Most of us English-speaking folks know the word “Rashōmon”, if only as a synonym for “conflicting points of view” and not as the title of a classic work of Japanese short fiction. A fair number of us know Akira Kurosawa, he who took the short story by that name, plus another by the same author, and fashioned one of the most famous Japanese films. But too few know Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, the author of the stories in question and a great deal besides. A fair part of that has been the way his work has been translated into English: in a scattershot fashion, with most of that material out of print for decades at a time.
Jay Rubin’s new translations of “Rashōmon” and seventeen other stories from throughout Akutagawa’s short but fiery career goes a long way towards fixing that problem. It compiles several of Akutagawa’s most important works—including, of course, “Rashōmon” and “In a Grove”, but also key stories from the end of his career (“Spinning Gears”, “The Life of a Stupid Man”), freshly-translated work that shows off his affinity for cheeky interplay (“Green Onions”, “Horse Legs”), and at least one of his other masterworks (“Hell Screen”). And the whole thing sports a manga-esque Yoshihiro Tatsumi cover—great by itself, but next time around, maybe they can get him to do illustrations within, too?
I was lucky enough to stumble across two of the earlier editions of Akutagawa’s stories in translation: Exotic Japanese Stories (the genteel title alone was a bit dismaying) and a translation of “Hell Screen” (which in turn inspired another film), “Gears” and “Stupid Man” in one volume. In all cases the translations were decently done, but at the same time I got the impression it was time for someone to take a fresh crack at them. I’d read a recent new translation of Natsume Sōseki’s Botchan—the best one of the three or so I’d come across—and felt all the more certain we could do with vigorous new versions of a lot of other titles. This volume’s proof of that. Not included here, however, is “Kappa”, a story at least as important to Akutagawa’s œuvre as “Rashōmon” itself, but of a length that really demands it be the centerpiece of another whole volume like this. One can hope.
Rashōmon has been divided into four segments that reflect both Akutagawa’s evolution as a writer and the major themes that recurred throughout his work: “A World in Decay”, “Under the Sword”, “Modern Tragicomedy”, and “Akutagawa’s Own Story”. Even when Akutagawa was just retelling old mythology in new stylistic or psychological clothing, he did it with a flair and a biting sense of irony and brevity that few of his contemporaries could match. Even something as outwardly simple as “The Spider Thread”, a Buddhist parable recast Akutagawa-style, is framed in such a way that Akutagawa’s cynicism about human nature is actually augmented by the story’s inherent moralizing.
Those who have never read “Rashōmon” itself and only know of it through Kurosawa’s movie are in for a bit of a shock: aside from the title, the locale, and maybe some superficial details about one of the characters, the film owes nothing to it. It’s more directly inspired by “In a Grove”, and for that reason the two stories have inevitably been published together since 1950. That said, “Rashōmon” epitomizes “A World in Decay”, with its rotting Heian-era locale and its hardscrabble characters, and especially its chilling conclusion that drops everyone into the abyss. “In a Grove” makes the genesis of the movie clear: the same incident, reported from multiple angles, by multiple people who each have their own reasons to be untrustworthy. Not even the words of the dead resolve anything, for surely even the dead have an agenda too.
“Under the Sword” features “Loyalty”—Akutagawa delving into one of the perennial subjects of Japanese fiction that draws on the feudal era—and two stories that deal with Japan’s adversarial relationship with Christianity in those days. In all cases what stands out most is the author’s biting humor and icy anger, but “Loyalty” also sports an uncomfortably prescient version of Akutagawa’s own future nervous breakdown, right down to many of the symptoms in question. As much as I dislike armchair psychology, I wondered if his collapse had started a great deal earlier than he had let on, and he had been drawing on those same symptoms for what inspiration they could give him here.
It’s in “Modern Tragicomedy” that Akutagawa’s biting wit really comes to the fore. Freed from the constraints of recycling myth and history (entertaining as those can be), he produces Gogol-like farce (“The Head That Fell Off”), Kafkaesque black comedy (“Horse Legs”), and in “Green Onions” something akin to the postmodern fencing matches that John Barthes would have with his readers. All are funny; “Horse Legs”, apart from its period details, has the same crazed cutting-edge humor as a Monty Python episode, where even death and resurrection (and everything in between) turn into horrible embarrassments.
The material in “Akutagawa’s Own Story” shows the author slowly turning inwards to document his personal world, and so some comments about Akutagawa himself are probably in order by now. From early on he lived in the shadow of his mother’s collapse into insanity, and plunged into books as a way to experience life that he felt unable to participate fully in. He quickly became a literary celebrity, but grew increasingly uneasy about mining Japan’s history and myth for ideas and turned more towards his own troubled life as a source of inspiration.
The last few years of Akutagawa’s life were lived under a crushing millstone of mounting mental horror. Everyday objects, like the corners of rooms, took on a menacing aspect; harmless coincidences ballooned in his brain and became indictments handed down to him by the universe itself. He was forced to support more of his own family, especially after his sister’s dissolute husband killed himself. He sought solace in drugs—“leaning, as it were, on a chipped and narrow sword” as he put it in the concluding lines to “Stupid Man”—but they only created as many problems as they solved, and soon no amount of Veronal could give him more than an hour’s rest at a time.
Akutagawa’s nerves, never all that healthy to begin with, finally imploded. Shortly after writing the two pieces that encapsulated both the whole of his life as he saw it (“Stupid Man”) and the excruciating psychic pain he found himself trapped in (“Spinning Gears”), he overdosed on sedatives provided by a pharmacologist friend and drifted off into the death that seemed like the only solace left. In the last chilling lines of “Spinning Gears” he begged: “Isn’t there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep?”, but in the end he had to do it himself. The torment of “Spinning Gears” comes off as the ultimate artist’s nightmare: to be steeped in raw experience of the most excoriating kind, and yet also not to be able to do anything with it except simmer in it.
The pattern of the writer as a brilliant but tormented outsider is something of a staple in most any society; in pre- and post-war Japan the pattern took on additional weight. Among the authors who captured the attention of a harried populace were the famously dissolute Osamu Dazai, whose prolificacy was only matched by his penchant for personal scandal and self-destruction. Like Akutagawa, everyday life for him was suffused with a ghastliness that he couldn’t escape or dispel, and a populace that was still reeling from the violence of WWII found in him something of a chronicler of that despair. Drugs and love affairs provided him with momentary reprieves, but finally one of his multiple suicide attempts succeeded, leaving behind a body of work as compelling (and undertranslated) as Akutagawa’s.
Professor Rubin’s translation work serves as an excellent model for others to follow—it’s readable, engaging, and best of all, modern without being self-dating. He’s alo erred on the side of caution when it comes to annotations—they’re appended at the end of the book—but a reasonably clued-in reader can go through any of the stories without feeling obliged to flip to the back every time they hit a superscripted number. In my case, I was already familiar with many of the noted references, so I elected to read each story straight through and then consult the notes after the fact—and discovered I knew a great deal less than I might have imagined (which, in this case, wasn’t a bad thing).
One of the dilemmas I always face when writing about Japanese culture, popular or “high”, is how to talk about it in a way that’s immediate and relevant—how to resist a label like exotic, for one. That just sounds to me like a convenient way to push the material in question into a box labeled Ancient History, and to further remove the chance for a reader to make a connection with it. With someone of Akutagawa’s caliber and tone, maybe the best way to avoid that is to talk about the man in all of his troubled brilliance first—to let the reader see him through his work as transparently as possible, and to present the work in that light. That’s precisely what’s been done here.
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