Saturday, February 2, 2013

Best short stories of Akutagawa Ryunosuke (Book Review)

Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892-1927) was a short story writer, essayist and haiku poet who died young at age 35, but whose about one hundred stories and novellas have become a hard and fast part of the canon of modern Japanese literature, not in the least thanks to his stylistic perfectionism and keen psychological insight. Shortly after Akutagawa was born - with the original family name Niihara - , his mother went insane, and he therefore was adopted into the family of his maternal uncle, whose surname he assumed. From a young age he was a voracious and eclectic reader of Western, Japanese and Chinese literature, and at Tokyo University, where he went in 1913, he studied English literature. After graduation, he briefly taught English, before deciding to devote his life wholeheartedly to literature - he was a fixed contributor to the Osaka Mainichi newspaper. He married in 1918 and had three sons, one of whom became the famous conductor and composer Akutagawa Yasushi.

Akutagawa's first short story to be published was Rashomon, in 1915, and it was praised by veteran author Natsume Soseki, who became a sort of mentor. At this time Akutagawa also started writing haiku, perhaps following the example of Soseki - it is a genre in which Akutagawa's efforts only in recent times have been properly evaluated. In the next years, Akutagawa especially wrote stories set in the past, reinterpreting classical works or historical incidents, and infusing them with modern psychology. But he also wrote modern stories and, in his final years, autobiographical stories, which show his emotional exhaustion.

Akutagawa suffered from insomnia and hallucinations, a condition that had been worsened by an unhappy stint in China in 1921 for the Osaka Mainichi. While searching for new themes in his novels at a time that the "I-Novel" dominated the literary scene, he was harassed by personal misfortune: the burning down of his sister's house, the suicide of that sister's husband, the fact that as head of the family he had to look after those family members, a burden for which he didn't have the strength - also financially, as he only subsisted on his meager income as a story writer. Increasingly paranoid, in the end, he fled the world he found so uncomfortable. On Sunday, July 24, 1927, Akutagawa took a fatal dose of a sleeping aid (Veronal, a barbiturate with which Virginia Woolf had tried suicide but failed) and passed away aged 35. Beside his pillow he left a note in which he explained that he had killed himself because of “a vague unease about my future.”  In 1935, Akutagawa's friend, the writer Kikuchi Kan established the Akutagawa Prize, which is today is still considered as the most prestigious Japanese literary award for aspiring writers.

[Akutagawa Ryunosuke, photo Wikipedia]

The best stories by Akutagawa are in my view:
    1. "Hell Screen" ("Jigokuhen," 1917). Does great art demand the artist to give up human feelings to reach the pinnacle of his powers? That is the question asked in this story of a medieval painter who looks on at the sacrifice of his daughter to create the best work he can. In order to make a screen with a depiction of sinners tormented in Buddhist Hell, the painter - who can only paint from life - has a carriage set on fire in which the evil feudal lord - out of spite for his rebuffed love - has secretly chained and gagged the painter's beautiful daughter. The painter, who has been shown earlier on to have a cruel streak, is first shocked at seeing his daughter in the fatal carriage, but then when the flames leap up and she writhes in agony, he starts painting in ecstasy. Akutagawa has clearly modernized the story, for in pre-modern Japan painters always worked after templates, in the fixed style of the school to which they belonged - there was no such thing as individual originality and "painting after life." But that comment does not make the story less beautiful... "Hell Screen" was filmed several times (for example in 1969 as a Toho costume drama), and in 1953 was also made into a Kabuki play by Mishima Yukio.
    2. "Spinning Gears" ("Haguruma," 1927; the title has also been rendered as "Cogwheels"). The strongest of the autobiographical tales Akutagawa wrote in the years before his death - the reader almost feels he is pulled down the same dark hole as Akutagawa himself. The narrator is a novelist staying in a hotel in Tokyo to write stories. He takes long walks around the city, suffering from insomnia, and gradually loses his grip on reality. A whole life boils down to a few days of intense suffering, and finally inexhaustible paranoia.
    3. "In a Bamboo Grove" ("Yabu no Naka," 1922). A perfect demonstration of how humans all interpret events in different ways, and not coincidentally always to their own advantage. Pride and vanity keep us from seeing the truth (if the truth exists at all...). A samurai and his wife travel through a dense forest, they meet a robber, the samurai eventually dies, a passing-by woodcutter reports the crime. The woodcutter, a priest, the robber, the gentleman and his lady all have their own, self-serving versions of the same murder (or was it suicide?) - even the dead man speaking via a medium is still telling lies from over the grave... Together with "Rashomon" this story formed the basis for the classic film Rashomon by Kurosawa Akira. In fact, in my mind the stories are so indelibly linked to the film, that when reading them, before my eyes I see the images of Mifune Toshiro as the bandit, Kyo Machiko as the lady and Shimura Takashi as the woodcutter...
    4. "Kesa and Morito" ("Kesa to Morito," 1918). A historical story about the infatuation of a palace guard for a married court lady, told in two monologues, first by the guard, Morito, and then by the lady, Kesa. In the original story in The Rise and Fall of the Genji and Heike (around 1400), Kesa is a paragon of fidelity and she only yields to the violent Morito (in fact her cousin) in order to save her mother, who is threatened by the lovesick man. Next, she asks Morito to kill her husband, as she can not bear the shame of being the wife of two men. This is  a ruse, though, for she ties up her hair and lies in the bed of her husband, waiting for the killer. Morito by mistake cuts off the head of his beloved and mad with grief, he finally becomes a Buddhist ascetic. The original story of Kesa was also used by Kinugasa Teinosuke in the 1953 film Gate of Hell (Jigokumon). Akutagawa probes the complex motives of both Morito and Kesa - in his version Kesa commits adultery out of vanity and ambivalent feelings towards Miroto rather than sacrifice for her mother.
    5. "Dragon" ("Ryu," 1919). Another historical tale. A priest who is fond of practical jokes, puts up a sign next to the Sarusawa Pond in Nara with the message: "On the third day of the third month, the dragon of this pond will ascend to heaven." To his own surprise, a huge crowd, from high to low, is assembled at the pond on that day and later all watchers believe they indeed saw a dragon rise up from the pond - the priest is unable to convince them that the sign was just a joke. A perfect story of religious obsession (the dragon in Japan is sacred, like a deity), showing that religion could well just be a form of mass hysteria.
    6. "The Nose" ("Hana," 1916). Akutagawa's second story, which gained him much initial fame, based on a classical collection of tales. A renowned priest with an ugly and hugely long nose after much trouble finally gets rid of his nemesis - but then longs to have it back, as he is nothing special anymore. That the vain and egotistic priest is only obsessed about the state of his nose can be seen as a comment on the relative positions in human society of religion and personal vanity.
    7. "Rashomon" (1915). Akutagawa's use of the dilapidated Rashomon gate was deliberately symbolic, the gate's ruined state representing the moral and physical decay of Japanese civilization and culture in the later Heian period (12th c.). The story is quite gruesome: a manservant who has lost his job must choose between honesty and crime. We see how he gradually decides to become a thief, when observing that an old hag on the attic of the Rashomon gate is tearing out the hair of dead bodies dumped there to make wigs. The old woman becomes his first victim, in good Dostoyevsky-style... Used as the "frame" for Kurosawa's above mentioned film.
    8. "Death Register" ("Tenkibo," 1926). A short but stark and harsh record of the deaths of three close family members, containing a sad look at Akutagawa's estranged, insane mother, the elder sister he never knew and the father who gave him up as an infant. Akutagawa suggests that the difference between the living and the dead is barely perceptible, like a shimmer of heat on a summer day.
    9. "Mandarins" ("Mikan," 1919). A jaded young man is shocked into feelings of human warmth when he sees a servant girl (whom he first despised as crude and stupid) throw oranges from the train to her younger brothers. The mikan is a popular citrus fruit, consumed in great quantities in winter. 
    10. "O'er a Withered Moor" ("Karenosho," 1918). Relates the death of haiku poet Basho, and the selfish thoughts his disciples harbor at his deathbed, although supposedly "lost to boundless grief." A personal meditation that was also influenced by the early death in 1916 at age 49 of Akutagawa's mentor Natsume Soseki. The tile is based on Basho's final haiku, his death poem: Ill on a journey / Wandering in fevered dreams / O'er a withered moor. (See my post about this haiku).
    And here are two great stories that as far as I know have not yet been translated:
    • "A Painting of Autumn Mountains" ("Shuzanzu," 1921). Story set in ancient China. About "the greatest painting of all times," that is an overarching presence in the minds of two art lovers. And "in the mind" is how they want to keep it, for when they are shown a painting that is none other than the famous "greatest painting" they have been enthusing over all their lives, they find it so disappointing that they decide it is not the "real thing." Indeed, the "real thing" only exists in their imagination...
    • "The General" ("Shogun," 1922). Features a brutal character named "N Shogun," who may have been based on General Nogi, the hero of the bloody Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. The story was considered as controversial and heavily censored, but it is an interesting critique of the authorities. Another perfect anti-war tale is The Story of a Head that Fell Off in the Penguin translation by Jay Rubin.
    Besides somewhat older translations which are still being reprinted by Tuttle, we have two volumes of excellent modern renderings of Akutagawa's prose:
    Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, translated by Jay Rubin and with an introduction by Murakami Haruki (Penguin Classics, 2006)

    Mandarins: Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, translated by Charles de Wolf (Archipelago Books, 2007)
    There is only an overlap of a few stories between these two volumes. Rubin - well-known for his translations of several novels by Murakami Haruki - includes both a generous selection of the historical tales, modern fiction, and autobiographical works, while Keio University Professor De Wolf mostly selects stories set in modern times. Rubin includes nos 1-3 and 5-8 from the above list, and De Wolf nos 2, 4, 9, and 10.