44 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on 17 March 2007
Just to avoid any potential confusion, it should be noted that there are two separate volumes containing a selection of Akutagawa's shorter fiction in English translation, both entitled "Rashomon and Other Stories". Firstly, there is a slender but excellent volume of six tales translated by Takashi Kojima, originally published in 1952 but reissued in 1999. This contains the bulk of Akutagawa's most widely known and most accessible short stories: as well as the title story, the selection includes "In a Bamboo Grove", "Dragon", "The Martyr", "Yam Gruel" and "Kesa and Morito".
Secondly, there is a more recent and much more comprehensive collection of eighteen short stories translated by Jay Rubin, and issued as a very handsome Penguin Modern Classics edition in 2006 with a fascinating introduction by Japanese literary lion Haruki Murakami, as well as copious background notes by the translator. Again we get the popular Heian Period tales "Rashomon", "In a Bamboo Grove" and "Dragon", but also the chilling "Hell Screen" - arguably Akutagawa's masterpiece. Then there is a group of three unexpectedly moving tales set around war-torn seventeenth-century Nagasaki, including the surprisingly touching story "O-Gin" involving failed (or is it failed?) martyrdom. Another fascinating collection of three stories under the heading of "Modern Tragi-Comedy" shows that Akutagawa was capable of surprising (though admittedly dark) comedy: try the touching but determinedly anti-romantic "Green Onions", for instance. Finally, a collection of six autobiographical tales gives us very different perspectives on Akutagawa's own life, from childhood to his tortured, barbiturate-addicted twilight years before his eventual suicide. Two of these, both posthumous manuscripts, are utterly fascinating and unsettling, both in terms of style and content: "The Life of a Stupid Man", which consists of 51 short, hallucinatory, almost haiku-like episodes which must make up one of the shortest but most effective autobiographies ever written; and the haunted confessional "Spinning Gears", written just before Akutagawa's suicide, in which his disintegrating mind starts to see portents and supernatural connections everywhere around him, all pointing him towards the grave - the really unsettling aspect of this is that the reader obviously knows that this would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"Hell Screen", the other long vision of hell in this collection, makes a good contrast: written at the absolute height of Akutagawa's powers, it is a stylistic triumph, and powerfully communicates his pessimistic view of human nature in its depiction of an artist who is prepared to sacrifice everything and everyone he loves to his art, and his nobleman patron who is equally ruthless and inhuman, with perhaps the most movingly "human" part in the tale being given to a pet monkey.
Although Akutagawa's vision was unquestionably a dark one, both collections show his lighter, more humorous side too. The Penguin Modern Classics collection probably has the edge in terms of comprehensiveness, but Akutagawa's stories are surprisingly habit-forming, and readers may well find themselves wanting to acquire both volumes.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 11 January 2008
After having read the late important work, Kappa, recently, I came away with the impression that Akutagawa was a writer whose work is both hard to read and possibly incoherent - incoherent to me, at least. Kappa me seemed an inferior Gulliver's Travels, and most of the time I just couldn't work out what the author was trying to say. Was it just nonsense?
This volume of short pieces has changed my mind. Maybe it's the translation, maybe not. The duty this time has fallen to Jay Rubin, translator of many of Haruki Murakami's novels into English. These are all new Rubin translations, many of them translated into English here for the first time. These pieces are lucid and easy to read, but not similar enough to the translations of Murakami to make me think Rubin is merely imposing his own style on these texts. Unless the text was difficult when originally published, there is no reason to translate older texts from one language into an archaic version of a second language. When these texts were written, though they were full of obscure (to the Japanese at least) Western references, they were in natural Japanese. The translations, accordingly, should be in natural English. Rubin also surprises in his amazingly learned, insightful introduction and his copious, illuminating notes.
It maybe the subject matter rather than the translation which makes this an altogether different read than Kappa. Kappa is a flight of fantasy, albeit with a serious allegorical purpose. These texts are all, more or less, ground in reality. There is a section of tales about old Japan. Two of these, Rashomon and In the Bamboo Grove, both vivid and thought-provoking tales, formed the basis of Kurosawa's famous 1950s film. Other tales in this genre are highly comical (see The Nose, an adaptation of an old folk tale appearing in a much more original state in Royall Tyler's edition of old Japanese tales, published by Pantheon). Hell Screen is a much more organised story dealing with the sacrifices an artist makes for his work.
The last section features works that, when pieced together in this way, form an autobiographical narrative of Akutagawa's (tortured) life. Rubin wisely includes the caveat that the autobiographical value of these pieces should be taken with a pinch of salt. The standout piece here, and in the whole book, is Spinning Gears. Written and set in the final weeks of Akutagawa's life, the piece is a paranoid descent into hell that is, despite it's melancholy subject matter, immensely readable. You can see how suicide closely followed: there is no other route for Akutagawa to take by this stage. His closing plea for somebody to be kind enough to strangle him in his sleep is upsetting and at the same time reasonable.
This edition also benefits from a candid introduction by Murakami himself. Interestingly, Murakami rates Akutagawa as his third favourite of the great early C20 Japanese writers, after Soseki and Tanizaki.
I think that Akutagawa bears some similarity to Murakami, but whereas Murakami shines in his novels, Akutagawa never managed to sustain a narrative this far. If we are to go by this volume, though, his work is singular and of immense literary value.
"Rashomon" tells the story of a "lowly servant" sheltering from the rain on the steps of a rashomon (outer castle gate). He has recently been laid off and sits pondering his future. He hears a sound and ventures inside the rashomon to see what it was. Inside are heaps of dead bodies from the recent plague and a strange old woman wandering about, going through the corpses' clothes. The servant attacks the old woman, strips her of her clothing, throws her onto the heap, and runs off.
"In a Bamboo Grove" features a married couple and a robber. The story is told from the perspective of all witnesses and it emerges that the husband was murdered but who did it and why is the mystery.
These are the two most famous Akutagawa stories and are an excellent start to the collection. However, afterwards they become quite mediocre and even a bit tedious. The forced gothic of "Hell Screen" plods along until a near hysterical ending that undermines the seriousness of the story, that of obssession and the artistic mind. "The Nose" is a very odd story about a priest with a very big nose, has it shortened, and it grows back again. It's one of those "be grateful for what you have, accept who you are" type tales and not nearly as brilliant as Gogol's "The Nose" (Gogol being one of Akutagawa's influences and, frankly, a better short story writer).
As the title suggests there are 18 stories here but those are the only ones I can remember. The last couple in the section called "Akutagawa's Own Story" are interesting, with "Life of a Stupid Man" playing with form and presenting an interesting take on autobiography through small snippets of a life glimpsed in passing. "Spinning Gears" is the final story he wrote before his suicide (pills) and is about the slowly disintegrating mind of Akutagawa. The desperation and mounting paranoia give the reader an insight into Akutagawa's fragile and fractured mindset. The strange imagery is also fascinating. The spinning gears he sees around his eyes confuse and scare him while at every turn he sees signs of death - a decaying animal corpse, dying people in hospitals, and above all his morbid fear of going insane like his mother.
I won't say I didn't enjoy the book as there were some stories here that were excellent, and whether it's Jay Rubin's translation or not, the writing was always of a high standard. And students of literature will find reading "Rashomon" and "In a Bamboo Grove" very rewarding as will film students who are interested in the work of Kurasawa who based his film "Rashomon" on those stories. But compared to other short story writers and other Japanese writers, Akutagawa isn't nearly on their level.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 15 December 2013
I have not seen Kurosawa's film, so I came to this book uncontaminated with preconception. Akutagawa's prose is so fluid and he catches you with such beautiful quirks of description, such sharp whips of humour, and so many revelations of his humanity and depth in a short space that it's no wonder he is considered one of Japan's greatest writers. An effortless read packed with variety and pleasure. You have to buy it and see.
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 31 July 2008
This is a review of Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, translated by Jay Rubin and published in 2006. Not Rashomon and Other Stories, the name of two other books by other translators that contain only a handful of tales and were published years ago. Why Amazon groups the three books together despite their different contents, I don't know. No stars for them.
The author, Akutagawa (1892-1927), is even today considered one of Japan's most accomplished short-story writers. As some reviewers say, he's not for everyone. But readers attracted to the dark, pessimistic and atmospheric, or to the introspective and psychological subtleties conveyed with style in his best stories, might find some of his works worthwhile.
He published about 150 stories between 1914 and his death; a scholar of his work has written somewhere that about half of them are still readable. There's a big gap between the best and the rest. Before this collection, at least 60 of the stories had been translated into English since the 1930s. Here, eight more appear in English for the first time. The translator claimed nine, but a translation by Lawrence Rogers of "The Death Register" appeared earlier, in 2002.
Akutagawa's short-story career can be divided roughly into three periods. In the early works, from 1914 to 1922, at his best he drew inspiration from Japanese folktales and history and a range of non-Japanese sources, focusing on the characters' psychology to make them strikingly modern. Of the early works, the best known in English are "The Nose" (1916), "Kesa and Morito" (1918), "H-ll Screen" (1918) and "In a Grove" (1921), besides the vignette "Rashomon" (1915).
In the middle period, from 1922 or so to 1925, he sought more frequently and somewhat less successfully to make the settings of his writing more contemporary, while beginning to draw more deeply from his own life. Many of the works from the late period, from 1926 or so to his death, were heavily autobiographical, with his unease and despondency strongly apparent. Among the best-known works from the late period are "The Life of a Fool," "Spinning Gears" and "Kappa," all from 1927.
This anthology devoted close to two-thirds of its pages to the early period, with the remainder split between middle and late. The translator sought a balance between retranslations of the author's well-known pieces from throughout his career -- most of the stories already mentioned, plus the beautifully compressed moral tale "The Spider's Thread" -- and first-time translations of lesser-known ones from the early and middle periods. The first-time translations, it was claimed, showed a funnier, more shocking and more imaginative side than had appeared previously in English.
Of the first-time translations, most enjoyed were those from the middle period: "Daidoji Shinsuke: The Early Years" (1924), the author's recollections of growing up in Tokyo in which his early psychology came strikingly alive, and "The Baby's Sickness" (1923) and "The Writer's Craft" (1924), in which he depicted with concern or irony the details of his family and working life. It seems that translations of autobiographical stories from this period haven't been published widely before, if at all. So they appear to be one of the main contributions of this anthology.
Stories from the author's early period that were translated for the first time covered subjects such as harassed Christian villagers in the provinces in earlier times and an insane feudal retainer in Edo. Though maybe not on the level of his very best work from this period, they too helped provide a more complete picture of his work. In particular, his story about a Christian who renounced her religion in an attempt to save her daughter, who then died, showed again his great ability to depict the macabre in ways that can't be forgotten.
Of the retranslations, maybe what's most worthwhile is that the versions provided here of the late works "The Life of a Fool" and "Spinning Gears" are better than the previous ones, more nuanced and more polished.
The main short stories I missed in this anthology were "Kesa and Morito," a brilliantly reimagined event from Japanese medieval times told in the first person, from the clashing perspectives of a man and a woman. And "Tangerines" (1919), a memorable vignette of observation and feeling during a train ride taken by the narrator. These were missed because for me this author, except in his moral tales, is often at his best in the early stories when speaking through other characters in the first person. Or in the works before his late period when he's describing events drawn from his own life but is in full control. Otherwise, too often the earlier stories feel a bit detached or in the late pieces his nervous sensibility becomes too jarring.
The anthology seems to have been a labor of love by the translator, who reevaluated the author's complete works and retranslated a number of the best-known stories, instead of just reprinting previous versions. There was an introduction by the writer Haruki Murakami that was very useful for a Japanese perspective on Akutagawa's life, problems and significance. The collection also supplied a detailed chronology of the author's life and many scholarly footnotes. It contained several more stories than the other large anthologies, Glenn Shaw's Tales Grotesque and Curious (1930), Takashi Kojima's Japanese Short Stories (1961) and Exotic Japanese Stories (1964), Seiji Lippit's The Essential Akutagawa (1999), and Charles De Wolf's Mandarins (2007). It's the most careful and detailed of any collection for this author that I've seen.
Still, it lacked works of his that are well worth reading. For that reason, those who enjoyed it might also like the other collections, especially the ones by Lippit and De Wolf. The quality of some of the translations in Lippit varies -- unlike Rubin's book, numerous translators were involved -- and about half the titles are the same. But from the early period Lippit offers strong pieces set in the past that supplement the ones in Rubin, such as "Kesa and Morito," "Tu Tze-Chun" (1920), "Autumn Mountain" (1921) and "The Faint Smiles of the Gods" (1922). His anthology also contains Akutagawa's erudite but grim note of farewell.
The anthology by De Wolf offers a mix of the familiar, including new versions of "Tangerines" and "Kesa and Morito," and tales translated for the first time. Compared to Rubin and Lippitt, De Wolf devotes less space to the macabre early stories set in the past and more to the variety of styles in the author's career. There are a number of tales from the early period set in contemporary times, for example, including "The Garden" (1922). And "Winter" (1927), a late but masterful story that isn't obsessively autobiographical.
Shaw's anthology also contains earlier works well worth reading, such as "Mori Sensei," "Lice" and "The Wine Worm," as well as good versions of "The Handkerchief" and "The Ball."
This reader hopes that translators of future collections for this author will take the opportunity to introduce into English a few more of his still-untranslated works, among them "The Story of St. Christopher" (1919), which has been called a stylistic tour de force, "A Day in the Life of Oishi Kuranosuke" (1917), and "Lechery" (1921). Or maybe even something from his essays, like "Words of a Dwarf." Aside from the interest of his best writing, he stands out as one of the more sensitive writers of his time and place during a period of massive change. And not least, as a personality.
3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 23 April 2008
You have to read this book. It contains some of the most stunning writing I have ever encountered. You dont have to be a fan of the short story or of Japanese literature to appreciate this masterpiece!! You may be familiar with some Kurosawa films based on these short tales. Probably my favourite historical tale is 'The Hell Screen' about a maniacal artist who will go to any extreme in order to complete his depiction of hell. I also love 'In the Grove.' It is very inventive in the way it is told, as we read many different viewpoints on an apparent murder. It is hard to see the truth of the matter and I just love the way the different people's viewpoints contradict and mingle (filmed as Rashomon I believe).
There are also contempary tales in this collection. I feel the best ones are the ones written towards the end of Akutagawa's life, which are basically autobiographical. Anyone who suffers from depression and migraines will empathise with him. From reading these tales of anxiety, pressure, paranoia and failure, you can see how he felt in the months leading up to his suicide at the age of 35. There are also tales of bitterness towards his family and of being not being able to be with the woman he truly loved. And I find some of the writing in these stories to be utterly beautiful. Read this now, you will not be dissapointed! Amazing.
5 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 9 May 2007
Let's be clear, this is a review for the 18 story collection, as that is the only one i have read.
The early stories are fantastic, and paint a world of twisted morality and hardship. Akutagawa is an artist in his writing, and has an unsurpassed ability to tell a story and set a scene.
However, none of this compared to the last two stories in the book. These are the life of a stupid man' and 'spinning gears. These two show Akutagawa's growing insanity, completely through his own perspective. This is a must buy book. But it now! No, stop deciding and do it, now!
1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 21 June 2009
Very good book. The introduction was long but worth reading, and the notes in the back are useful for those who aren't so good on their japanese general knowledge. The stories are a wonderful change to the typical western style and very well written to captivate the reader.
0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 17 June 2013
A collection of tales/folk lore from Japan, a good read but some of the stories get a little long winded