Akutagawa frequently uses historical texts and events as the basis for his own works, displaying a high degree of intertextuality. Ranging from the Early Christian period ("The Martyr") to twelfth-century Japan ("Yam Gruel," "The Dragon") to as recent as emperor Meiji's rule (1868-1912), he delivers a translation of real historical stories from Japan, China, and India in a modernist psychological terms. But occasionally, he has also used the premise of translation as a device in and of itself. This is called “transmesis” - a "translation" without a verifiable original text ("The Martyr"). This practice, which is surprisingly commonplace, has been utilized by auteurs ranging from Goethe ("West-östlicher Divan”) to the Coen brothers (1996 - Fargo).
Inscrutability of the Psyche
By retelling classical texts in modern psychological terms, Akutagawa raises more questions than answers. The reader is left to wonder why Goi’s appetite for yam gruel diminishes immediately as it is becomes readily available ("Yam Gruel"), or why Kesa suddenly agreed to the killing of her husband even when she loved him ("Kesa and Morito"), or perhaps most importantly, how the servant in "Rashōmon" could forget his own sin when punishing the old woman's thievery. Indeed the short story is a fantastic medium for Akutagawa to indicate inconsistencies in the psyche, leaving the interpretation up to the reader.
Many characters suffer guilty consciences in these stories. Almost every single character in "The Martyr" learns his own guilt when they learn the impossibility of their assumptions about Lorenzo, who remained guilty of nothing. Various confessions offered to the High Police Commissioner in "In a Grove" arise strictly out of guilt. In fact, each of the three people involved in the murder of the man confess out of the perception of their own guilt.
Greed is a central motivating factor that frequently leads to demise. Takehiko takes Masago with him to follow Tajomaru to the grove in "In a Grove" because of their perceived greed for cheap weapons, which ends in the death of Takehiko. For Goi, it is his insatiable greed for yam gruel that ultimately leads him to hate the only thing that gave him happiness ("Yam Gruel"). Likewise, Hanazō's greedy desire for attention goes too far and ends up deeply embarrassing him when his priestess aunt arrives in town ("The Dragon"). Even "The Martyr" can be summarized by the umbrella-maker's daughter's greed for Lorenzo's attention. Save Hanazō's redemption when his lesson is learned, each of these characters meets their own demise with the excess of greed.
Abnormal physical features and general perceived ugliness play a big part in the basic emotional lives of Akutagawa's characters. Goi ("Yam Gruel") and Hanazō ("The Dragon") share the commonality of an ungainly red nose, which affects their lives in variously negative ways. At one point, the narrator even shares that Hanazō looked around as if he didn't have a big nose, implying that he ought to be more careful of who he looks at with such an unsightly feature. It directly affects the names that people call them and the stories' arcs. For Kesa in "Kesa and Morito,” Morito's perception of her ugliness shows in his eyes and forever changes Kesa's relations to her husband and Morito. She can't stand the fact that she had been ignorant of her possible ugliness, and even Morito cannot stand the difference between his new mindset and his previous conception of her statuesque beauty. For this reason, Kesa decides that she will put her own head underneath Morito's blade instead of her husband's.
Akutagawa frequently focuses on those inhabiting the lowest rung of the economic totem pole. We see this most clearly in "Rashōmon,” where the servant's abject poverty results in an inconceivable choice between death and thievery. His moral corruption is solidified when he is blinded by his own justifications for not choosing death, by stealing from somebody even poorer than he. In "Yam Gruel,” it is Toshihito's relative wealth that that allows him to take advantage over the poor Goi, whose inability to purchase gruel mutinies his psyche.
Akutagawa's modernist depictions of extramarital affairs lack the power dynamics desired by post-modern readers, but for the most part, we can assume that the females are violated involuntarily. Yet, they often feel responsible for these actions and order the killing of their beloved husbands out of honor. The dissatisfaction of committing adultery is a common thread - nobody is happy with the new established relations, and yet they feel compelled to see it through to its inevitable end. Even the umbrella-maker's daughter, whose extramarital affair with a heathen boy can't give her happiness, seeks another boy outside of marriage.
Rashomon Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Rashomon is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.