Rashomon Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Rashōmon (symbol)

The southern gate of Kyōto represents the state of affairs in Japan in the 1100's. There are no guards, the building is severely dilapidated, rain pours down in oppressive force, and unclaimed corpses are strewn about carelessly. The recent calamities affect its appearance as well as the atmosphere - one cannot even look to the monuments of modern society for reassurance anymore.

Noses (symbol)

Ever since Akutagawa's story "The Nose" was published in 1916, his focus has been dead-set on that central facial feature. Perhaps this is because it has come to represent many things. In "Yam Gruel," Goi's nose is the bane of his existence, but also provides him with a lifestyle that he has learned to relish. In short, it represents his inner self. For Hanazō in "The Dragon," his nose represents his fixation and personal insecurity. We can summarize the whole plot by saying that he is trying to ignore his nose, but the universe cannot allow it to be ignored.

"In a Twinkling" (motif)

This little phrase appears five times throughout the short stories and seems to accompany magical or otherwise unbelievable events such as Lorenzo running into the burning house or the dragon ascending from the pond ("The Martyr," "The Dragon"). As it often refers to the twinkling of an eye, it also serves to connect the physical and temporal worlds in a way that the short story is well equipped to do.

Dogs (symbol)

When Goi walks by a group of boys who are beating a stray dog, it represents his own relationship to society. He is the stray despicable dog and his peers can't help but prod him and ridicule him for being a dog.

For more about dogs in Akutagawa's short stories, check out the Metaphors and Similes section.

Festering Pimple (symbol)

The servant's festering pimple in "Rashōmon" represents the impending doom of both himself and society - it is a problem that cannot be ignored, but cannot be solved in any simple manner.

Moonlight (symbol)

Moonlight, an established symbol of madness ever since Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, plays a big role in the plot of "Kesa and Morito," acting almost as its own character. It represents Morito's inability to reconcile his selfishness and ambivalence, something that will most certainly cause him to go mad when he kills the wrong person. And it is this very moonlight that seeps into Kesa's home through the shutters as she blows out the night lamp, symbolizing the final moments of her life.

Kimonos (motif)

Of course, period Japanese short stories will most certainly have the kimono showing up often, but Akutagawa pays attention to every small detail, making the kimonos more important than ever.

The seemingly small detail of confusing the colors of Masago and Takehiko's kimonos in "In a Grove" tells the reader a different story about the trustworthiness of each narrator and indeed the trustworthiness of the psyche at all! How can so many people who have little reason to lie tell such different stories about whether the kimonos were lilac or blue?

The kimono is also the last thing that the old woman in "Rashōmon" has left to her name, making it the only thing worth stealing for the servant. Without her kimono she is but another body among the many strewn corpses. He has taken her livelihood along with the kimono.

Goi also seems nostalgic about his tattered and faded kimono when he borrows a new silk one from Toshihito in "Yam Gruel." Although these outfits are so uniform, they do carry the weight of character and identity within, making the kimono one of the most important elements for a man who has mistakenly fallen into the lap of luxury.

For Lorenzo, this is the only way that she can conceal her true gender and the only way that the congregation can see their collective sin in accusing her of impregnating the umbrella-maker's daughter in "The Martyr." Indeed, a martyr wears a simple kimono just like everybody else. Only when it is torn apart can we see her as the person who she truly is.

Dragon (allegory)

The dragon that ascends from the pond in "The Dragon" represents mass hysteria and religious illusion. Was the dragon truly present on March 3rd? The problem of the dragon is the problem of the modern day - some questions, simple as they seem, must go unanswered over the entire course of history. One's eyes can deceive just as one's words.