an old woman standing over a corpse, which has long black hair. To his horror the gaunt woman is carefully pulling the hairs out of the corpse's head one by one. He reacts with revulsion, believing such thievery to be "an unpardonable crime" but forgetting that just a few moments earlier he himself had thought about becoming a thief. With a sense of self-righteousness, he then lunges forward with his sword, screaming at the woman, who tries to escape. He forces her to the floor, which gives him a satisfying sense of power and righteousness. Terrified, the woman admits that she is stealing the hair to make a wig, which she hopes to sell for scraps of food. He is both repulsed and angered by her justification for such a theft. She also tells him that the woman whose hair she is stealing used to sell snake meat as dried fish to unsuspecting soldiers at the guard barracks, a deception the old woman empathizes with, for it was done out of necessity in order to survive. The woman concludes, "If she knew I had to do this [stealing] in order to live, she probably wouldn't care." The servant listens and then quickly reasons that if it is acceptable for the old woman to steal the dead woman's hair, it is equally acceptable for him to steal from the old woman, thus solving the dilemma he faced earlier. He tears the clothes from her emaciated body, kicks her down on the corpses, and rushes down the steps "into the abyss of night." She then raises herself up from the corpses, crawls to the top of the stairs with her flickering torch, and peers down to the last stair below, for "beyond this was only darkness … unknowing and unknown."

The story, like many of Akutagawa's works, addresses a number of the most basic and intractable dilemmas found in the human condition: morality versus immorality; the body versus the spirit; the old versus the new; and stability versus change. It is also rich in its use of metaphor and in its juxtaposition of characters and images. The stormy weather itself, for example, conveys the political and economic turmoil of the early feudal times in which the story is set, as well as in Akutagawa's Japan, when old mores and well-tested beliefs were being challenged and when new ways of thinking and acting were making people uncomfortable. The servant faces a crisis in determining what he should do after losing his means of livelihood: act morally and starve, or behave immorally and steal. If he had lived in an earlier time, he would not have had to face such a problem. His samurai master would not have lost his respectable social position, and he would have enjoyed his place in society as a servant. But times had changed.

The Rashomon Gate itself and the stairs between the two floors function as transitional areas connecting the known (the past) with the unknown (the future). The gate connects the city, with its familiar buildings and environs, with the countryside beyond, where, because of political and civil unrest, life is tentative and dangerous. Similarly, the stairs connect the first floor of the gate, where many people pass freely, with the second story, where, presumably, few people go. Thus, a metaphorical inversion occurs, for the servant opts for the baser choice (to steal) on the higher of the two floors. The dramatic chiaroscuro found on the second floor, where the drama is played out, provides more, though dim, light than the "abyss of night" into which the servant flees and which the old woman faces as she looks down the stairs. But it is significant that it is the woman who holds the small torch at the end of the story, however foreboding and sinister her prospects.

The work is also richly textured with animal imagery, which adds subtle dimensions of ghoulishness and of the macabre to the narrative and which reflects some of the parable-like tone of the Konjaku Monogatari itself. Animals such as foxes, crows, and spiders, associated with cunning, foreboding, and stealth and with discomfort for humans, are invoked. The servant is described in animal-like terms as being catlike and as looking like a lizard as he "[c]rouch[es] on all fours" to see what is happening on the second floor, where he will make his fateful choice. The woman hunched over pulling out hair is likened to "a monkey [which] kills the lice of her young"; her bones have "no more flesh on them than on the shanks of a chicken." The implication seems to be that human nature in such situations is not so different from that of animals.

The central conflict in the story is between what the author seems to consider the natural, perhaps base, inclinations of humans with the higher demands imposed on people by an orderly society. The servant clearly acts on his baser instincts. But the story poses yet another question: Who is committing the more heinous act, the servant by stealing from the old woman, who will probably die as a result of the beating and theft, or the old woman, whose action, while certainly repugnant, causes no harm to any living person, which is a cardinal virtue of Buddhism? Such conflicts, dilemmas, and questions form the essential elements of all of Akutagawa's fiction.

"Rashomon" was seamlessly combined with one of Akutagawa's other famous stories, "In a Grove," to form the plot of Akira Kurosawa's classic film Rashomon, the winner of the Grand Prize at the 1951 Venice Film Festival and of the 1952 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

—Carlo Coppola