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Akutagawa Rynosuke: In a Bamboo Grove Study Guide (1922; Shinch)

*Original: Yabu no naka, 1922, Shinch. (Click here to read in the original.)
*Translation: Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories. Translated by Jay Rubin. New
York: Penguin Classics, 2006. (Click here to purchase.)
*Click here to read my previous study guide for the story.
Akutagawa Rynosuke (1892-1927): Novelist. Born in Tokyo. He
published Hana (The Nose) in 1916 while studying at the Tokyo Imperial University
and the start of his literary career was highly regarded by Natsume Sseki. After
graduation, he taught English as a part-time instructor at the Naval Engineering College
and published Imogayu (Yam Gruel) (1916), Hkynin no shi (Death of a
Christian) (1918), and Rashmon (1917). After resigning from the Naval Engineering
College in 1919, he went full-time into literary activity as a staff writer for the Osaka
Mainichi Shimbun. In 1927, he committed suicide at the age of 36. (National Diet
Library). (Click here for Aozora Bunko texts.)

Akutagawa published Yabu no naka (In a Bamboo Grove) in 1922. The story is
based on one episode from Konjaku monogatarish, a collection of setsuwa tales from
the tenth century. In the original episode, The Tale of the Bound Man Who Was
Accompanying His Wife to Tanba, an aristocrat and his wife are attacked by a bandit
while travelling along a mountain path; the wife is raped; the man is forced to watch;
the bandit flees; and they continue on their way. Aside from this basic plotline,
everything else in In a Grove Akutagawa added himself.1
In 1950, director Kurosawa Akira adapted Akutagawas story into the acclaimed
film Rashomon. The film won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and
became an international sensation. Since its release much has been written on both
Akutagawas story and the film. The great bulk of this criticism focuses on the
purported philosophical message of the work, namely the idea that there is no
ultimate reality or truth but only an irreducible multiplicity of subjective perspectives. A
term was even coinedthe Rashomon effectto explain this phenomenon, which
Two other possible sources of inspiration are: Ambrose Bierces short story The
Moonlit Road (1893), which concerns the use of a medium to obtain the account of a
dead woman regarding her murder; and Robert Brownings long narrative poem The
Ring and the Book (1868-1869), which presents a murder from twelve points of view.
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has since been referenced and parodied in numerous novels, films, plays, and even
several American sitcoms and cartoons. As I argue here, this is a misreading of the
story.
Akutagawas story borrows the form of the whodunit mystery. The story anticipates
the modern law enforcement precept of the unreliability of eyewitnesses. In all, seven
witnesses provide testimonies of what they purportedly saw. Very little matches up.
Although the ghost of the dead husband Takehiro appears at the end of the story through
a mediuma usual cue to the reader that the truth will at last be revealedthis final
testimony adds only another layer of confusion. The reader wants to piece together the
puzzle, but the pieces dont fit. Without any omniscient narrator to tell us what actually
happened, the story ends with the truth lost somewhere in the yabu no naka.
Study Questions
1. Is there an omniscient narrator in the story? If not, what effect does this have?
2. How does this story conform with/depart from the conventional whodunit mystery
novel/detective fiction?
3. Why do you think Akutagawa set the story in the ancient past? Describe his use of
history.
4. Discuss the significance of the works title, in a grove (yabu no naka)? Is the yabu
a symbol for something? If so, what?
5. According to the last testimonythat of the deceased Takehiro via a
mediumTakehiro was not killed at all; rather, he took his own life. What would have
motivated him to do this?
Group Activity
Answer each of the following questions for each of the seven testimonies.
1. Make a chronological timeline of the events as described in this testimony.
2. Describe this individuals relation to the involved parties.

3. Who is the murderer according to this testimony?


4. According to this testimony, what happened between Tajmaru and Masago? Did a
rape take place? Consensual sex? Explain.
5. How is Masago represented in this testimony? What female archetype does she
correspond to?
6. Does this individual have a personal agenda? If so, what is it? What reasons might
he/she have for concealing/distorting/revealing the truth?
7. On a scale of one to tenten being perfect credibilityrate the credibility of this
testimony. Explain your reasons for giving this rating.
8. In your view, which testimony gives us the real Masago? Is she the pure, innocent,
somewhat boyish, docile, loyal, chaste wife that her Mother describes? Is she a modern,
independent, strong-willed, proud, clever, erotic woman that Tajmaru describes? Is she
the helpless/hapless victim that she herself describes? Or is she the unfaithful,
calculating, perfidious woman/femme fatale that Takehiro describes?
8. In your view, what actually happened in that bamboo grove? Explain your case, citing
evidence from the text. (Note: You will need to explain whose testimony you find most
believable and explain your reasons. Also, you will need to explain the
inconsistencies/contradictions with the other testimonies.)

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