In a bit of change of pace, I just finished this shorts story collection and would like to share some thoughts on it.
“Through his writing style, Akutagawa set himself apart from his contemporary naturalistic peers, who enjoyed some popularity in the period through vulgar depiction of their personal and romantic lives. Seeing such narrative exploitation as something shallow, he instead pieced up and re-wrote classic ancient stories from the likes of Japan, China, and Russia with fresh perspective and revolutionary narration style. Frequently diving deep into the emotional and psychological condition of human beings, he employed a variety of peculiar creatures in his stories and his writing in general reflected a fascination with bizarre, rough, and morbid matters dripping with abnormality. His characters are depicted through excellent turns of phrase, showcasing great intellect and linguistic sense on the writer’s part.” (partial excerpt from the book’s bio page, translated by me).
Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Japan’s literary titan and whom the country’s premier literature award is named after, is a name I’ve definitely heard before. I had enjoyed a few of adaptations based on his works (Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon and and a couple of segments, Hell Screen and The Spider’s Thread, from Aoi Bungaku anime series), but it’s not until recently that I finally read his stories through this anthology, published and translated to my native language by Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia. The collection only has seven stories though, presumably chosen through some combination of reputation, practicality of translation, and representativeness of Akutagawa’s style, with Hell Screen perhaps being the most notable omission.
I’m honestly not much of classic lit reader or critic (this despite being an English Lit graduate, heh), but I thoroughly enjoy the collection. Most of these read like fables, carried by sharp and direct passages as well as refreshing lack of purple prose or tedious navel-gazing. Akutagawa may frequently bring up such ‘uplifting and cheerful’ themes like the lack of morality, suicidal angst, and endless cycle of suffering, but they’re also made palatable with engaging narration and sardonic sense of humor that I find consistently funny. As a result, most of these stories have great re-read value despite their inherently bleak nature; I’ve read In A Grove and The Dog, Shiro three times, for instance. Here’s my individual commentary:
Not to be confused with the Rashomon film (which indeed has the setting of this story, but is narratively based on In A Grove), this is the kind of story that makes you go, “Well, gee, no wonder the dude killed himself at 35”. It’s a bleak story that zeroes in on amoral survivalism, a chance encounter in the titular gate between two desperate people that’s certainly not something you’d want to read if you want your spirit lifted. Nevertheless, it’s also told with consummate skill. Akutagawa paints vivid description of the setting and characters that suck me in throughout, even as it left me with a big wince on my face.
In A Grove
It’s not the story, it’s how you told them that matters. That philosophy of Akutagawa is most apparent with this story, which details a single incident as told by multiple perspectives of characters. It’s a groundbreaking narration technique at the time, which lead to one of the best film of all time in Rashomon (the nomenclature’s a bit confusing, I know) and the coining of ‘Rashomon Effect’ term to describe similar technique. One of my pet narrative devices of all time, it’s especially potent in mystery stories (Agatha Christie’s Murder in Retrospect come to mind); but In A Grove is easily the ballsiest among this kind of story by not ever revealing the true answer to the readers. More an indirect psychological examination than a typical murder mystery, I’d recommend this if you can only read one Akutagawa, and to follow that up by watching Kurosawa’s magnificent adaptation.
By far the longest story in the collection (taking up nearly half the entire page count by itself), this novella is an unsubtle sociopolitical commentary. Sporting a narrative frame that takes form as fantastical ramblings from a mental hospital client, it depicts a darkly amusing world inhabited by one of the most famous among Japan’s mythological beasts, the kappa. Akutagawa tears into myriad of issues from population control to censorship as filtered through a deeply nihilistic worldview, and it’s not short of interesting allegorical implications (this is one of Akutagawa’s final works before his untimely death, and it also features an artistic kappa called Tock who eventually takes his own life and worry about his posthumous reputation as he returns in spirit form). The longer it goes, the more unpleasant and repetitive it becomes though.
It’s kind of a chore to read the various plight of largely unsympathetic characters in this tale, which gets too overt at times and carries misogynistic undertone in Akutagawa’s depiction of thirsty, manipulative, and deceitful female kappa. Depiction of women as ultimate destroyer of men is unfortunately one of his recurring themes, likely a byproduct of his troubled upbringing. The sarcasm and black humor with the kappa entertain me, but I struggle to finish this one, stalling twice in the process.
A story focusing on an extremely disrespected, lowest-level, samurai and his craving for the luxurious imagayo (the titular yam gruel). The narrative voice sure is extra gleeful in describing the various ways this hapless fellow is ridiculed and mocked by everyone around him, which provides ample source of (cringe) humor throughout. Gets kind of meandering heading to it denouement, but it does close off with good ironic punchline.
The Spider’s Thread
About the Buddha himself giving second chance to a bandit falling to hell because he had saved a spider in his life, which the bandit proceed to squander anyway. I’ve seen the animated adaptation of this from Aoi Bungaku, but I somewhat prefer the original story’s more concise execution. The story is split into three very short chapters, an interesting approach considering it could’ve easily been just one unbroken narrative, but I’m guessing it serves to underline the dramatic progress and shifting perspective.
Shiro, The Dog
Probably my favorite story in the collection after In A Grove. Again, it’s all about execution, as it demonstrates structural strength, unusual perspective, and creative use of simile (Akutagawa’s simile are generally top-notch and a great source of enjoyment for me). This is easily the most uplifting story (not that it’s necessarily a high bar to clear) in any case, chronicling a strange and karmic body-swapping experience of a domesticated dog. There are dark moments here and there—this is still Akutagawa we’re talking about—but the funny twist and heart-warming ending serve as good antidote to the general display of unpleasantness in the other stories.
Just as the collection opens with oppressively bleak stories, it ends with gentle light-hearted note with this and Shiro. Apparently one of the earliest works that put Akutagawa on the map, it earned a letter of praise from none other than the legendary Natsume Souseki. The writer’s signature sense of humor and amusing characterization are once again on point here, leading to lots of hearty chuckle at the expense of an insecure priest worrying excessively about his oversized nose.
There’s a sense of universality that makes Akutagawa’s works accessible to even people who aren’t familiar with Japanese history and social mores, with dense prose that tends to go down easy while maintaining genuine edge. Whether you’re a literary scholar or a casual reader, he’s always worth a read, and I’ll also look forward to read more of his stories outside this collection in the future.
(*the definitive English edition of Akutagawa’s short stories seems to be Penguin Classics’ Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, a reportedly stellar translation work by Jay Rubin that includes two stories previously deemed as “untranslatable”, Chugi and Negi, as well as introduction by Haruki Murakami and illustration by Yoshihiro Tatsumi).