Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Patrick Süskind’s Depiction of Evil Unveils Human Depravity in Perfume and “Rashomon”

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Akutagawa’s “Rashomon” and Süskind’s Perfume introduce the audience to their own portrayal of evil that contrasts the clichéd literary concept of bad always being triumphed over by good. Evil is particularly developed in their works to achieve a similar purpose: to reveal the social stigma and corruption of human society. Notwithstanding the similar surrounding—Akutagawa’s crumbling Rashomon gate and Süskind’s degrading depiction of Paris—that reflects the equally declining state of the society, they employ different approaches in portraying evil. Akutagawa establishes evil as having an ambiguous nature while Süskind relates evil through the sense of smell, with both treatments effectively disclosing the human depravity residing within their work. Both use different literary techniques to achieve their motive; Akutagawa hints at the ominous presence of evil through contrasts and imagery; while Süskind incorporates evil with his first sentence introducing Grenouille as ‘one of the most gifted and abominable personages’ (p. 3) of his era.

Both authors use different treatment of evil to achieve their similar revelation of human corruption. Despite “Rashomon” being a short story, Akutagawa does not introduce evil at the very beginning but foreshadows evil slowly, obscurely as it establishes throughout the story, contrasting Süskind’s plausibly opposite method of implementing evil from the beginning in spite of Perfume as a novel. Relating to the modernism brought to traditional Japan, Akutagawa first uses colours—using their significance in Japanese culture—in representing evil thus revealing the society’s condition. His first subtle hint of evil is through the gate’s ‘crimson lacquer’ (p. 31) that has ‘rubbed off here and there’ (p. 31), signifying that the once great construction no longer radiates with vitality and spirit; it is now a ‘hide-out … place for abandoning unclaimed corpses’ (p. 31). Akutagawa tarnishes the religious belief of the corrupted society with ‘broken pieces of Buddhist images’ (p. 32), their lacquer, ‘gold … worn off’ (p. 32); implying that the society’s withering faith in religion is associated with their current dishonorable state. The society no longer respects the heavens as the pieces are simply ‘heaped up … as firewood’ (p. 32). A few other colours, such as ‘white droppings’ (p. 32) symbolising humility instead of cleanliness and, ‘worn blue’ (p. 32) indicating depression, develops the ambiguity of evil lurking behind the veil of words. Evil is then ominously intensified when the servant observes the ‘fat black cloud … jutting out …’ (p. 34) before Akutagawa abruptly brings evil to light by striking the fear of evil upon the servant as ‘The unknown, the evil terrified him’ (p. 35). Akutagawa then emphasises the ambiguous nature of evil through the characters’ actions that flicker between being bad or good. By manipulating the horrendous act of the old woman ‘who makes wigs from the hair of the dead’ (p. 38) with the harmless intention ‘to sell, for scraps of food’ (p. 38)—a necessary requirement to survival—the author makes the reader question whether it is wrong to do so since she is not harming anyone and ‘if she hadn’t she would have starved to death’ (p. 39). It reveals the desperate condition of society to commit immoral acts in order to survive, such as the dead woman with the hair the hag was pulling, who sold snake flesh to the guards but claimed it to be dried fish. When the servant echoes the old woman’s concept by robbing her of her clothes, Akutagawa is not implying that he eventually chooses to walk down the path of evil. It brings the reader to discern evil as ambiguous and correlative with good since the servant’s evil deed is justified just like the hag’s actions, by robbing the hag to demonstrate the flaw in her perception.

In Perfume, Süskind relates evil through stench to reveal the ugly facets of humanity. He underlines this relation through Father Terrier’s...
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