Contrary to popular belief, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s “In a Grove” (1922; Shinchō) is NOT a parable about perspectivism, the unknowability of truth, etc. Rather, it is a meditation on the question “What is woman?”—the answer to which is so terrifying that one of the main characters in the story—the young aristocrat Kanazawa no Takehiko—presumably stabs himself in the chest the moment he discovers it.
Akutagawa published “Yabu no naka” (“In a Grove”) in 1922. The story is based on an episode in Konjaku monogatarishū, a collection of setsuwa tales from the tenth century. In that version, an aristocrat and his wife are attacked by a bandit while travelling along a mountain path; the wife is raped; the bandit flees; and they continue on their way. Aside from this basic plotline, everything else in “In a Grove” Akutagawa added himself.
In 1950, director Kurosawa Akira adapted Akutagawa’s story into the acclaimed film Rashomon. The film became an international sensation, and since its release much has been written on both Akutagawa’s story and the film. The great bulk of this criticism focuses on the purported “philosophical” message of the work, namely the idea that there is no ultimate reality or truth but only an irreducible multiplicity of subjective perspectives. A term was even coined—the “Rashomon effect”—to explain this phenomenon, which has since been referenced and parodied in numerous novels, films, plays, and even several American sitcoms.
Akutagawa’s story borrows the form of the whodunit mystery. In all, seven witnesses provide testimonies of what they purportedly saw. Very little matches up. Although the ghost of the dead husband Takehiko appears at the end of the story through a medium—a usual cue to the reader that the truth will at last be revealed—this final testimony adds only another layer of confusion. The reader wants to piece together the puzzle, but the pieces don’t fit. Without any omniscient narrator to tell us what actually happened, the story ends with the truth lost somewhere in the “yabu no naka.”
But certainly Akutagawa did not write this story simply to make a facile point about the evasiveness of truth. It is my view that his motivation for writing the story lay elsewhere, namely in a question far more profound and problematic, the question, “What is woman?”
The focal character in the story is Masago, widow of Takehiko and rape victim of Tajōmaru. She and her mother are the story’s only female characters. Though a non-entity in the first testimony, and alluded to only briefly as a peripheral figure in the following two testimonies, Masago’s presence grows with each witness’s account, ultimately becoming the dominant ordering force in the work, effectively swallowing up the other characters and indeed the story itself.
In each of the seven testimonies Masago embodies a different aspect or archetype of woman. In the first testimony, she represents woman as absence. In the second, woman as enigma. In the third, she is woman as nameless object of male desire. In the fourth, she is the obedient daughter and faithful wife. In the fifth, she is presented as a “modern woman” (kindai josei). In the sixth, she is the yamato nadeshiko, the traditional female ideal in Japan. And in the final testimony, she is woman as pure, unbridled feminine desire or will.
Testimony One: Woman as Absence
This is the testimony of the woodcutter. There is no mention of Masago. At this point, she has not yet been made the object of male desire, and therefore does not yet exist. She is woman as absence.
Testimony Two: Woman as Enigma
This testimony is given by the traveling priest. He describes catching a glimpse of Masago, whose face is veiled in a dark red and blue cloth—an image evoking a mood of mystery and exoticism. She is the enigmatic noblewoman behind the screen, much like that female archetype that appears in so many of Tanizaki’s works. The fact that he is a Buddhist priest may also explain why he refers to her only indirectly, as woman are generally regarded as impure in Buddhist teachings.
Testimony Three: Woman as Anonymous Object of Male Desire
Here the magistrate describes Tajōmaru as a lustful onnazuki (fancier of women), implying that the young, attractive Masago would have been a likely target. The magistrate does not directly mention Masago, and we learn nothing new about Masago’s appearance or character. Yet she is alluded to as a potential target of male desire, i.e. as anonymous object of male desire.
Testimony Four: Woman as Obedient Daughter, Faithful Wife
The fourth testimony is given by Masago’s mother. Here for the first time we are given her name and age (she is nineteen). Her appearance is also described in some detail: she has an oval-shaped face (urizanegao), a slightly dark complexion, and “a birthmark under her left eye.” We are also told that she is strong-willed, somewhat boyish, and faithful as Takehiko’s wife. Lest anyone think she was a hussy asking to be raped, Masago’s mother insists on pointing out that her daughter maintained her virginity until marriage. Masago is portrayed here through a filter of maternal concern as an obedient daughter and faithful wife, i.e. as a woman who follows the rules of the Confucian patriarchal society.
Testimony Five: Woman as Kindai Josei
This is the confession of Tajōmaru, renowned rebel, bandit, and womanizer. He begins his testimony by asserting that he did not murder Masago and that he knows nothing of her current whereabouts. He describes his first glimpse of her in quasi-religious terms: she struck him as beautiful, refined, even “Bodhisattva”-like. He describes how she literally remained on her “high horse” while he led her greedy, materialistic proto-petit bourgeois husband Tanehiko to the “treasure” that he swore was buried in the grove. Of course, there never was any treasure, and after tying up the husband, Tajōmaru returns for his prey.
Masago valiantly resists Tajōmaru’s advances, but she is eventually subdued and dragged into the grove to be raped in front of her husband. Either during or immediately after the rape, Masago presumably forms a wild attachment to Tajōmaru. When Tajōmaru suggests that they have no choice now but to get married, she commands the two men to duel, promising herself to the winner. Takehiko takes up the challenge, but while the two men are fighting, Masago takes the opportunity to flee and turn Tajōmaru in to the authorities.
By Tajōmaru’s account, Masago is a clever, independent, and calculating “modern woman” (kindai josei) with a knack for self-preservation.
Testimony Six: Woman as Yamato Nadeshiko
The sixth testimony is that of Masago herself, now a nun, confessing from her convent. Predictably, she presents herself as a devout wife who, after being submitted to a humiliating rape, rushed to the side of her bound and gagged husband. Yet instead of coming to her aid, her conventionally-minded husband, having witnessed her “defilement,” simply stares at her contemptuously. Even after Tajōmaru is gone, Takehiko continues to glare at her in disgust. We might ask here: what does Takehiko know that we don’t? Did he witness, perhaps, his wife enjoying the rape?
But the strong-willed Masago is not about to let Takehiko define her as a whore. She makes a proposal: now that she has been “shamed,” she has no choice but to die. Only there is a catch: having witnessed her “shame,” Takehiko must die first. Takehiko accedes to this, and presumably asks his wife to kill him. (It is of course possible that she misheard—perhaps intentionally?—his request, as his mouth is still stuffed with leaves.) Masago successfully kills him, yet she fails—and perhaps this was her plan all along—to fulfill her end of the bargain by taking her own life. Her testimony ends with her repeating her line about how ashamed she is, revealing an occasional smile between tears.
Thus Masago has tried to present herself as a devout, principled (as defined by the male-dominated order), self-sacrificing, but ultimately weak woman; in a word, as a yamato nadeshiko.
Testimony Seven: Woman as Pure, Unbridled Desire or Will
The final testimony is that of the ghost of Takehiko, spoken through a medium. After witnessing his wife’s rape, Takehiko watches jealously as Masago is consoled by her sweet-talking, bad-boy rapist-lover. She appears to be falling for him, and eventually asks him to take her away with him. As if to corroborate René Girard’s theory that desire is always triangulated, it is precisely at this moment that Masago appears to Takehiko “more beautiful than ever.” Masago then makes a startling demand: Tajōmaru must kill Takehiko so that she may preserve her reputation. Tajōmaru refuses to obey her merciless order, and in the ensuing confusion, she flees. For the first time in his life, Takehiko has seen his wife as she truly is—as the embodiment of pure, unbridled female desire or will—and he is so horrified by her that he plunges the dagger into his breast and kills himself.
Thus, through Takehiko’s account—no doubt the most credible of all the accounts—the “real Masago”—and by extension, Truth itself—is revealed: she is a beautiful, willful, vain, and ruthless femme fatale capable of anything, even mariticide.