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我が道に 足りぬを探し たたかへど 散る間際こそ ビューティフルと知る

This is coming from a character parodying a samurai. The English voice-over for the first half says "Battle after battle I sought to attain the glorious path..." I'm really not sure how 足りぬを探し pans out here. I assume the verb is 足る (and not 足りる) but other than that, I don't even know whether 足りぬ here is positive or negative. Also, how do I parse the sentence? [我が道に足りぬ]を探し or 我が道に[足りぬを探し]? Maybe somebody could clear up the ぬを part, as in how to interpret that verb-on-verb structure without a noun to refer to.

I found several instances of ぬ on kobun.weblio.jp and assumed that maybe the second meaning could fit here in the sense of "I'm looking for something that will certainly fulfill me in my way by fighting" or something (if that even makes sense lol) but I don't really know. Maybe it's just a plain old negative?

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Not a native speaker, so take this with a grain of salt. :)

First, let's look at your bolded piece.

Understanding 足りぬを探し

I came across two possible interpretations of this phrase. The first is where I first landed, until I found an unexpected wrinkle that led to the second.

Possibility 1

If memory serves, in Old and Classical Japanese, the 連体形【れんたいけい】 or "attributive form" can be used as a substantive (basically, a noun) in certain constructions. In your sample sentence, we see 足りぬ immediately followed by を探し, suggesting this kind of grammatical construction.

  • If we parse 足りぬ as the 連用形【れんようけい】 tari- of verb taru, then the ぬ must be the spontaneous / unintentional perfective auxiliary. That doesn't quite make sense in this context. The 連体形 for perfective ぬ is ぬる (see entry at Kotobank), but we don't have that here. Considering the grammatical structure, perfective ぬ doesn't fit.
  • If we parse 足りぬ instead as the 未然形【みぜんけい】 tari- of verb tariru, and consider the grammar, then the ぬ must be the 連体形 of the negative auxiliary ず (see entry at Kotobank).
  • We also find that the verb form 足【た】りる arose in the Edo period (see entry at Kotobank, scroll down to the section for the たりる reading), which would work for a period drama.

The phrase 足りぬを探し then works out to something like "looking for gaps / lacks / places where something isn't enough", alluding to a search for self-improvement or possibly for justice. Depending on the show's context and the character that speaks this line, this might be the intended sense.

Possibility 2

However, apparently there was also a lexicalization (case where a particular form of a word becomes an independent word in its own right) of 足りぬ based on tarutari- + perfective ぬ, which became a noun meaning something like "satisfaction". The dictionary entry at Kotobank is for the slightly contracted form たんぬ, which apparently arose by at least 1241 (when it is first cited). It's not clear to me if the uncontracted form たりぬ was also in use as a noun with the same meaning.

If tarinu was also used as a noun with the "satisfaction" sense, then the phrase 足りぬを探し would be hedonistic rather than righteous. Again, depends on the show's context as to whether this is a sensible interpretation.

Parsing

Let's look at those first three pieces as a clause.

  • 我が道に 足りぬを探し たたかへど

The 足りぬ is treated as a noun regardless of which of the two interpretations we use (righteous or hedonistic). Starting from there, there isn't much reason to tie the 我が道 to the 足りぬ as a single piece. The 我が道に is essentially setting the stage for the rest of this clause: "on my path", "along my way", something to that effect. So it would have to be the second parsing option that you post: 我が道に[足りぬを探し].

Poetry

I notice that this piece of text is in classical 短歌【たんか】 format, if we make one small allowance:

  • 我が道に
  • 足りぬを探し
  • たたかへど
  • 散る間際こそ
  • ビューティフルと知る

The mora count is the classic 5-7-5-7-7, if we ignore the 長音符【ちょうおんぷ】 in ビューティフル and only count this as 4 instead of 5.

Noticing that this is poetry, and looking at this as a standalone text in its own right, the moral ambiguity about the potential intended meaning of 足りぬ might be intentional. Is the speaker seeking justice, or seeking pleasure? Either way, they recognize that life is beautiful right at the moment of dying.

Personally, I think Possibility 1 above seems more likely, as this makes the poem more poignant -- in this case, the speaker has been seeking out insufficiencies and fighting against them. If we use Possibility 2, it doesn't make as much sense -- hedonists aren't big on self-reflection, and if someone is so wrapped up in the pleasure of the moment anyway, there's no reason for a last-moment realization of beauty.

Update: Identifying the Nu

"Nu! Nu!"

"No no no no, no, Sir Bedevere, it's not that, it's Ni!"

More seriously, you can tell which ぬ -- the spontaneous perfective auxiliary, or the negative auxiliary -- based on the form of the underlying verb, in most (but not all!) cases, and sometimes also based on the grammatical context of where it appears.

  • Perfective ぬ attaches to the 連用形【れんようけい】 of the main verb.
  • Negative ぬ attaches to the 未然形【みぜんけい】 of the main verb.

The challenge comes with verbs that have different overlapping forms, such as たり -- this is both the 連用形 for たる, which is a 四段【よだん】動詞【どうし】 ("four-step verb", since the verb stem ends in four different vowels in Classical and older → this became the modern 五段【ごだん】動詞【どうし】 or "five-step verb"), and it is also the stem for all of the 形 for たりる, an 一段【いちだん】動詞【どうし】 ("one-step verb", since these verbs only have one vowel for all verb stems).

In these cases, you'll have to look more at the surrounding grammar and the form of the auxiliary itself. These auxiliaries also have conjugational forms of their own, which can help you identify what you've got:

Conjugation Perfective ぬ Negative ぬ
未然形【みぜんけい】
Irrealis (hasn't happened yet)
連用形【れんようけい】
Continuative (-masu stem)
終止形【しゅうしけい】
Terminal (standalone)
連体形【れんたいけい】
Attributive (adjectival)
ぬる
已然形【いぜんけい】
Realis (as if it's happened)
ぬれ
命令形【めいれいけい】
Imperative (command)
-

Between these two -- the conjugational form of the main verb, and the conjugational form of the auxiliary -- it is often possible to narrow down which ぬ you're looking at.

That said, as we see above with たんぬ, that is an example of a perfective ぬ in the 終止形【しゅうしけい】 conjugation, but this lexicalized into an independent noun -- where usually only the 連体形【れんたいけい】 could be used that way. Language is nothing if not irregular. 😄

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  • 1
    First of all, thank you for taking the time to write all of that! Interesting that you're mentioning 短歌, there's a bit just like this one a bit before and the exact same 5-7-5-7-7 pattern can be seen (along with those line-breaks between each segment I often see with these 短歌); now I know what these are called. :). The character doesn't get much exposure, the same scene he is introduced in he already dies haha. Though it does get mentioned that his brother was killed by the protagonist he's facing off in this scene; he isn't looking for revenge though but rather only to make himself stronger.
    – Boolicious
    Aug 31 at 18:59
  • 1
    So in that context your interpretation seems very much spot on. Small question though if I may regarding the meanings of ぬ I linked to on the kobun dictionary in my original post: Other than context, how exactly do you filter out which use of ぬ is most likely intended (other than context)? I suppose if I were to actually study classical Japanese I may get a feel for it on my own but I've seen lots of instances where ぬ could seemingly be anything but the negative and I'm curious how you actually draw the distinction here, esp. with ambiguous things like poetry.
    – Boolicious
    Aug 31 at 19:01
  • @Boolicious, I've added a section to address your comment question about knowing which ぬ you have. Aug 31 at 22:25
  • @Boolicious, as an example of unambiguously perfective ぬ, there's the movie title 風【かぜ】立【た】ちぬ. The verb stem tachi- here is the 連用形【れんようけい】 of the verb たつ, so we know that the ぬ must be the perfective ぬ and not the negative ぬ. Meanwhile, 立【た】たぬ has verb stem tata-, which is the 未然形【みぜんけい】 of the verb たつ, so we know that the ぬ must be the negative ぬ and not the perfective ぬ. Aug 31 at 22:31
  • 1
    Thanks again for the detailed explanation! I'll make sure to study that thoroughly for future reference. ;)
    – Boolicious
    Sep 2 at 12:03

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