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Recommended: Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Author(s): Patrick J. O'Connor

Source: The English Journal, Vol. 75, No. 7 (Nov., 1986), pp. 79-80
Published by: National Council of Teachers of English
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Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Patrick J. O'Connor

Ryunosuke Akutagawa can be creating of the kappa a superior civ- with the macabre, and a fondness
thought of as the Japanese Edgarilization. He uses the kappa's supe- for material drawn from historical
Allan Poe-a virtuoso writer who riority to mercilessly pillory human sources. All are evident in his first
delved into dark corners of the civilization, but it should not be story, "Rashomon" (ROS). Set in
human soul and created striking, overlooked that the kappa, although twelfth-century Japan at a time
memorable characters and situa- more advanced than men, had not when the capital city of Kyoto was
tions that reflected what he found in themselves advanced in 3,000 years. overwhelmed with disasters and pla-
those corners. He is perhaps theTheir despair over progress, and gues, it probes the mind of a servant
most celebrated short story writer inthe resulting ennui, perhaps mirror recently discharged by an impover-
Japanese literature. Akutagawa's own despair. ished master. As he ponders whether
Akutagawa was born in Tokyo on "The Kappa" was Akutagawa's to become a thief or starve to death
March 1, 1892, and lived in that citylast major work, completed on Feb- with honor, he sees, within the
all his life, save for a brief trip toruary 11, 1927. He died of self- ruined Rashomon gate, a ghoulish
China. He attended what is now administered poison on July 24, old woman pulling hairs from the
Tokyo University where he studied 1927, leaving behind a wife and corpses lying there. Having just
three children.
English literature (his graduation decided he should steal rather than
thesis was on William Morris). As an a career of only 12 years,die, he is now revolted by the sight
undergraduate, he had begun to
Akutagawa's frenzied writing pace before him. He sets upon the
publish; his story "Rashomon" produced
was a sizable canon-19 vol-woman, demanding to know what
published in the literary journal umes in the collected Japanese edi-she is doing. She says she is pulling
Shin Shicho (New Thought). After tion,his
which include a few poems andout the hairs to make wigs to sell,
graduation he joined the Tokyo essays and 140 short stories. and defends her actions as necessary
newspaper Nichi Nichi, where he of those stories are availa- to survive. Mercurially, his mind
continued to write short fiction. The ble in English, primarily in books changes again, and now he decides
year 1917 saw a number of signifi- from Liveright Publishing of New that thievery is preferable to death-
cant works and 1918 saw the publi- York. Their three volumes encom- and begins his career by robbing the
cation of "The Hell Screen." pass a broad selection of Akutaga- woman of her clothes.
Akutagawa wrote at a furious wa's work-Japanese Short StoriesAkutagawa did not always go to
pace over the coming years, but (1961, 1970 paper), Exotic Japanese distant centuries for his material,
poor physical and mental health Stories (1964, 1972 paper), and Rash- although many of his stories draw
began to tell on him. (The condition omon and Other Stories, new edition on traditional Japanese legends and
was perhaps inherited: his mother (1970 paper). The first volume he is best known for the historical
had gone insane and died at an unfortunately, is no longer in print, stories. Two early stories, "Saigo
early age.) Some of his best work leaving gaps in the English canon, Takamori" (EJS) and "Absorbed in
was published in the early and mid- but the others are available. In the Letters" (EJS) treat relatively con-
discussion of nine stories that fol-
dle 1920s, but he was becoming temporary characters-the rebel
gloomier, and darker themes lows, these volumes are abbreviated, leader Takamori and the author
intruded constantly in his writing.respectively, JSS, EJS, and ROS. Bakin. Yet both are typical Akuta-
This tendency culminated in "The Characteristics of Akutagawa's gawa. "Takamori" questions whether
Kappa," a long story about a race ofwork are acute psychological insight,
what is given as history concerning
aquatic beings famed in Japaneserejection of objective reality in favor
Takamori's rebellion really hap-
legend. As he did with other leg-of a reality defined by the percep- pened while "Absorbed" probes into
ends, Akutagawa remade this one, tions of those involved, a fascination
the psychology of a writer.

November 1986 79

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Other early works show other Akutagawa does not care to draw from Paradise to his corner of Hell.
facets of Akutagawa's talent. "The a moral from this hideous tale, let- He climbs. Just as he nears his des-
Badger" (EJS) explores in a few ting it speak for itself, but it should tination, he sees many other souls
brief pages how the legend of badg- be noted that his fictional narrator have climbed it as well, and selfishly
ers being able to change into men denies several times that Horikawa yells at them to go back. At that
might have gotten started through awanted to seduce the girl and pun-
moment, the thread snaps, and he
lover's invention while "A Woman's ished her when she refused him. plunges back into Hell. Redemption
Body" (EJS) shows what happensThat, to hints Akutagawa, would is possible,
be but the evil rarely
a man who becomes a flea. Unlike humanly understandable. But a achieve
lord it.
Kafka, Akutagawa's man-becomes- who would punish a retainer by Yet even as Akutagawa doubted
burning his daughter or a painter
insect story is a light-hearted prais- that human beings could be saved,
ing of feminine beauty. But it'swho he wrote "The Dog, Shiro" (EJS).
also would cause human suffering
typical of him in that the storyto advance his art-these smack of
ends Here, too, there is a sinner-a dog
with the man gaining a new appre-
the diabolical, yet all too human.
who sees the dog-catcher about to
ciation of his wife's beauty- "In a Grove" (ROS), the story
seize a neighbor-dog but keeps
quiet out of fear. And yet, after
because he saw it from the perspec-which, with "Rashomon," provides
tive of a flea. the basis for Akira Kurosawa's
numerous good acts and as he is
Just three years after his first prize-winning movie Rashomon,
about to commit suicide out of
publication, Akutagawa published shows Akutagawa at the height ofShiro is redeemed. Akuta-
"Hell Screen." (SS) a powerful tale his powers. A murder hasgawa
beenwas a master of dark imagin-
of what artistic ambition and pride committed, a trial is underway,
but he could sometimes bring
will drive men to. The greatest this is no Japanese Perry his Mason
characters through their tor-
painter in the land, Yasuhide, is story. After several preliminary tureswit-
to repose.
commanded by Lord Horikawa to nesses, the murder is recounted Although the culture and set-
paint a screen depicting the tortures three times-by the murderer, by tings of Akutagawa's stories are
of Buddhist hell. Yasuhide is a fer- the dead man's wife, and by the"exotic," their message is not. He
vent realist, and he proceeds to dead man himself (speaking looks at the human psyche with cool
gather sketches by finding corpses through a medium, an acceptable detachment. Perhaps he sees the
and torturing his own assistants. device in Japanese fiction). Thedefects more clearly than the
But he gets stuck on the central strengths, but none of us would
reader hears three radically differ-
image of the screen-a nobleman's ent versions, and Akutagawa makes deny that the failings he portrays so
carriage burning in flames, withnoa effort to sort them out. Indeed, well are real. We might wish to deny
beautiful young woman inside. as the story makes clear, any one-it, but it is the power of Akutagawa's
Yasuhide appeals to Lord Hori- or none at all-could be "the truth." art that we are forced into assent by
kawa to burn such a carriage: What "I is truth, but a belief? the realism of his characters. Few
cannot paint anything I have notTwo stories from the middle of authors equal him in that power to
seen." Surprisingly, Horikawa his career show another side of Aku- hold up a mirror to our souls and
agrees. But when the burning car- tagawa. "The Spider's Thread" force us to look.
riage is revealed, supposedly with a (SS) adopts a lyrical voice as it tells
woman prisoner inside, the victim of the Buddha strolling through
turns out to be Yasuhide's only Paradise. Far below he sees a ban-
daughter, a beautiful young woman dit's soul, mired in Hell. The com-
who was a lady in waiting in Lord passionate Buddha remembers a
Patrick]. O'Connor is a research
Horikawa's house. Yasuhide watches single act of kindness, when the
the scene carefully, and completes assistant in the office of the
bandit forebore to step on a spider.
the masterpiece. Then he kills At that moment, the bandit president
per- at Marist College,
himself. ceives a spider's thread stretching
Poughkeepsie, New York.

80 English Journal

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