Thursday, January 12, 2012

Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

It turns out my understanding of Rashomon, based on watching maybe five minutes of the Akira Kurosawa film, once, comes from a completely different Ryunosuke Akutagawa story.  The whole idea of the Rashomon effect, that we can't get a true depiction of an event from just hearsay because people are prone to subjectivity in recollection, is based on a short story called "In a Grove," and doesn't appear once in the story "Rashomon."  Kurosawa just mashed the two together for the purpose of the movie ("Rashomon" is the setting, "In a Grove" is the plot).

The Rashomon was the enormous gate (126 feet wide by 26 feet tall by 75 feet deep) that led into Kyoto when it was the capital of Japan, between 700 and 1200 AD.  At the time of the story it's fallen into complete disrepair, and what happens there is emblematic of the terrible state of the country.  It serves mostly as a shelter for thieves and murderers, and respectable citizens only visit it as a place to dump their dead.  The story, surprisingly short, follows a recently discharged samurai's servant (turns out samurai are not immune to recessions, apologies to anyone who followed my advice in 2008) waiting out a storm under the Rashomon gate and writhing in indecision.  One moment he's determined to remain virtuous, even if it means starving in a ditch; the next he's resigned himself to becoming a thief to survive.  I don't know if "Rashomon" became so famous because of the film or because it's such a perfect example of his writing, at least in the five other story in this book.  Akutagawa's protagonists misreport something they witnessed, waver between moral extremes, and manage to trick so many people that they become convinced that their own lies are true.  They change their point of view constantly and murder loved ones to protect their name, but seem to remain sure of their moral integrity.

His bio says that he was driven by his opposition to stupidity, greed and corruption, but shied away from the 'easy social criticism' popularized by his contemporaries in the early 20th century.  Instead he lets the psychological fluidity and insecurity of his characters criticize for him, showing how malleable a person's sense of morality can be if they let themselves be driven by greed or fear, or even a wish to avoid offending someone.  Parts of it reminded me of Dubliners, if Joyce had stopped short of the moments of epiphany that characterize some of the better stories, like "The Dead."  Akutagawa has his characters torturing themselves with their insecurities and lack of conviction, changing their mind incessantly and at the slightest influence.

They're beautiful stories, too, with little snippets of reverence for the natural world that sound more like Zen poetry than veiled social criticism.  Maybe meant to be a contrast between the impermanent, shifting world of humanity and the solid, defined world of nature, maybe just meant to be pretty, worth reading either way.



Christopher said...

How could you get through this entire review without mentioning that I bought you this book for Christmas?

Brent Waggoner said...

This comment looks really silly now.

Nathan said...

Anything to make Chris look silly.

Chewie6577 said...

Good stories that inspired a good film.
Akutagawa jams plenty into his short stories, yet they never seem rushed or overstuffed.