Is Tajōmaru's confession less reliable than Masago's confession or Takehiro's testimony?
The reader, having been put in the position of the magistrate, is disinclined to trust what Tajōmaru has to say. This is due in part to his infamy as a murderer and rapist, and also to the egotism that comes through in his tone as he boastfully details his unrivaled skills as a sword fighter. That said, the reliability of Masago's and Takehiro's accounts are similarly compromised by their own identities: Masago portrays herself as a devoted wife by trying to die with Takehiro, while Takehiro's sense of masculine pride at having been betrayed by Masago leads him to calmly and rationally take his own life. As a result, no one testimony or confession is any more or less reliable than any other.
In this fragmented short story, how does Ryūnosuke Akutagawa succeed in creating complex and compelling characters?
Without the luxury of a novel's length to develop his characters, Akutagawa writes contradictory traits into his characters to lend them complexity. Masago, for example, is very bold despite having a small stature, and she fights Tajōmaru despite being outsized. Takehiro, initially portrayed as a strong and kind samurai, expresses vulnerability, helplessness, and contemptuousness as the story progresses. Even Tajōmaru—a bandit forever on the run—accepts his fate of execution once captured. By presenting the characters as holding certain traits and virtues and then quickly undermining expectations by introducing contradictory information, Akutagawa forces the reader to rethink who these characters really are.
If all testimonies and confessions are taken account, can one draw a definite conclusion from the evidence?
Every testimony or confession corroborates information presented in another. However, every testimony or confession refutes something said in another. Without being able to make an evaluation of objective truth based on evidence, the reader is left to evaluate the characters' personalities. But it is also difficult to draw any concrete conclusion from what characters say because each is compromised by bias. While it is apparent that certain characters have motives to be truthful, those same characters may also be motivated to lie. Takehiro's spirit, for example, has a vested interest in letting the magistrate know how he died, however, as an honorable samurai, Takehiro's legacy is burnished by his claim to have died by suicide, which means it could be a lie to obscure the possibility that Takehiro was bested by Tajōmaru. Ultimately, "In a Grove" is structured in a way that makes any definite conclusion impossible.
What role does honor play in "In a Grove"?
A duty towards honor pervades many of the story's testimonies and confessions. It is honor that impels Takehiro to take his own life, and it is honor—or rather the self-perceived loss of honor—that provokes Masago to attempt to kill herself and her husband as a means of regaining some honor in death. Honor is even important to Tajōmaru, evident in the way he gives Takehiro the chance to duel for his life instead of killing the samurai while he is tied up. Because each character presents a narrative in which they have lived (and died) according to their own code of honor, it is impossible to discern whose narrative is most truthful.