Friday, October 22, 2010

Ryunosuke Akutagawa.


 Akutagawa Ryunosuke

 Ryunosuke Akutugawa is generally regarded as the "father of the Japanese short story" of which he wrote approximately a hundred, before taking his own life at the age of 35, he also has Japan's most famous Literary prize named after him (Akutagawa Prize) . Born in  Tokyo in 1892 & raised by a family steeped in  traditional Japanese culture, by a young age had mastered  English, before going on to excel as a student in his country's top educational establishments. By the age of ten he was writing and publishing in student magazines, he graduated from Tokyo Imperial University ( University of Tokyo ) in 1916 with a degree in English Literature. He worked as a teacher of English until the demand for his writing enabled him to work full time in that role.

In this collection of short stories, translated by Jay Rubin, we see a range of work from throughout the authors short life, some which have not been published for decades. We start this book with Rashomon, (not the film of the same name) a tale of a servant sacked by his Samurai master  who seeks shelter under the Rashomon, which was the largest gate in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan.

At the  time of this story, the gate was in need of repair, slowly collapsing with neglect, & a habitual hideout for thieves, murderers & others of that ilk, it was also a place to dump unwanted corpses. Through this story we witness the servant's moral breakdown as he comes to terms with the collapse of his society. The second tale "In the bamboo grove" is the story most people will recognise, as it's the main influence of  Akira Kurosawa film "Rashomon", this is the story of a murder of a traveller & the alleged rape of his wife, the tale is told from the perspective of several witnesses including the accused & the victim (via a medium) all  have their own version of the tale & their own agenda's including the deceased. The next story is "The Nose" a tale about  a priest who has a problem with his nose, then we have several other tales such as Dragon (A potters tale) &  "The spiders thread" until we reach "Hell screen". This is a fabulous horror story, which I've already posted on, although I don't think I did it the justice it deserved by concentrating on the artist's view, in the process neglecting the suspect morality of the lord or even the storytellers unbalanced narration.


  This book contains to many tales for me to cover everyone, so I will just mention a few of my favourites & put a complete list at the end. For a start the story "Green Onions" is a fantastic balancing act, that has the writer, writing a tale with a deadline looming, the story concerns this beautiful girl & although all through the story you are aware it's a story (The author makes this clear) you follow her with trepidation, worried for her welfare. Then there's "Horse legs" in this one, the main character drops dead, but it's a mistake it should have been someone else. On arriving at a version of heaven, the mistake is discovered, but by this time the character's legs are rotten & the only thing available to replace them is a pair of horse's legs. We then have a series of stories more directly reflecting the author's life, tales such as - Baby Sickness, The life of a Stupid Man & Spinning Gears. The last two in particular show his writing turning inward, reflecting his own personal obsessions & also the increasing shadow, his mothers madness cast over his thought processes (she experienced mental health problems after the authors birth). This coupled with having to support his own & his sisters family after her husband killed himself, put him under a strain his nerves couldn't handle & he turned to drugs, which in the end led him to take his own life.

  • Ryunosuke Akutagawa, was & is considered as one of Japan's best writers, by first drawing on the old tales & myths of his homeland & adding a modern perspective, through to his later introspective pieces, his ability to paint with a ferocious pinpoint accuracy, the dilemma raised by mans instincts & the constraints placed by society was phenomenal. In his short career of about a 10 years, he wrote about a 150 stories & it's these that have earned him his place in his countries list of great writers.

This translation by Jay Rubin, has been divided into 4 sections, these are - World in decay, Under the sword,  modern tragicomedy & Akutagawa's own story, by using this method the stories follow a chronological order based on the time they are set in, as opposed to published date.

World in decay - Is set in the Heian period (794 - 1185) , this was Japan's classical era, a time of peace & prosperity & when the Imperial court  in Heian - Kyo ("capital of peace and tranquillity" ; later Kyoto) was the fountainhead of culture & all the arts flourished

  • Rashomon
  • In a bamboo grove
  • The nose
  • Dragon; the old potters tale
  • The spider thread
  • Hell screen


Under the sword - (1600 - 1868)  This period was dominated by warfare, from the end of the Heian period through to the imposition of peace under the Tokugawa Shoguns. After establishing their power base in Edo (modern Tokyo) they crushed all signs of change and used any method to maintain their social standing, with the Emperor merely a figurehead.

  • Dr. Ogata Ryosai: Memorandum
  • O - Gin
  • Loyalty 

Modern Tragicomedy - This is a series of stories set in the writers own time, this includes tales of set in the Sino - Japanese war (1937 - 45) & deals with the horrific nature of conflict, yet it also contains a romantic comedy,  that's  just a fascinating balance, revealing the writers craft, whilst involving us with the life of the character.

  • The story of a head that fell off
  • Green onions
  • Horses legs

Akutagawa's own story - These are stories from a later period in Ryunosuke Akutagawa's life & contain a strong autobiographical streak. But as the author wasn't a particular fan of autobiographical fiction, these tales (as Haruki Murakami said) "are fascinating because of the tension between their seeming confessionality and their perceptible manipulation of their material".

  • Daidoji Shinsuke: The early yearsWhat happened to the lowly Servant, No one knows
  • The writers craft
  • The baby's sickness
  • Death register
  • The life of a stupid man
  • Spinning gears


Ryunosuke Akutagawa(Wikpedia)


NancyO said...

Thanks so much for this review! I think I need to go pick up this book now. I've seen the movie Rashomon several times, but the other stories in the book sound intriguing as well.

@parridhlantern said...

Hope you love & are intrigued by it, as I was, it,s interesting to find out where a loved film got it's inspiration. Although my favourite was Green onions, the way the writer balanced story & craft was beautiful & a magic act in itself.

gina said...

Hey there, just popping by to share this link to an interview with one of Murakami's translators:

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Gina, thanks for the Link. It's interesting to see what connection exists between author & translator.

tanabata said...

I really enjoyed the few stories of Akutagawa's that I read in a different anthology and look forward to reading these as well. I still haven't seen the film, Rashomon, but must try to rectify that before long.

@parridhlantern said...

I enjoyed this book a lot more than I expected & certain of the tales (green onions) just blew me away.. Thanks, parrish.

Mel u said...

great very well done post-thanks

@parridhlantern said...

Thanks Mel u, for your comment, i did enjoy this, what started out as a challenge on the "In spring it is the dawn" blog, became much more.

Unknown said...

A great summary of this collection :) It's fascinating how his later writing was focused inwards, almost forcing him to an early grave - a scary thought for all writers...