The name Ryunosuke Akutagawa is a big one in Japanese literature, especially to Kurosawa fans. Akutagawa’s story “Rashomon” was used as the setting for the famed 1950 film, even though it is his story “In a Grove” that provides the direct template for the film. Dying by suicide at the age of thirty-five in 1927, Akutagawa wrote well over one hundred short stories, many of which are praised for their “lyricism.”
This collection put out by Tuttle Publishing offers a total of six of his well-known stories, including the two mentioned, in addition to “Yam Gruel,” “The Martyr,” “Kesa and Morito,” and finally “The Dragon.” Translated by Kojima Takashi, there is also a brief introduction by Howard Hibbett, which gives a background into the author’s life, death and the work for which he is known.
Just to give a quick recap of the tales, “In a Grove” tells the story of a crime, all from different points of view. Its structure is by far the most memorable of the stories and each side has a distinct voice, separate from the others. If you’ve seen the Kurosawa film, you’ll know what to expect. Akutagawa’s story “Rashomon” deals with a samurai servant who must choose between living an honorable life that would ultimately lead him to starvation, or to save himself by becoming a thief. The ending is trite, finishing with the cliché of: “Beyond this was only darkness…unknowing and unknown.” Yawn. Despite the tale’s famous title, this story probably left the least impression on me.
“Yam Gruel” has a bit of humor in it, as it deals with a low rank samurai named Goi. In the description the narrator notes: “Goi was a very plain-looking man. His hollow cheeks made his chin seem unusually long. His lips…if we mentioned his every striking feature, there would be no end. He was extremely homely and sloppy in appearance.”
Throughout the tale he yearns for a delicacy called Yam Gruel. It’s an odd tale, but also has some insight: “A man sometimes devotes his life to a desire which he is not sure will ever be fulfilled. Those who laugh at this folly are, after all, no more than mere spectators of life.”
“The Martyr” is set in 16th Century and involves an orphan raised by Jesuits and there is a classic “twist” in this tale when questions pertaining to child paternity arise. “Kesa and Morito” is told via two different monologues. A man who feels neither love nor hate must kill someone he does not hate at the request of a lover he does not love. This is the most soap-operatic of the tales, though the structure is interesting enough and clichés are undermined in such a way that offers just the right amount of freshness. Lastly, “The Dragon” involves a priest who plans a trick against the priests of Nara because they are “habitually making fun of his nose.” He informs them that a dragon shall ascend to heaven. The story is silly but it also has underlining lessons involving gullibility and belief without question.
Overall, these stories are solid, but they did not impress upon me the way Shusaku Endo’s short stories did. They are lacking in the necessary character development to do so, and perhaps it was the translation, but the phrasing fell a bit flat. Predictable modifiers litter the text, such as “pale moonlight,” “distant past,” “chilling his heart,” “bitter cold,” etc. I was surprised by this, since Wikipedia notes that: “Akutagawa attacked author Jun'ichiro Tanizaki by claiming that lyricism was more important than structure in a story.” Oddly, after reading this collection, I can see by the pedestrian modifiers and phrasing that lyricism is not Akutagawa’s strength, but rather, structure is. Again, I can only speak about this particular translation, but even Tanizaki’s structure-based short novel The Key has more lyricism than this collection. Also, I wish there could have been more stories than just these six, especially since Akutagawa supposedly wrote over one hundred.
But because much of Japanese literature is lacking in demand, much of it goes untranslated. This is an unfortunate occurrence, and something I hope changes with time. Short fiction, due to its narrative compression, obviously has less breathing room than a full novel. Thus, every moment counts, and must be expressed as such. Tuttle’s Rashomon and Other Stories gives a brief sampling of Akutagawa's oeuvre, yet it is probably advisable to seek out more than one translator — and more of his stories — to get a full picture of his writing style.