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Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories (Penguin Classics Deluxe) Paperback – 5 Apr 2007
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About the Author
Akutagawa Ryunosuke, short-story writer, poet, and essayist, one of the first Japanese modernists translated into English. He was born in Tokyo in 1892, and began writing for student publications at the age of ten. He graduated from Tokyo University in 1916 with an English Literature degree and worked as a teacher before becoming a full time writer in 1919. His mother had gone mad suddenly just months after his birth and he was plagued by fear of inherited insanity all his life. He killed himself in 1927.
Haruki Murakami (Introducer) has written eleven novels, eight volumes of short stories and numerous works of non-fiction, as well as translating much American literature into Japanese. His most famous novels are Norwegian Wood, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and Kafka on the Shore. Jay Rubin (Translator) has translated several of Murakami's works into English and is also the author of Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words. He has been professor of Japanese Literature at the Universities of Washington and Harvard.
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"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.
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.
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