In participation of Japanese Literature Challenge 13 hosted by Bellezza.
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: