Rashomon and other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

In participation of Japanese Literature Challenge 13 hosted by Bellezza.

Rashomon and Other Stories

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川龍之介 1892 – 1927) was an acclaimed early 20th Century Japanese author of the modernist style. Prolific in his short life, Akutagawa had written more than a hundred short stories upon his death by suicide at age 35. He is cited as “The Father of Japanese Short Stories”. The prestigious Akutagawa Prize established in 1935 was named after him to reward the best work of fiction by a new author. Japanese Nobel Laureate Kenzaburō Ōe and crime fiction writer Seichō Matsumoto are among the past winners.

Even though written in the early decades of the 20th century, the six stories compiled in this collection are surprisingly modern in their relevance. Further, despite the author’s gloomy outlook, a few of these stories are sprinkled with a touch of lively humour. The collection shows Akutagawa as an incisive depicter of the human condition and an astute observer of the human psyche.


Here are the stories:

In A Grove –– This story and the next are adapted into the renown film Rashomon (羅生門 1950) directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa (黑澤明 1910 – 1998). The body of a murdered samurai is found in the forest by a woodcutter. His wife has been raped. What has truly happened, however, can’t be determined as the witnesses all tell very different stories. They are the woodcutter, a beggar, a priest, the wife, and the dead husband speaking through a spirit. Akutagawa presents the multiplicity of subjective point-of-views retrieved from memory. Can objective truth ever be found?

Rashomon –– “The Rashōmon” is the largest gate in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. It was constructed in the year 789. When this story takes place, the gate is dilapidated and has become the hideout for thieves and robbers, what more, corpses are left there unclaimed. A servant who has just been let go is standing under the gate waiting for a break in the pouring rain. With no employment now, he struggles with the moral dilemma of becoming a thief or face the consequence of poverty, starving to death. What Akutagawa depicts after this is a dark reality of survival. Kudos to Kurosawa, he turns a chilling story into a film with a hopeful ending.

Yam Gruel –– Reads like a cautionary tale about the satiation of desire, but with whimsical touches and acerbic humour. Goi, a plain-looking samurai suffering from low self-esteem is the laughing stock of everyone, but he learns to live with the ridicules he faces everyday. Goi has one longing, the delicious yam gruel which his boss treats the samurais once a year. What follows is like a dream come true. He’s led to a long distance away on horseback by his boss to a place where he can have limitless yam gruel. But the result isn’t as he has expected. Why, when you have unlimited supply of what you desire, they will soon upset your appetite. Be careful what you wish for.

The Martyr ––  Christianity had a substantial influence in Japan during the 16th Century. With The Martyr, Akutagawa spins a tale about a boy named Lorenzo who is adopted by the Jesuits. Time passes and as he emerges into manhood, Lorenzo is wrongly accused of getting a village girl pregnant, resulting in his exile away from society. Later in a moment of crisis, Lorenzo’s real character prompts him to act by offering the ultimate sacrifice.

Kesa and Morito –– An early version of the popular genre we have now, psychological murder mystery as told by different narrators, again, multiplicity of POVs. The substance and motive for the crime is similar to “In A Grove”, adultery, love, hate, and lust, two internal monologues revealing Akutagawa’s grasp of the darkness lodged in the human soul.

The Dragon –– An ingenious take on fake news. Here’s the post the priest Hanazō makes up to play a trick on his colleagues, sticking a message board by the pond, it can well be a tweet today: “On March third a dragon shall ascend from this pond.” Retweets follow. Words soon spread, first local people then out to the whole province and finally to other provinces. So on March third, a humongous crowd gathers by the pond waiting to see the dragon king rise up. Here’s what Hanazō learns afterwards: if you have enough likes and followers, what’s fake will become true. Even when you confess you made it all up to begin with, nobody will believe you.


Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Translated by Takashi Kojima. Tuttle Publishing, Singapore, 1952.






My previous Japanese Literature Challenge posts:

The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata

Reading Snow Country in Snow Country

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! by Kenzaburo Oe







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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

7 thoughts on “Rashomon and other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa”

  1. I have exactly this edition and intend to read it before the end of March.
    I didn’t want to read the synopsis of each story. I want them to surprise me. I’m excited to see that you liked it. Everyone who has read him says the same.


  2. Thanks for your nice presentation. I usually don’t like short stories, but I love this author and have read the first two. I definitely need to read more by him, he’s really a master. I feel he pack so much more than some Western authors in this challenging format

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I read his work a few years ago. I enjoyed reliving them through your insight post

    Mandarins by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (a collection of short stories selected and translated by Charles De Wolf, 2007-most of the stories were first published between 1916 and 1927)

    Mandarins is a collection of short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892 to 1927).   The selection and translation of the stories was done by Charles De Wolf.  Professor De Wolf of Kieo University has provided some excellent notes on each story and is best known for his translations of 12th century Japanese fables.   These are the oldest Japanese works I have so far read.   Each of the 15 stories in the collection completely stands alone.   Both Borges and Murakami were devotees of his work.  The longest story is thirty seven pages, the shortest, the title work, is five pages.

    There is a similar persona in much of the narration of these stories.   An aloof individual, normally a man but not always, very literate in western classics as well as Japanese, of a high social status who has difficulty relating either to working class Japanese or his peers who lack his degree of literacy.   I have noticed the further one goes back in the 20th century Japanese novel, the more literary references occur to classical works as well as European.   I am pretty sure there are close to no American or European novels prior to World War Two that make any references to Japanese literature.     Akutagawa was said to have an extreme fondness for William Butler Years and Anatole France.

    In order to convey the flavor of these stories, I will talk about two of them.

    The lead story in the collection, “Mandarins” (1917-five pages) is set on a train and narrated by a nearly offensively snobbish and cultured man who is totally outraged when somehow a lower class country  woman has  gotten into the upper class seating area.   Here is his shocked reaction when he awakes from a nap to see her sitting across from him.

    She wore her lusterless hair in ginkgo leaf style.   Apparently from constant rubbing of her nose and mouth with the back of her hand, her cheeks were chapped and unpleasantly red.   She was the epitome of a country girl.    A grimy woolen scarf of yellowish green hung loosely down to her knees, on which she held a large bundle wrapped in cloth.  In those same chilblained hands she clutched for dear life a red third class ticket.   I found her vulgar features quite displeasing and was further repelled by her dirty clothes.  Adding to my irritation was the thought that this girl was to dimwitted to know the difference between first and third class tickets.   If only to blot her existence from my mind. I took out my newspaper, unfolded it over my lap, and began to read, still smoking my cigarette.

    A quite sharp picture of the character of the narrator and the situation he finds himself in on the train in shown above, shown not told.

    The narrator is convinced all of life is futile, joyless and quite enjoys the pleasure of his own melancholy.

    The train in the tunnel, this country girl, this newspaper laden with trivia-if they are not the very symbols of this unfathomable, ignoble, and tedious life of ours, what are they?

    All of  a sudden the narrator is shocked to see the country woman has moved over to his side of the train and is sitting next to him.  She was trying very hard to open the window.  Of course he is most annoyed by this

    Glazing coldly at her desperate struggle as she fought with chilbained hands,  I hoped that she would be forever doomed to fail.  

    The girl does at last get the window open and pokes her head out the window searching for something ahead.  The narrator describes with complete disdain a rural village by the side of the road.   He spots three boys standing with their arms reaching out.
    three red-cheeked boys pressed up against one another, so small of stature that they seem to have been crushed by the sky, the color of their clothing as as drab as these urban outskirts.

    As the boys see the woman, they let out  cheer.   The woman extends her ulcerated hands and begins swinging them briskly back and forth.   The woman throws six mandarin oranges to the boys who are over joyed.

    The narrator reevaluates everything.

    Elated, I raised by head and glazed at the girl with very different eyes.   She resumed her place in front of me…And now for the first time I was able to forget, at least for a moment, my unspeakable
    fatigue, my ennui, and, with that, this unfathomable, ignoble, and tedious life.

    In five pages Akutagawa develops for us a crystal clear picture of the narrator.   We can see many things in this story.   In part we see a man who up until the close of the story can experience the events of the world only as they are metaphors of his boredom.    We can assume nothing will change long term in his outlook and this story will be another episode in his private mythology.   For many writers this might be the beginning of the story.   For Akutagawa it is the end.   Maybe by doing that he frees us to continue the story.

    “An Enlightened Husband” (1919, 23 pages) is a fascinating account of the wealthy cultured narrator’s relationship with a far wealthier man, Viscount Honda.

    On a cloudy afternoon, I had gone to a museum in Ueno to see an exhibition of early Meiji era culture..Slender, with an air of fragile elegance about him, he was dressed entirely in black, with neatly creased trousers and a stylish bowler.   I immediately recognized him as Viscount Honda..I Started to approach him then momentarily hesitated for I had known before that he was a personality disinclined to social relations….In his hollow cheeks there lingered the last glimmerings of evening light, traces of the handsome features that had been his in the prime of youth.   At the same time it was a face over which a pensive shadow fell, a reflection, unusual for a man of the aristocracy, of inner suffering.

    They meet again and the Viscount extends an invitation to the narrator to go on a fishing trip with him.   The narrator is very happy over this but he admits to being a bit intimidated by the social status of the Viscount Honda.   The Viscount longs for the past days of Japanese culture, before westernization, before the automobile.   The Viscount begins to tell a story of his marriage and his great love for his wife.   One day, after he has met the wife, the narrator sees her riding in a carriage with a man who we discover is her cousin.
    The Viscount is in love with the ideal of love almost as it were a Platonic ideal.   When it is slowly revealed to us that their is an affair between the wife and the cousin, the narrator expects Honda to be outraged.   He would be within his cultural rights to have them both killed and his social status would avoid any legal complication for him.   Miura, the narrator has become on first name terms with the Viscount explains his feelings.   The passage I will quote is  bit long but it conveys with great precision the thought processes of The Viscount and Akutagawa’s ability to go very deep in a brief passage.

    Miura spoke in a subdued voice:  “Even then I did not doubt my wife’s sincerity.   Thus the knowledge that she did not grasp my true feelings or rather that I had only earned her hatred caused me all the more anguish…About a week ago a maid carelessly allowed a letter that should have gone to my wife to find its way to my desk.  I immediately thought of her cousin…it was a love missive from yet another man.   In a word, her love for her cousin was no less impure.   Needless to say, this second blow was of vastly more terrible intensity than the first.   All my ideals had been ground to the dust.  At the same time I was sadly comforted by the abrupt lessening of responsibility.

    Akutagawa is able to convey a large range of superficially contradictory emotions and thoughts in a short passage.   The story is very centered in a time and place.    A great deal happens in a short narrative.

    Mandarins is an excellent collection of short stories.    Each one creates a miniature world.   Akutagawa’s works were all originally published in literary journals aimed at a highly educated, elite readership.   You might have seen references on the back cover of some of your Japanese novels to winning the Akutagawa Prize.   This was created in 1935 and has been given out twice a year since then to what the prize judges feel is the best work of the last six months.   It is considered  the most prestigious Japanese Literary Prize.   Akutagawa died  from an over dose of barbiturates at age 35.

    As to my endorsement of the work, there can be no question that the stories are world class treasures.  I would say in Japanese literature work your way back to the 1920s.    I would start in the 21th century and work backwards from there.  

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful and detailed review of Mandarins by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, as well as info on the author. In previous JLC, I read Kawabata and Oe, this is my first Akutagawa book. Other than these classic works, this time I’ve ventured into modern mysteries, and have been reading three novels by Keigo Higashino. Very interesting works.

      Again, much appreciate your stopping by Ripple Effects and sharing your thoughts. Do you have a blog link that you can leave here so i can visit. Thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

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