Friday, December 12, 2008

Akutagawa's short story: In a Grove (cont.)

In October 2008, I posted an entry about Akutagawa's short story, "In A Grove." According to the translator, he based his story on a 12th century tale. The translator also added that Ambrose Bierce's short story, "The Moonlit Night", may also have had an influence on the story. At that time I hadn't found the original medieval Japanese tale so I was unable to determine nature of the various influences on Akutagawa's story. However, I have been able to get a copy of the medieval, 12th century tale and read it.

The 12th century medieval Japanese story:
Format--straightforward traditional narrative
Plot--husband and wife are traveling and meet a stranger on the road. The stranger tricks the husband and is able to overpower him. The stranger rapes the wife and leaves. The wife unties her husband and berates him for being a coward and a fool.

Ambrose Bierce's "The Moonlit Road"
Format--three separate depositions from the son, the father, and the mother. The mother's deposition comes from a medium or a spiritualist because the mother was murdered.
Plot--none of the three know the full story. Only the readers know who murdered the mother and why the father ran away because they have read all three depositions.

Akutagawa's "In a Grove'
Format--4 or 5 depositions from the characters involved.
Plot--husband and wife traveling, meet stranger, who uses the husband's greed to trick him. He ties up husband and rapes wife. All this is very similar to the original Japanese tale. However, what happens next is not. The husband is killed. The bandit claims he killed the husband in a duel for the wife; the wife claims she killed the husband because she couldn't take his look of hatred and contempt for her; and the husband claims he committed suicide for being unable to defend his wife. The husband's story, since he is dead, comes through a shaman who contacts him in the afterlife and gets his story.

The first part of the story appears to come from the Japanese tale, up to the point just after the rape. Nobody dies in that story. Bierce's influence seems to have resulted in the change of format of the story from a traditional narrative to the deposition format. Bierce's story also seems to have contributed at least the appearance of the shaman or medium in order to get the murdered victim's story--the husband in Akutagawa's story and the wife in Bierce's story. Akutagawa may also have gotten the idea of the death of one of the spouses from Bierce's story.

My next task is to locate a copy of the Hollywood version of Kurosawa's film, Rashomon, which is based on Akutagawa's story. So far, it's only out on VHS, and mine isn't working. The Hollywood version, The Outrage, stars Paul Newman as the bandit, with Laurence Harvey and Claire Bloom in the roles of the husband and the wife. William Shattner (Captain Kirk) plays the role of the preacher, and Edward G. Robinson the role of the con man.

Until then, I shall be satisfied seeing Rashomon and reading "In a Grove."

Both highly recommended.


  1. Thank you for this post. I have recently read Akutagawa's "In a Grove" and for a better understanding I wanted to know the 12th century tale that it was based on and wasn't able to find it so thank you for the summary. I also now curious about the possibility of Ambrose Bierce's influence on Akutagawa's work.

  2. Anonymous,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I'm glad you found my comments useful.

    One source for Akutagawa's "In a Grove" is found in _Tales of Times Now Past: Sixty-two Stories from a Medieval Japanese Collection_.

    The translator and editor is Marian Ury, and it's published by The University of California Press.

    "In a Grove" is based on the tale "How a Man Who Was accompanying his Wife in Tanba Province Got Trussed Up Oeyama." p. 184 in _Tales of Times..._

    "Rashomon" is based on the tale "How a Thief Climbed up to the Upper Story of Rasho Gate and Saw a Corpse." That's on p. 183 of the same collection.

    Hope you find this useful.