His work is bold, crosses boundaries and invites the reader to look beyond his words and deeper into their own reactions to his literature.
In a Grove is an early modernist short story published in 1921.
It describes the murder of Kanazawa no Takehiko, a samurai warrior whose corpse has been found in a forest near Kyoto.
Akutagawa has approached the tale from a completely different angle by describing it through the voices of seven witnesses, with a strong emphasis on the three main characters.
If you have ever seen the film Vantage Point (2008 starring Dennis Quaid)) you will probably understand the type of all round cinematic view he was or is trying to give the reader. The concept also hits upon the validity and accuracy of eye-witness observations.
What I see may not be what you see, my perceptions are different to your perceptions and most importantly we all see, hear, experience and react to each moment through our own personal frame of reference.
Aside from the almost secondary sub-plot this short but extremely prolific piece takes a stand within the main plot. Not the killing of Takehiko, but the rape of his wife.
Rape and the reaction of the victim, the rapist and the husband of the victim. I have to say for a story written over 90 years ago it is a damn sight more in-your-face than most articles about the subject nowadays. It is reality, it is uncomfortable and it says a lot about the mind-set of people confronted with this type of situation.
Some of you may remember the 1964 film The Outrage, (starring Edward G. Robinson, Paul Newman, Laurence Harvey, Claire Bloom and William Shatner). The Outrage (remade as a Western) is a remake of the Japanese film Rashōmon (1950), which in turn is based on the plot and characters of In a Grove by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa.
Get all that? There was an old lady who swallowed a fly kind of scenario.
Let’s get back to the story and the list of witnesses. We have the woodcutter, the travelling priest, the policeman, the old woman, the perpetrator -Tajomaru, the wife and the victim. Yes, apparently dead victims make really concise statements via medium to the police.
The Confession of Tajomaru, the Repentance of the Wife and ghostly statement by Takehiko the Murdered Man take precedence above the statements of the other witnesses. The reader is put in the position of choice. Who do you believe or rather who would you believe in those circumstances?
The beginning of a tale with many endings and possible conclusions, it just depends on who you choose to believe.We all see things through our own individual frame of reference based on our life experiences, socio-economic status, environment, childhood and internal/external influences.
Regardless of that fact some things are just crystal clear or aren’t they? Perhaps the waters are muddied or moving too quickly to be certain?
I wish I could say this poignant piece of literature represented a forgotten era or that attitudes have changed since the 1920’s. The reality is they haven’t and women are still dealing with the repercussions of this type of backward thinking.
In many countries the rape of a woman becomes a condemnation for that woman or girl, a death sentence. She is deemed dishonourable, and if married at the time of the rape she becomes an adulteress. Adultery also equals death sentence in some countries.
Medieval practices such as stoning or flaying are used to debase, torture and punish the victim even further. Young girls are gang raped and hung on trees by the neck. Rape is about power, ownership, taking a piece of a person, regardless of whether they are woman, man or child, a part they can never get back.
In this short story the focus is on the way husbands or partners react to their wife, girlfriend or companion being raped. It is about that quintessential flicker in the pit of their stomach, their gut base response and the first automatic reaction they have when they realise their woman has been raped.
Yes, you read that correctly. Their woman. That is exactly how women are perceived by the man or men in your close-knit relationships. The men in your pack would be a better description.
Another man has staked a claim on you, placed a flag on your body, imprinted and marked you as property. And that is the crux of the problem my friends. Women being perceived as property you can own, debase, lay a claim on and rid yourself of when you no longer require or want her.
Before tensions get a wee bit high, let me just assure this is not any kind of covert feminist propaganda. This is the reality of the world we live in. A world in which we must sign petitions and pressure governments not to kill pregnant women, who have been sentenced to death for being raped, ergo committing adultery, despite the fact the rapist usually goes unpunished. Whether the woman or girl is pregnant is irrelevant by the way, I was merely using the example of a very current event.
Base instinct. Neanderthal fist-pumping, dragging women by their hair into the cave, much like they would their kill of the day.
Just to clarify, I am not calling all men rapists, that would be a generalisation or worse playing to a stereotype, which one should never do or assume for that matter. I am merely pointing out that initial base response by a man to a power play by another man.
Do they hide that response? Well of course the majority of men do. The majority will acknowledge the response, feel shame at it, bury it very deep inside and then support their women, as they should be supported. Many of them will not be able to understand the initial response or bury it, which can lead to a deep crevice between a couple. Blame, guilt, fear and anger, all in one boat and no oars with which to paddle.
Note: this is all without considering the emotional and physical state of the victim, that is another ballgame altogether. Then we have the group of men, who embrace the initial response, because they have never been taught to control it.
I digress let’s see what the three alleged killers have to say for themselves.
Tajomaru (the rapist) confesses to killing Takehiko. His decision to rape the Wife is what seals the fate of the husband. Her beauty is such that it forces him to want to stake his claim on her, ergo her fault for being so damn pretty.
At that moment I made up my mind to capture her even if I had to kill her man.The most spirited woman is defenseless without a weapon. At least I could satisfy my desire for her without taking her husband’s life
Why? To me killing isn’t a matter of such great consequence as you might think. When a woman is captured, her man has to be killed anyway.
He changes his mind about killing the husband, decides to rape her and leave the man alive. According to his statement the Wife begs him to kill her husband and save her honour by marrying her instead. Unfortunately the abominable practice of having a victim marry her rapist is also common in some countries in our very modern world.
She gasped out that she wanted to be the wife of whichever survived.Then a furious desire to kill him seized me.
Tajomaru depicts the killing of the husband as a fair fight between men. In doing so he becomes the victor of an altercation instead of just a murderer.
But I didn’t like to resort to unfair means to kill him. I untied him and told him to cross swords with me.
Takehiko gives his version through a medium. What is his first reaction to the threat against his wife? Not fear, dismay or anger.
I was agonized by jealousy
After what Takehiko perceives or rather relays as the consensual act of sex,which his wife desired and requested, there is a moment between himself and the robber.They have a moment of male bonding, an understanding from man to man. Tajomaru speaks softly to Takehiko.
“What will you do with her? Kill her or save her? You have only to nod. Kill her?” For these words alone I would like to pardon his crime.
Tajomaru does two things in these sentences. He makes it clear to his rival that he has indeed taken claim of and soiled his property, and he acknowledges that in doing so he has dishonoured her, ergo making her redundant to her husband.
In turn Takehiko forgives him for the deed, because their male bond and patriarchal rules takes precedence over everything else. They are the same.
In that moment in time their roles in the scenario and the object of their disdain are one and the same.
The wife has run away during this interaction and Tajomaru cuts the ropes that bind Takehiko. The husband hears himself crying softly, perhaps a inkling of remorse? He then decides to make sure his own honourable status remains intact.
I raised my exhausted body from the foot of the cedar. In front of me there was shining the small sword which my wife had dropped. I took it up and stabbed it into my breast
Takehiko’s wife makes her statement. Note: Throughout the story she is only ever referred to as his wife. She has no name, no identity other than being his wife. Once again this is indicative of the time prior to and when it was written, and unfortunately in many parts of our world it still is. The woman as a sub-human, the lesser of the species.
The Wife tries to run towards her husband, who is bound to a cedar root, and is thrown to the ground by Tajomaru. He then rapes her in front of her husband. She looks into her husbands eyes and is shocked by what she sees.
That instantaneous look of my husband, who couldn’t speak a word, told me all his heart. The flash in his eyes was neither anger nor sorrow … only a cold light, a look of loathing. Beneath the cold contempt in his eyes, there was hatred. Shame, grief, and anger.
The Wife decides she cannot live with her shame and neither must her husband. Personally I would prefer to believe she decided he deserved to die for his reaction to her rape.
Despising me, his look said only, “Kill me.” Neither conscious nor unconscious, I stabbed the small sword through the lilac-colored kimono into his breast.
As if the physical and psychological stripping and burden of rape wasn’t enough to deal with, the victim then has to deal with their own emotions and the reactions of the people around them.
And … and what has become of me? Only that, since I have no more strength to tell you. Anyway, I hadn’t the strength to die. I stabbed my own throat with the small sword, I threw myself into a pond at the foot of the mountain, and I tried to kill myself in many ways. Unable to end my life, I am still living in dishonor.
She removes her now dishonourable self from society by entering a cloister.
Worthless as I am, I must have been forsaken
In her own eyes or rather those of society, she is no longer honourable enough to be part of said society. She must hide her self, her face, her body and her shame.
So there you have it. A rape, a death and three different versions of the event in question. Read it and acknowledge your initial gut reaction.
Are some of the points I made harsh? Yes, but so is the reality of the global epidemic of power, pain and death via rape in the 21st century.
No person, neither man nor woman should commit rape upon a man or woman. No child should have to endure sexual interaction of any kind by man or woman or child.
No does not mean Yes.
Maybe does not mean Yes.
Silence does not mean Yes
Only Yes means Yes.
Free downloads of the above mentioned story and more by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa.
Download to read In a Grove by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa from Feedbooks here.
Download to read Roshomon by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa from Feedbooks here.
Download to read Roshomon by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa from the Internet Archive here.
Download to listen to a variety of stories, including Roshomon by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa at Librivox here.