Is understanding simply a matter of seeing something with one’s own eyes?
Akutagawa Ryunosuke, “In a Bamboo Grove”
1. What discrepancies can you find among the different accounts given by the different
character-narrators of the story?
2. What motives or circumstances might account for discrepancies among these
testimonies or, for that matter, among any testimonies?
3. Which testimony, or testimonies, are you most inclined to believe? Why? Is the
interpretation of testimonies subject to the same pressure of influences, motives, and
circumstances as the giving of testimony itself?
4. How can one ascertain the truth of the events that transpired in the grove? Is the
difficulty created by trying to ascertain the truth a difficulty that is involved both in socalled
“real life” and in so-called “fiction”? If determining the truth of something that
happened in real life is dependent on testimonies—made up of stories, narratives,
characterizations—then how is it any different, with regard to interpretation, from
fiction? What distinguishes history from fiction? Do history and fiction make their
truths in the same way? Do we learn from them differently or learn different things from
them? If history and fiction do make their truths in the same way, can the same kind of
truth be acquired from fiction as from history, or does fiction offer different kinds of truth
in addition to the ones that it shares with history?
5. What kind or degree of certainty is required in order to “understand” a thing, a person,
an event? Is understanding simply a matter of seeing something with one’s own eyes?
6. It is strongly recommended that you watch Kurosawa’s film Rashomon after you have
read Akutagawa’s (very short) story. Kurosawa’s film should make even more apparent
that Akutagawa’s story is not only a philosophical fiction but also a detective fiction,
insofar as one dimension of detective fiction is the philosophical investigation of ethical
problems and hermeneutics (the philosophy of how it is that we “understand”).
Kurosawa’s film augments and interprets Akutagawa’s story by adding a final account,
presented on screen in more or less the same way as the other testimonies had been
presented before it. Is this last scenario, offered by the woodcutter, more reliable than the
other accounts already given? Is there anything that makes it seem more plausible or
persuasive? Does it offer a better explanation of what happened in the grove? Does it
have its own weaknesses, and, if so, what are they? Is it possible that the woodcutter’s
eyewitness account is also influenced by his own way of thinking or his own motives? In
the end, does Kurosawa’s film, by its own interpretative addition, do anything to make us
more certain of the truth of the events that transpired in the grove? Does the film propose
a moral lesson to be learned from Akutagawa’s story, its conflicting testimonies, and its
views of human conduct in terrible circumstances?