Born in 1892 (and dying in 1927), Ryūnosuke Akutagawa was a Japanese writer, predominantly active in the country’s Taishō period. Regarded as the “Father of the Japanese short story”, Akutagawa is known for his superbly styled and keenly detailed explorations of the darker side of human existence.
First published in the January 1922 issue of ‘Shinchō’, a Japanese literature monthly, ‘In a Grove’ presents several varying accounts of the murder of a samurai, whose body is found in a bamboo forest. Each testimony both clarifies and obfuscates what the reader knows about the crime, creating a richly contradictory vision of events “that brings into question humanity’s ability or willingness to perceive and transmit objective truth”. Akira Kurosawa later used Akutagawa’s story as the basis for the plot of his masterpiece ‘Rashōmon’, with several other Japanese directors using it for inspiration over the years too.
In a Grove
1. The Testimony of a Woodcutter Questioned by a High Police Commissioner
Yes, sir. Certainly, it was I who found the body. This morning, as usual, I went to cut my daily quota of cedars, when I found the body in a grove in a hollow in the mountains. The exact location? About 150 meters off the Yamashina stage road. It’s an out-of-the-way grove of bamboo and cedars. The body was lying flat on its back dressed in a bluish silk kimono and a wrinkled head-dress of the Kyoto style. A single sword-stroke had pierced the breast. The fallen bamboo-blades around it were stained with bloody blossoms. No, the blood was no longer running. The wound had dried up, I believe. And also, a gad-fly was stuck fast there, hardly noticing my footsteps.
You ask me if I saw a sword or any such thing? No, nothing, sir. I found only a rope at the root of a cedar near by. And … well, in addition to a rope, I found a comb. That was all. Apparently he must have made a battle of it before he was murdered, because the grass and fallen bamboo-blades had been trampled down all around.
“A horse was near by?”
No, sir. It’s hard enough for a man to enter, let alone a horse.
2. The Testimony of a Traveling Buddhist Priest Questioned by a High Police Commissioner
The time? Certainly, it was about noon yesterday, sir. The unfortunate man was on the road from Sekiyama to Yamashina. He was walking toward Sekiyama with a woman accompanying him on horseback, who I have since learned was his wife. A scarf hanging from her head hid her face from view. All I saw was the color of her clothes, a lilac-colored suit. Her horse was a sorrel with a fine mane. The lady’s height? Oh, about four feet five inches. Since I am a Buddhist priest, I took little notice about her details. Well, the man was armed with a sword as well as a bow and arrows. And I remember that he carried some twenty odd arrows in his quiver.
Little did I expect that he would meet such a fate. Truly human life is as evanescent as the morning dew or a flash of lightning. My words are inadequate to express my sympathy for him.
3. The Testimony of a Policeman Questioned by a High Police Commissioner
The man that I arrested? He is a notorious brigand called Tajomaru. When I arrested him, he had fallen off his horse. He was groaning on the bridge at Awataguchi. The time? It was in the early hours of last night. For the record, I might say that the other day I tried to arrest him, but unfortunately he escaped. He was wearing a dark blue silk kimono and a large plain sword. And, as you see, he got a bow and arrows somewhere. You say that this bow and these arrows look like the ones owned by the dead man? Then Tajomaru must be the murderer. The bow wound with leather strips, the black lacquered quiver, the seventeen arrows with hawk feathers — these were all in his possession I believe. Yes, Sir, the horse is, as you say, a sorrel with a fine mane. A little beyond the stone bridge I found the horse grazing by the roadside, with his long rein dangling. Surely there is some providence in his having been thrown by the horse.
Of all the robbers prowling around Kyoto, this Tajomaru has given the most grief to the women in town. Last autumn a wife who came to the mountain back of the Pindora of the Toribe Temple, presumably to pay a visit, was murdered, along with a girl. It has been suspected that it was his doing. If this criminal murdered the man, you cannot tell what he may have done with the man’s wife. May it please your honor to look into this problem as well.
4. The Testimony of an Old Woman Questioned by a High Police Commissioner
Yes, sir, that corpse is the man who married my daughter. He does not come from Kyoto. He was a samurai in the town of Kokufu in the province of Wakasa. His name was Kanazawa no Takehiko, and his age was twenty-six. He was of a gentle disposition, so I am sure he did nothing to provoke the anger of others.
My daughter? Her name is Masago, and her age is nineteen. She is a spirited, fun-loving girl, but I am sure she has never known any man except Takehiko. She has a small, oval, dark-complected face with a mole at the corner of her left eye.
Yesterday Takehiko left for Wakasa with my daughter. What bad luck it is that things should have come to such a sad end!
What has become of my daughter? I am resigned to giving up my son-in-law as lost, but the fate of my daughter worries me sick. For heaven’s sake leave no stone unturned to find her. I hate that robber Tajomaru, or whatever his name is. Not only my son-in-law, but my daughter … (Her later words were drowned in tears.)
5. Tajomaru’s Confession
I killed him, but not her. Where’s she gone? I can’t tell. Oh, wait a minute. No torture can make me confess what I don’t know. Now things have come to such a head, I won’t keep anything from you.
Yesterday a little past noon I met that couple. Just then a puff of wind blew, and raised her hanging scarf, so that I caught a glimpse of her face. Instantly it was again covered from my view. That may have been one reason; she looked like a Bodhisattva. At that moment I made up my mind to capture her even if I had to kill her man.
Why? To me killing isn’t a matter of such great consequence as you might think. When a woman is captured, her man has to be killed anyway. In killing, I use the sword I wear at my side. Am I the only one who kills people? You, you don’t use your swords. You kill people with your power, with your money. Sometimes you kill them on the pretext of working for their good. It’s true they don’t bleed. They are in the best of health, but all the same you’ve killed them. It’s hard to say who is a greater sinner, you or me. (An ironical smile.)
But it would be good if I could capture a woman without killing her man. So, I made up my mind to capture her, and do my best not to kill him. But it’s out of the question on the Yamashina stage road. So I managed to lure the couple into the mountains.
It was quite easy. I became their traveling companion, and I told them there was an old mound in the mountain over there, and that I had dug it open and found many mirrors and swords. I went on to tell them I’d buried the things in a grove behind the mountain, and that I’d like to sell them at a low price to anyone who would care to have them. Then … you see, isn’t greed terrible? He was beginning to be moved by my talk before he knew it. In less than half an hour they were driving their horse toward the mountain with me.
When he came in front of the grove, I told them that the treasures were buried in it, and I asked them to come and see. The man had no objection — he was blinded by greed. The woman said she would wait on horseback. It was natural for her to say so, at the sight of a thick grove. To tell you the truth, my plan worked just as I wished, so I went into the grove with him, leaving her behind alone.
The grove is only bamboo for some distance. About fifty yards ahead there’s a rather open clump of cedars. It was a convenient spot for my purpose. Pushing my way through the grove, I told him a plausible lie that the treasures were buried under the cedars. When I told him this, he pushed his laborious way toward the slender cedar visible through the grove. After a while the bamboo thinned out, and we came to where a number of cedars grew in a row. As soon as we got there, I seized him from behind. Because he was a trained, sword-bearing warrior, he was quite strong, but he was taken by surprise, so there was no help for him. I soon tied him up to the root of a cedar. Where did I get a rope? Thank heaven, being a robber, I had a rope with me, since I might have to scale a wall at any moment. Of course it was easy to stop him from calling out by gagging his mouth with fallen bamboo leaves.
When I disposed of him, I went to his woman and asked her to come and see him, because he seemed to have been suddenly taken sick. It’s needless to say that this plan also worked well. The woman, her sedge hat off, came into the depths of the grove, where I led her by the hand. The instant she caught sight of her husband, she drew a small sword. I’ve never seen a woman of such violent temper. If I’d been off guard, I’d have got a thrust in my side. I dodged, but she kept on slashing at me. She might have wounded me deeply or killed me. But I’m Tajomaru. I managed to strike down her small sword without drawing my own. The most spirited woman is defenseless without a weapon. At least I could satisfy my desire for her without taking her husband’s life.
Yes … without taking his life. I had no wish to kill him. I was about to run away from the grove, leaving the woman behind in tears, when she frantically clung to my arm. In broken fragments of words, she asked that either her husband or I die. She said it was more trying than death to have her shame known to two men. She gasped out that she wanted to be the wife of whichever survived. Then a furious desire to kill him seized me. (Gloomy excitement.)
Telling you in this way, no doubt I seem a crueler man than you. But that’s because you didn’t see her face. Especially her burning eyes at that moment. As I saw her eye to eye, I wanted to make her my wife even if I were to be struck by lightning. I wanted to make her my wife … this single desire filled my mind. This was not only lust, as you might think. At that time if I’d had no other desire than lust, I’d surely not have minded knocking her down and running away. Then I wouldn’t have stained my sword with his blood. But the moment I gazed at her face in the dark grove, I decided not to leave there without killing him.
But I didn’t like to resort to unfair means to kill him. I untied him and told him to cross swords with me. (The rope that was found at the root of the cedar is the rope I dropped at the time.) Furious with anger, he drew his thick sword. And quick as thought, he sprang at me ferociously, without speaking a word. I needn’t tell you how our fight turned out. The twenty-third stroke … please remember this. I’m impressed with this fact still. Nobody under the sun has ever clashed swords with me twenty strokes. (A cheerful smile.)
When he fell, I turned toward her, lowering my blood-stained sword. But to my great astonishment she was gone. I wondered to where she had run away. I looked for her in the clump of cedars. I listened, but heard only a groaning sound from the throat of the dying man.
As soon as we started to cross swords, she may have run away through the grove to call for help. When I thought of that, I decided it was a matter of life and death to me. So, robbing him of his sword, and bow and arrows, I ran out to the mountain road. There I found her horse still grazing quietly. It would be a mere waste of words to tell you the later details, but before I entered town I had already parted with the sword. That’s all my confession. I know that my head will be hung in chains anyway, so put me down for the maximum penalty. (A defiant attitude.)
6. The Repentance of a Woman Who Has Come to Kiyomizu Temple
That man in the blue silk kimono, after forcing me to yield to him, laughed mockingly as he looked at my bound husband. How horrified my husband must have been! But no matter how hard he struggled in agony, the rope cut into him all the more tightly. In spite of myself I ran stumblingly toward his side. Or rather I tried to run toward him, but the man instantly knocked me down. Just at that moment I saw an indescribable light in my husband’s eyes. Something beyond expression … his eyes make me shudder even now. That instantaneous look of my husband, who couldn’t speak a word, told me all his heart. The flash in his eyes was neither anger nor sorrow … only a cold light, a look of loathing. More struck by the look in his eyes than by the blow of the thief, I called out in spite of myself and fell unconscious.
In the course of time I came to, and found that the man in blue silk was gone. I saw only my husband still bound to the root of the cedar. I raised myself from the bamboo-blades with difficulty, and looked into his face; but the expression in his eyes was just the same as before.
Beneath the cold contempt in his eyes, there was hatred.
Shame, grief, and anger … I don’t know how to express my heart at that time. Reeling to my feet, I went up to my husband.
“Takejiro,” I said to him, “since things have come to this pass, I cannot live with you. I’m determined to die … but you must die, too. You saw my shame. I can’t leave you alive as you
This was all I could say. Still he went on gazing at me with loathing and contempt. My heart breaking, I looked for his sword. It must have been taken by the robber. Neither his sword nor his bow and arrows were to be seen in the grove.
But fortunately my small sword was lying at my feet. Raising it over head, once more I said, “Now give me your life. I’ll follow you right away.”
When he heard these words, he moved his lips with difficulty. Since his mouth was stuffed with leaves, of course his voice could not be heard at all. But at a glance I understood his words.
Despising me, his look said only, “Kill me.” Neither conscious nor unconscious, I stabbed the small sword through the lilac-colored kimono into his breast.
Again at this time I must have fainted. By the time I managed to look up, he had already breathed his last—still in bonds. A streak of sinking sunlight streamed through the clump of cedars and bamboos, and shone on his pale face. Gulping down my sobs, I untied the rope from his dead body. And … and what has become of me? Only that, since I have no more strength to tell you. Anyway, I hadn’t the strength to die. I stabbed my own throat with the small sword, I threw myself into a pond at the foot of the mountain, and I tried to kill myself in many ways. Unable to end my life, I am still living in dishonor. (A lonely smile.) Worthless as I am, I must have been forsaken even by the most merciful Kwannon. I killed my own husband. I was violated by the robber. Whatever can I do? Whatever can I … I … (Gradually, violent sobbing.)
7. The Story of the Murdered Man, as Told Through a Medium
After violating my wife, the robber, sitting there, began to speak comforting words to her. Of course I couldn’t speak. My whole body was tied fast to the root of a cedar. But meanwhile I winked at her many times, as much as to say “Don’t believe the robber.” I wanted to convey some such meaning to her. But my wife, sitting dejectedly on the bamboo leaves, was looking hard at her lap. To all appearance, she was listening to his words. I was agonized by jealousy. In the meantime the robber went on with his clever talk, from one subject to another. The robber finally made his bold brazen proposal.
“Once your virtue is stained, you won’t get along well with your husband, so won’t you be my wife instead? It’s my love for you that made me be violent toward you.”
While the criminal talked, my wife raised her face as if in a trance. She had never looked so beautiful as at that moment.
What did my beautiful wife say in answer to him while I was sitting bound there? I am lost in space, but I have never thought of her answer without burning with anger and jealousy. Truly she said, … “Then take me away with you wherever you go.”
This is not the whole of her sin. If that were all, I would not be tormented so much in the dark. When she was going out of the grove as if in a dream, her hand in the robber’s, she suddenly turned pale, and pointed at me tied to the root of the cedar, and said, “Kill him! I cannot marry you as long as he lives.”
“Kill him!” she cried many times, as if she had gone crazy.
Even now these words threaten to blow me headlong into the bottomless abyss of darkness. Has such a hateful thing come out of a human mouth ever before? Have such cursed words ever struck a human ear, even once? Even once such a … (A sudden cry of scorn.) At these words the robber himself turned pale. “Kill him,” she cried, clinging to his arms. Looking hard at her, he answered neither yes nor no … but hardly had I thought about his answer before she had been knocked down into the bamboo leaves. (Again a cry of scorn.) Quietly folding his arms, he looked at me and said, “What will you do with her? Kill her or save her? You have only to nod. Kill her?” For these words alone I would like to pardon his crime.
While I hesitated, she shrieked and ran into the depths of the grove. The robber instantly snatched at her, but he failed even to grasp her sleeve.
After she ran away, he took up my sword, and my bow and arrows. With a single stroke he cut one of my bonds. I remember his mumbling, “My fate is next.” Then he disappeared from the grove. All was silent after that. No, I heard someone crying. Untying the rest of my bonds, I listened carefully, and I noticed that it was my own crying. (Long silence.)
I raised my exhausted body from the foot of the cedar. In front of me there was shining the small sword which my wife had dropped. I took it up and stabbed it into my breast. A bloody lump rose to my mouth, but I didn’t feel any pain. When my breast grew cold, everything was as silent as the dead in their graves. What profound silence! Not a single bird-note was heard in the sky over this grave in the hollow of the mountains.
Only a lonely light lingered on the cedars and mountains. By and by the light gradually grew fainter, till the cedars and bamboo were lost to view. Lying there, I was enveloped in deep silence.
Then someone crept up to me. I tried to see who it was. But darkness had already been gathering round me. Someone … that someone drew the small sword softly out of my breast in its invisible hand. At the same time once more blood flowed into my mouth. And once and for all I sank down into the darkness of space.