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on 31 July 2008
This book was published in 2007 and contained 15 short stories by Akutagawa. As far as could be determined, six of the stories appeared in English for the first time.
The collection might surprise readers who come to this book looking only for macabre, psychologically intense stories set in the past, like "Rashomon," "In a Grove" and "Hell Screen." The translator included a few stories broadly of this type, like "The Death of a Disciple," "Fortune," and "Kesa and Morito" (1918), a brilliantly reimagined event from Japanese medieval times told in the first person, from the clashing perspectives of a man and a woman. But like other reviewers wrote, mainly this anthology seemed intended to show readers a wider variety of styles in this author's career than one usually finds. That's its major accomplishment. It might be enjoyed especially by those who are familiar with Akutagawa's best-known stories and seeking an introduction to other types of works.
There were tales here, for example, from the author's early career set in contemporary times, presented without a narrator ("The Handkerchief," "Autumn," "The Garden"). There were tales set in the present and incorporating a narrator who stood in for the author ("Mandarins," "An Enlightened Husband," "An Evening Conversation"), though the autobiographical element in this period was usually rather light. From his middle period, there was a story that was more strongly autobiographical ("At the Seashore"), based on details from the author's days as a university student.
For the late period, there were the two autobiographical ones that anthologies usually present for this author ("The Life of a Fool" and "Cogwheels"), but also one that was impressive for its restraint in not being obsessively autobiographical, though it was published just a month before his death ("Winter"). There was also a late work that wasn't directly autobiographical at all ("The Villa of the Black Crane").
The works set in the present covered such themes as an idealist from the Meiji Period who married for love but was disappointed. The passing away of a Meiji Period family and its tranquil garden in the wake of modernization, and the shabby but blackly humorous death of a patriarch. And a story about a contemporary woman who married unhappily, rare for this author in that its main character wasn't a man. None of these tales contained any violence, ghosts, h-ll screens, burning carriages, robbers or Rashomon.
Among the tales set in the present, the pieces enjoyed most in this anthology were "Mandarins" (1919), a memorable vignette of observation and feeling during a train ride taken by the narrator. And "Winter" (1927), a masterful depiction of the narrator's visit to his cousin in a Tokyo prison. This was a fictional tale, though it drew from experiences in the author's family.
Some of the other stories, interesting though they were for their themes and the scope they afforded on the author's career, for me at times lacked the precision and force of his very best works. "O'er a Withered Moor" and "The Villa of the Black Crane," for example, seemed to go on much too long, with too many characters and comparatively little reward.
The translator's style was quite graceful and in my opinion compared well with other recent anthologies. His endnotes maintained a focus on the author's stories, not the life, usefully highlighting various background aspects. For example, possible intentions behind the writing of "The Handkerchief," which was modeled on a prominent personality of the time. The fact that elements in a story about a Christian martyr were drawn from a legend surrounding the origin of the bodhisattva Kannon. And that depending on the Japanese characters used, the name of the "black crane" villa in one of the stories could also be written as "hallucination."
Other recent anthologies for Akutagawa include Jay Rubin's Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories (2006) and Seiji Lippit's The Essential Akutagawa (1999). All have their strong points in showing various sides of this author, and readers who enjoy this author would doubtless want to read all of them.