Rashomon and Other Stories, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Ryunosuke Akutagawa was a Japanese writer that was brilliant, sensitive, cynical and neurotic, all of which combined to produce some excellent stories and his suicide at the young age of 35 in 1927. He was a witness to dramatic changes taking place in Japanese society. While he was not alive during the opening forced by Commodore Matthew Perry in the 1850’s, he would have grown up in a society still hard at work coping with the forced elimination of their artificial wall of isolation.
Akutagawa would have been seven in 1894 when Japan engaged in a war with China and the island of Formosa, where the end result was the Japanese annexation of the island. This was followed by Japanese participation in suppressing the Boxer Rebellion in China, the Japanese successes in the war with Russia in 1904-05 and the successful Japanese actions in the First World War with small territorial gains there as well. He would have clearly seen the rise of Japanese militarism, where it was obvious that there would be further attempts at expansion. These stories are generally a look back into Japanese history. Like all fiction stories set in another culture, they reveal something about that society.
The first is called “In A Grove” and a man has been murdered by a sword in a largely inaccessible grove of trees. The high police commissioner is in the process of interviewing all the people that did or may have seen something, including an interview with the murdered man conducted via a medium. It involves rape and a series of steps where the truth is finally revealed.
The second story is the one in the title and involves the servant of a samurai. There is a local gate where unclaimed corpses are often dumped and the city where he lives is on a path of slow decay. When the servant approaches the gate he discovers a gaunt old woman pulling hair out of the heads of the bodies. After he challenges her she reveals that she uses the hair to make wigs. Since the servant believes that he must either become a thief or starve, he tears the woman’s clothing off and walks away with what are probably her only clothes.
The third story is called “Yam Gruel” and a feudal menial servant (Goi) has only one goal, to eat his fill of yam gruel, a delicacy that he rarely is allowed to taste. When a powerful lord hears of his wish, it is granted, but following the standard moral, Goi discovers that the anticipation if far superior to the wish being granted.
The fourth story is called “The Martyr” and is a touching one about a starving Japanese boy (Lorenzo) that is found at the stairs of the Church of Santa Lucia. He is taken in and raised by the Christian brothers, becoming a devoted follower. However, when a woman falls in love with Lorenzo and is then discovered to be pregnant, Lorenzo is tossed out despite his protestations of innocence. At the end, all learn that he was in fact not guilty of any transgressions.
The fifth story contains several psychological twists and is called “Kesa and Morito.” Morito is a man that has had sex with Kesa, a married woman. He does not love her, yet finds himself driven to kill her husband, even though he has no negative feelings towards him.
The final story is called “The Dragon” and is an example of mass hysteria that started as a practical joke. A priest that feels wronged puts a sign up on the edge of a pond announcing that a dragon will rise out of the pond on the morning of March third. Word passes quickly by mouth and on that morning, a large crowd gathers to witness the event. Initially disappointed, the event “takes place” and once it is over, even the priest claims to have seen the dragon rise out of the water.
These stories are a look into the development of past Japanese society at a time when it was rapidly changing. It helps if you know the history but it is not essential for understanding.