Rashōmon by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892 – 1927) is considered the Father of the Japanese short story, and the renowned Akutagawa literary award is named after him.

The 1950 film Rashōmon (directed by Akira Kurosawa) is actually based on a short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa called In a Grove and has no connection to the content of the story of Rashōmon.

The title of this short story is actually a reference to the Rashōmon city gate of Kyoto (see pic on above), which is where the tale takes place. Akira Kurosawa has the opening scene of the film Rashōmon also take place under the shelter of the infamous gate, and in doing so connects the two short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa to each other. In a way one is an ode to the other.

The first scene of this story is set under the intimidating ruins of the city gates. The city has fallen prey to an onslaught of natural catastrophes: earthquakes, whirlwinds, fires and famines. The capital is falling apart and the gate has become a haven for robbers. It also happens to be a convenient dumping ground for unclaimed bodies.

A male servant is sat on the stone staircase of said gate. He has been released from his employment and finds himself pondering his options. To either stay honest and law-abiding, which has brought him nothing so far, or to earn his keep by becoming lawless.

In order to somehow get through his “hopeless situation”, the servant might have to set his morals aside. If he refused to do things that he thought were morally questionable, then he would only end up starving to death under a roofed mud wall, or on the side of the road. And then he would be taken to this gate, to be discarded, like a dog. “I am bound to become a thief.”

In the midst of his moral meanderings he becomes of aware of another presence nearby. He is surprised by this, because as far as he knows there is just him and the dead.

A lighted fire… on this rainy night… and on top of this gate… Surely this could be no ordinary human.It was at that moment that the servant first caught glimpse of the person squatting among the corpses. The servant forgot even to breathe. To borrow a phrase from the writers of the chronicles of old, he felt as if “the hairs on his head and body had grown thick”

A little old woman in a red kimono sat between the corpses. She was so preoccupied with her task

that she didn’t notice the servant approaching. She was also completely unaware of the emotional roller-coaster he is riding.

She placed both hands on the corpse’s head, and like a monkey picking the lice off its child, she began to pull out strands of the corpse’s long hair, one-by-one

At first the servant felt fear of the unknown. It seemed so unnatural for this woman to be among the dead, perhaps she was a ghost. When he looked closer and observed the tiny wrinkled hands removing long strands of hair from the corpse he finally realised what he was seeing.

Each time she plucked one of those hairs, the servant grew a little bit less frightened. And each time she plucked one of those hairs, the intense hatred that he now felt for this woman grew a little bit stronger.

He was filled with anger at the sight of the thievery. How dare she rob from the dead, make profit from suffering. It was clearly his job to ensure this moral wrong was set right. He felt a strong surge of revulsion towards the old woman. He felt indignant and strengthened in his sense of higher morality.

At that moment, if someone again raised the question that the servant had been thinking about under the gate—whether he would starve to death or become a criminal—the servant would almost certainly have chosen starvation, without an ounce of regret.

The servant seems to have conveniently forgotten his own decision to become a criminal, not more than a few minutes ago. A choice made out of desperation and the will to survive. Now he questions her right to do the same thing. Hypocrisy is a double edged sword.

The servant, of course, didn’t know why the old woman was pulling out the corpse’s hair, so, rationally, he had no way of knowing if it was immoral or not. But for this servant, on this rainy night, on top of this gate, pulling out a dead woman’s hair was an unforgivable sin.

The old woman is frightened and tries to run away. The servant however decides he needs his pound of flesh in form of an answer or something more sinister.

“What were you doing? Well, what were you doing? SPEAK! If you don’t tell me, you’ll get THIS!”
The servant pushed the old woman away from him, and, suddenly, he drew his sword and thrust the pale white steel before her eyes.

The servant is filled with the power of knowing he has the stronger position, the choice to take a life is his, because it is his moral duty, right? He is empowered by indoctrination and self importance. Once the servant he is now the master of this situation.

the servant then realized that he held this woman’s life in the palm of his hand. When he realized this, his heart, which had been burning so fiercely with hatred, cooled down, until all that remained were the feelings of pride and satisfaction that come with a job well done.

Hmm, feelings of pride and satisfaction, eh? The righteous indignation of someone filled to the brim with a strong sense of morality. He feels as if he has the upper-hand, the right to look down upon the old woman. He insists she tell him what she is doing and why.

“I’m taking this hair… I’m taking this woman’s hair to… Well, I thought I’d make a wig.”

The servant was disappointed that the old woman’s answer was so unexpectedly dull. Along with the disappointment, those old feelings of hatred and contempt came flooding back to him

“I see. Well, perhaps it is immoral to pull out the hairs of the dead. But these corpses up here—all of them—they were just the sort of people who wouldn’t have minded.

She tells him about the woman, whose hair she was cutting when he caught her. How her life was spent as a thief and a con-woman, ergo she wouldn’t mind another criminal profiting from her death.

“The servant was no longer debating whether to starve to death or become a thief. The way he felt now, the idea of starving to death was virtually unthinkable.Grabbing the woman by the scruff of the neck, he said to her in a biting tone:”Well then, you won’t hold it against me if I try to steal your clothes. If I don’t, you see, I too will starve.”The servant deftly stripped the woman of her kimono. She tried to cling to his leg, but he kicked her violently onto the corpses.” 

Oh how quickly morals vanish in the face of personal need and in this case are apparently born out of a strong will to survive or die. In this case the servant seems all too willing to wade over to the dark side. The strong finger of disapproval he pointed firmly in her direction is a symbol of ‘glass house’ hypocrisy.

This is something we see far too often in our society. Those that decide they may cast judgement over another person, because they believe they answer to a higher calling or simply consider themselves our better. If you throw a stone you better make damn sure your own walls are made of something other than hypocritical glass.

Download In a Grove and Rashōmon at Feedbooks. or at the Internet Archive. You can listen to Rashōmon, Butoukai or Hana by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa at Librivox. You can also read The Rape of Mrs Takehiko (In a Grove) by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa right here.

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