Horrors of the Living

Akutagawa’s obsession with weakness of character paints a detailed portrait of life’s grotesque nihilism and repudiates the goodness in beauty.

In the tradition of Japanese story-telling, one finds the horror of living in both in ourselves and those around us. Akutagawa’s obsession with weakness of character paints a detailed portrait of life’s grotesque nihilism and repudiates the goodness in beauty. He convinces the audience that the most devastating crimes are not of the flesh, but of character.

Akutagawa’s stories illuminate man’s untrustworthy nature and that when at their weakest point, the individual’s ugliest self is revealed. Through testimonies of his players in “In a Bamboo Grove,” each confessor sets out to deceive the listener in order to shine a brilliant forgiving light on their own character. The thief Tajomaru tells a tale of his own strength and honor, “When I kill a man, I do it with my sword, but people like you don’t use swords. You gentlemen kill with your power, with your money, and sometimes just with your words: you tell people you’re doing them a favor.” (p13) The shamed woman seeks pity by crying of her attempt at redemption, “I tried to stab myself in the throat. I threw myself in a pond at the foot of the mountain. Nothing worked.” (p17) And finally the deceased husband insists from the afterlife that he had been the only true victim. Each account is so littered with lies, the reader is left with no truth, only the hideous nature of fallen individuals grasping for freedom.

In his depiction of “Rashomon,” Akutagawa’s thief further represents the decrepitude which stems from human feebleness; the scene may be strewn with stark shadows, tangled corpses and their stinging stench, but true terror is found in the thief’s willingness to destroy another for his own well-being. “…his words all but bit into her flesh: ‘you won’t blame me, then, for taking your clothes. That’s what I have to do to stay alive.’” (p105) He’s stripped an old woman of her own last attempt at survival. Even through a frightening scenario of abandoned corpses, one can feel absolute distain in the thief’s total disregard for a fellow struggling being.

Akira Kurosawa emphasized both the brutality of reality and the untrustworthy nature of man seen in Akutagawa’s work. The stage for his telling of “Rashomon” (1950) is set in a similarly dismal atmosphere—ceaseless rain blankets a place already mutilated by disease, war and famine. True to Akutagawa’s pessimistic form, characters think only of themselves, lying to weave a forgiving account of the story in question, and one even goes as far as to rob a helpless child of his robes for survival. No man or woman can be trusted; only the strong willed and hard hearted can survive. These are the horrors of reality.

Through a sharp cynic eye turned toward the weakness of mankind, both Akutagawa and Kurosawa show that human nature is guilty the most horrifying of all crimes. A neighbor will lie without apprehension to save face. The sin of selfishness stains the earth. The mind is helpless in the face of arrogance and greed. These tales are enough to convince one that no one can be trusted, that truth is found only in ugliness and that we, in a sense, have created our own hell on earth.

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