Saturday, June 13, 2015

Akutagawa Ryūnosuke: “In a Bamboo Grove” Study Guide (1922; Shinchō)

Akutagawa Ryūnosuke: “In a Bamboo Grove” Study Guide (1922; Shinchō)

*Original: Yabu no naka, 1922, Shinchō. (Click here to read in the original.)
*Translation: Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories. Translated by Jay Rubin. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006. (Click here to purchase.)
*Click here to read my previous study guide for the story.

Akutagawa Ryūnosuke 芥川龍之介 (1892-1927): Novelist. Born in Tokyo. He published “Hana” (The Nose) in 1916 while studying at the Tokyo Imperial University and the start of his literary career was highly regarded by Natsume Sōseki. After graduation, he taught English as a part-time instructor at the Naval Engineering College and published “Imogayu” (Yam Gruel) (1916), “Hōkyōnin no shi” (Death of a Christian) (1918), and “Rashōmon” (1917). After resigning from the Naval Engineering College in 1919, he went full-time into literary activity as a staff writer for the Osaka Mainichi Shimbun. In 1927, he committed suicide at the age of 36. (National Diet Library). (Click here for Aozora Bunko texts.)

Akutagawa published “Yabu no naka” (“In a Bamboo Grove”) in 1922. The story is based on one episode from Konjaku monogatarishū, a collection of setsuwa tales from the tenth century. In the original episode, “The Tale of the Bound Man Who Was Accompanying His Wife to Tanba,” an aristocrat and his wife are attacked by a bandit while travelling along a mountain path; the wife is raped; the man is forced to watch; the bandit flees; and they continue on their way. Aside from this basic plotline, everything else in “In a Grove” Akutagawa added himself.[1]  
In 1950, director Kurosawa Akira adapted Akutagawa’s story into the acclaimed film Rashomon. The film won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and became an international sensation. 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 and cartoons. As I argue here, this is a misreading of the story.
Akutagawa’s story borrows the form of the whodunit mystery. The story anticipates the modern law enforcement precept of the unreliability of eyewitnesses. In all, seven witnesses provide testimonies of what they purportedly saw. Very little matches up. Although the ghost of the dead husband Takehiro 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.”

Study Questions

1. Is there an omniscient narrator in the story? If not, what effect does this have?

2. How does this story conform with/depart from the conventional whodunit mystery novel/detective fiction?

3. Why do you think Akutagawa set the story in the ancient past? Describe his use of history.

4. Discuss the significance of the work’s title, “in a grove” (yabu no naka)? Is the yabu a symbol for something? If so, what?

5. According to the last testimony—that of the deceased Takehiro via a medium—Takehiro was not killed at all; rather, he took his own life. What would have motivated him to do this?

Group Activity

Answer each of the following questions for each of the seven testimonies.

1. Make a chronological timeline of the events as described in this testimony.

2. Describe this individual’s relation to the involved parties.

3. Who is the murderer according to this testimony?

4. According to this testimony, what happened between Tajōmaru and Masago? Did a rape take place? Consensual sex? Explain.

5. How is Masago represented in this testimony? What female archetype does she correspond to?

6. Does this individual have a personal agenda? If so, what is it? What reasons might he/she have for concealing/distorting/revealing the truth?

7. On a scale of one to ten—ten being perfect credibility—rate the credibility of this testimony. Explain your reasons for giving this rating.

8. In your view, which testimony gives us the “real” Masago? Is she the pure, innocent, somewhat boyish, docile, loyal, chaste wife that her Mother describes? Is she a modern, independent, strong-willed, proud, clever, erotic woman that Tajōmaru describes? Is she the helpless/hapless victim that she herself describes? Or is she the unfaithful, calculating, perfidious woman/femme fatale that Takehiro describes?

8. In your view, what actually happened in that bamboo grove? Explain your case, citing evidence from the text. (Note: You will need to explain whose testimony you find most believable and explain your reasons. Also, you will need to explain the inconsistencies/contradictions with the other testimonies.)

[1] Two other possible sources of inspiration are: Ambrose Bierce’s short story “The Moonlit Road” (1893), which concerns the use of a medium to obtain the account of a dead woman regarding her murder; and Robert Browning’s long narrative poem The Ring and the Book (1868-1869), which presents a murder from twelve points of view.

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