If you mention the words ‘Japan’ and ‘short stories‘ in the same sentence, the chances are that the name Ryunosuke Akutagawa will not be far away. In terms of importance to the genre (if it is a genre!), Akutagawa is up there with writers like Mansfield, Fitzgerald, Maupassant and Chekhov, despite his untimely death at the age of thirty five. Over the past few weeks, I finally got around to reading a Penguin collection I bought a good while back, Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, a wonderful introduction to the work of one of Japan’s most famous writers, and (after leisurely rereading it in its entirety) I thought I’d jot down some idle thoughts 🙂
The collection has been divided by the translator, Jay Rubin, into four sections, each containing a few stories representing a certain type of tale. From clever retellings of twelfth-century tales to highly-cathartic personal pieces, the collection is a wealth of fascinating and well-written works, some of which appear here for the first time in English.
The first section, A World in Decay, contains several of Akutagawa’s most famous stories, mostly set in the twelfth century, a time when the imperial capital of Kyoto was in decline. Rashomon tells the tale of a dismissed servant sheltering from the rain under the once-magnificent gate of the title (in Kyoto) and the decision he comes to after taking a look upstairs. In a Bamboo Grove is a wonderful creation, where seven differing eye-witness accounts are given for a single crime. The two stories form the basis of Akira Kurosawa’s film, Rashomon, with the scene of the title story forming the frame for the longer tale.
The second section, Under the Sword, contains stories set in the early seventeenth century, when the ruling Tokugawas’ desire to maintain stability (and power!), led to the implementation of strict behavioural norms, and the persecution of those who followed the recently imported religion of Christianity. In Dr. Ogata Ryosai: Memorandum and O-Gin, we see the two sides of Christian experience in Japan – one a report of a minor miracle, the other telling of a sudden loss of faith. Loyalty, on the other hand, looks at the consequences of failing to choose the good of the group over the individual, consequences which (as you can imagine) are fairly bloody and gruesome….
The final two sections are concerned with more modern fare. The third small group of stories, Modern Tragicomedy, contains three tales set in the early twentieth century, of which Horse Legs, the surreal tale of a man brought back from the dead with some unusual additions, is the stand-out. Finally, Akutagawa’s Own Story, six pieces written against the back-drop of the writer’s own life, brings the collection to a shuddering, autobiographical (and ultimately untimely…) halt.
It’s difficult to give much detail when reviewing such a wide range of stories, but there are probably two which deserve a closer look. Spinning Gears is the final story in the collection, and, running at just over thirty pages, it is also one of the longest. We follow Akutagawa as he spends a week or so in Tokyo, writing a new story at a Western hotel and visiting friends in the capital.
It’s a hectic affair, not because of a busy schedule but owing to the unceasing stress the writer is (unnecessarily) putting himself under. Everywhere he goes, he sees patterns – multiple glimpses of men in rain-coats, images of feet with wings, random messages in the pages of books -, and the overall picture is one of a man slowly going mad under the pressure of reconciling his artistic endeavours with his life as a family man. When you know the outcome of this pressure, it makes for sobering reading…
If Spinning Gears is his late classic though, his early masterpiece was the final story in the first section, Hell Screen. In this, the longest story presented here, an unnamed narrator tells us of a horrifying event which happened at a royal court in Kyoto. A wealthy nobleman commands Yoshihide, a famous and eccentric painter, to create a scene on a folding screen depicting the Buddhist hell, and the painter (a man every bit as sadistic and whimsical as the master he serves) comes up with a terrifying masterpiece – but is unable to paint the final, pivotal scene. He returns to his lord and asks the unthinkable; what is even more unthinkable is that his request is approved…
If you are looking for a story which summarises everything that is wonderful in Akutagawa’s writing, this is it. A lesser writer could have knocked this off in half the space, but Akutagawa uses his canvas (pun intended) to create a narrator who is quite patently lying to us, a genius who will go to any length to complete a painting, a nobleman determined to get his wicked way with a beautiful serving girl – and a monkey (also called Yoshihide!) who is determined to stop him. Now that’s a short story 🙂
In short, this is a collection which anyone remotely interested in J-Lit or short stories would be well advised to snap up. There aren’t all that many contenders for the most famous and popular Japanese writer, but Akutagawa is certainly one of them. One last piece of persuasion? As well as being fully annotated by the admirable Mr. Rubin, this penguin edition also contains an impressive twenty-page introduction by none other than Haruki Murakami. Now if that doesn’t clinch the sale, nothing will…