Books: Ryunosuke Akutagawa: The Beautiful and the Grotesque

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2010-11-02 13:47:19 No comments

The Timeless and the Dated


There’s little more frustrating than truly great writing in a middling package. Ryunosuke Akutagawa: The Beautiful and the Grotesque was originally published in 1960 under the unfortunate name Exotic Japanese Stories, and the approach it presents to Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s timeless work is encapsulated by that wince-inducing title. As annotated and translated by John McVittie (in conjunction with Takashi Kojima), I am reminded of some truly beautiful paintings stuck in the most tasteless of frames.

I’m not positive the book having been published in 1960 is the sole reason it comes off as such a stodgy artifact of its moment. When Donald Keene translated Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human in 1958 and wrote an introduction for that book, his opening paragraph for that essay contained this sentence: “[With the praise for the English translation of Dazai’s earlier novel The Setting Sun] … there was no trace of the condescension often bestowed on writers emanating from remote parts of the world, and for once nobody thought to use the damning adjective ‘exquisite’ about an unquestionably Japanese product.”

To his credit, McVittie does not use the word exquisite—at least, I didn’t see him use it—but Keene’s own word condescension comes to mind more than once, since McVittie says many things in his introduction and story headers that grate hard on the ears of a cosmopolitan 21st-century reader. We are, I hope, no longer inclined to think of non-Western writers, especially Japanese writers, as some alien if charming Other. But McVittie’s words seem to be a product of that mindset even if that’s not what he intended, and his introduction is embarrassing in a way only possible to the most sincere. “So naïve, so formal a study as ‘The Badger’ presents one of the most satisfying—thought sometimes one of the most cruel—aspects of the Japanese mind. The Japanese have still not lost the capacity to believe.”

Well, I believe this sort of patronizing exoticism is part of what has kept a good deal of Japan’s best writing from being taken seriously for decades outside of academic circles. It reinforces the idea that such work is a curio, the product of a quaint and superstitious culture, and it unwittingly buys into exactly the kind of we-Japanese thinking that the best and brightest Japanese writers, Akutagawa included, were themselves trying to transcend.

It’s not unusual to think of modern Japanese authors of international stature—Murakami (both Ryu and Haruki), Kenzaburo Oe, even writers of nominally popular fiction, like Miyuki Miyabe or Natsuo Kirino—as being at least provisionally cosmopolitan in their work. They may start with Japan but they don’t always stop there. With better translations and a less insular approach to their works, it’s now possible to go back to folks like Natsume Soseki or, yes, Akutagawa, and see writers who also began with the Japan they knew and expanded outwards by embracing material that didn’t limit itself to a given place or moment in time. They lived in an age where such things were just stirring, and we deserve to look with fresh eyes at how they documented and responded to that.


That brings me back to The Beautiful and the Grotesque. Change in title aside, this is not really a revised edition of the book, unless you count the excellent illustrations by Yuko Shimizu that replace the original (but no less striking) paper-cut pictures by Masakazu Kuwata. The original foreword, translations and annotations have all been preserved as-is, despite their flaws. But it duplicates no material from the recent (and excellent) Jay Rubin translation of Rashomon and 17 Other Stories, so even if this compilation’s approach is that much more dated it still serves as a good companion volume to that other book. And translation problems aside, Akutagawa’s voice comes through—his biting wit, his dark bemusement at human deviousness and hypocrisy, his merging of his homeland’s mythic heritage with modern thought, his faith in man’s ability to be faithless and craven even when offered better things. He was a wonderful writer, capable of everything from cheery moments-in-the-sun to broad farce, somber introspection and flat-out horror, and there is a little of each of those sentiments in this book.

For my money, the first story remains the best. “The Robbers”, a Heian-era tale (same as “Rashomon”), was drawn from the Konjaku Monogatari and reworked to fit both modern psychological insights and Akutagawa’s cynical sensibilities. Here, a pair of brothers—the ugly Taro and the handsome Jiro—clash for control of both their bandit gang and the affections of a woman. They doubt each other only slightly less than they doubt themselves, and after a battle of excruciating length (but written with such visual flamboyance it’s impossible not to get swept up in it) their real allegiances prove themselves. Akutagawa drills mercilessly into his characters’ heads, showing how despite their bluster and confidence and charisma, they are all shot through with weaknesses they will do anything to avoid admitting to their fellow man. “After all,” says Taro at one point, “everyone is a beast.”

Their beastliness, both self-stated and outwardly demonstrated, is contrasted with the old husband-and-wife pair who head up the bandit gang. The husband has seduced the step-daughter—the same woman the two brothers vie for. Or perhaps it was she who seduced him, and we are allowed to believe more than one kind of human vileness is at work at the same time, and that there are no heroes anywhere here, except in our own minds. Not even among the brothers, one whom “heroically” rescues the other only so they can go on to commit another atrocity together.

The story’s such a rich and variegated piece of work, so visual and in so many different ways, I’m surprised it was never made into a movie. In fact, it poses far fewer narrative difficulties (and more opportunities) than “Rashomon / In a Grove” did when they were hybridized into Kurosawa’s legendary film and then remade endlessly. If something like Akutagawa’s story “The Truck” can be filmed—which I suspect was only possible because of Akutagawa’s standing reputation—why not this story? Seeing the fight scene with the dogs alone, featured on the book’s cover illustration and narrated with a second-by-second precision that’s hair-raising, would be worth the cost of a ticket.

Akutagawa was highly conscious of how Japan and the West did, and did not (or could not) see each other. He read many Western authors, studied English literature during his time at college, and maintained an active interest in things non-Japanese right up until the end: he namechecked Kleist and Racine and Empedocles in his suicide note (who today speaks of even any one of those, let alone all three?), and even slid into his final sleep while reading the Bible—although perhaps more for the wealth of cultural touchstones it provided (like the Konjaku) than for any religious reason.

Being large and containing multitudes, however, did not save him, and some precursor of this understanding permeates the story “The Handkerchief”. It opens with a professor of law reading Strindberg, surrounded in his home by both Japanese and Western furniture—only to be confronted by a woman in formal Japanese clothes, the mother of one of his students who has died of a sudden attack of peritonitis. Her self-control and reserve are a model for admiration, he thinks; something for him to brag about to his (Western!) wife—at least until he realizes that her hinting at how much she was holding back might well have been a performance. The more he knows of such emotional manipulation, intended and un-, from his exposure to the West, the stranger his own world seems to him. The seeds of a great doubt about what is contrivance and honesty, and what any culture paints as such, have taken root. East is no longer East, and West is no longer West, because the twain have met inside him.


Apart from “Rashomon / In a Grove”, most discussion of Akutagawa’s work revolves around his satire, “The Kappa”, one of the major inclusions here. It is not, I feel, Akutagawa’s undisputed masterpiece as it is sometimes proclaimed to be, even though it is mordantly funny and makes as much use of the absurdity of the modern as it does the richness of its mythological source material. The story is a basic Swiftian inversion of morality, where the (insane) narrator journeys to the underworld of the “Kappa”—a prankish, nixie-like creature common to Japanese folklore—and witnesses one social convention after another upended and shaken until all the nonsense falls out of its pockets.

Most of the story is an assembly line of such inversions, and many of them are in fact quite funny. By default, Kappa find human ways idiotic and silly. In contrast to our world, where humans are born without ever consenting to do so, Kappa babies are asked if they do indeed want to come into the world. The narrator witnesses one of them refusing—“I don’t want to be born!”—and being promptly aborted. Suicide in reverse: instead of waiting a whole lifetime to figure out you don’t want to live, the Kappa deal with that upfront. Or at the very least they waste little time in getting to the point:

… Kappa children can, of course, walk and chatter soon after they are born. … [T]here was once a child who, on his twenty-sixth day after birth, lectured on the existence or nonexistence of God; it is said, however, that the child died in its second month.

The nameless narrator meets and befriends Kappa from all walks of life: artists, musicians, captains of industry, the doctor who treats him on his first arrival. In every corner of life there is what seems like lunacy to his eyes—all accepted as normal, even positive, to Kappa. Workers put out of a job by increasing mechanization are required by law to be ground into meat (another very Swiftian jab). Politics is an elaborate charade, where a party leader’s brazen lies are sanctioned because everyone knows he’s lying in the first place. Music which “no ear can appreciate” is banned; this happens during a concert which starts off pleasantly enough but quickly degenerates into debris-flinging chaos on the order of the premiere of The Rites of Spring (or maybe the Stooges’ Metallic K.O. bootleg, wherein one can hear beer bottles smashing against the stage, the performers, the instruments…). Crimes can be dismissed if the circumstances that prompted them also disappear. Those who kill themselves can be reached in the beyond through a medium (pace the closing segment of “In a Grove”), and claim they can always “suicide back to life” with a pistol if they get tired of the spiritual realm. And towards the end one of the Kappa surfaces in the modern world: he uses the fire hydrants as a kind of subway.

It’s all grimly amusing, to be sure, but something about “Kappa” is lacking. On reading it the first time, years ago, I sensed—without quite knowing how to explain it—that Akutagawa was not using Swiftian satire as a starting point for his own extrapolation so much as he was just borrowing the general format for his own extended checklist of satire-by-inversion. His ultimate insight is that much of social convention, or what we call humanity, is an invention of circumstance and is clung to more as (in the words of Vilfredo Pareto) a social residue, more than anything else. But Akutagawa doesn’t so much go anywhere with the idea as simply pitch a circus tent over it. That said, at least he doesn’t seem to be subscribing to the notion, both sentimental and dated, that madness was a kind of psychic liberation, that in a mad world only the mad are truly sane, etc.

Then again, maybe “Kappa” falls short for us because it was meant to be personal and not universal. On re-reading the story in the context of Akutagawa’s mental misery (which was blossoming fiercely at the time), it seems if anything like an allegory for his own psychic discomfort—his sense of being ill at ease in a world which seemed to offer him little but the promise of either lingering madness or early death. The biting insight and outward-directed observation of “The Robbers” (1917) had giving way to the death-eating misery that would peak in his final years: “Spinning Gears”, “A Fool’s Life”. Most repugnantly reflected in the funhouse mirror of “Kappa” was Akutagawa himself, as seen through the character of Tokk, the Kappa poet whose delusions, insomnia and suicide foreshadow the author’s own final disintegration. Akutagawa wrote the story in a mere two weeks during the final six months of his life, and some hint of what I take to be Akutagawa’s own approach—or maybe his own dissatisfaction with his approach—is right in the story itself when one Kappa peers between his legs and declares, “As I feel so gloomy, I was looking at the world upside down. But it is, after all, the same place.”


It is difficult, I admit, to read Akutagawa and not compulsively assign larger meanings to all that we see, especially when they seem to stem directly from his unraveling. Some of this is probably unavoidable when dealing with Japanese authors of stature in the last century or so, a dismaying percentage of whom have killed themselves: Akutagawa himself, Yukio Mishima, Osamu Dazai, Takeo Arishima, Yasunari Kawabata. (Kawabata’s death may well have been accidental—it seems he mistakenly unplugged a gas valve while preparing a bath—but he was visibly depressed in the last years of his life and clearly flirting with the idea of suicide. More than once he told friends things like “When I go on a trip, I keep hoping the plane I’m on will crash.”)

If anyone else on that list invites the same level of scrutiny, seeing how the man’s work and the man’s death fed into each other, it is Mishima. One could scarcely ask for a more striking literary figure: he sold well in his own country, courted controversy endlessly, wrote with flair and vigor and prolificacy. But even apart from his slide into Left-baiting, reactionary political theater and his own eventual suicide, his work has not held up that well. It comes off as polished to a fault, stagy in a way that worked for his plays but not his novels, the works he is most remembered for in the first place. If he intended his death to retroactively give his writing that much more gravity, he only succeeded in making his career seem that much more of a ploy—the act of someone more interested in notoriety than truth, literary of otherwise.

There is none of this synthetic, arm’s-length, second-guessing stuff in Akutagawa’s work. The bemusement that rises from the pages in a story like “Green Onions” or “Gratitude” is no one’s but his; the same with the horror that emanates from “Spinning Gears” or “Death Register”. I can’t imagine Mishima ever having written anything as nakedly revealing as “Life of a Stupid Man” or “The Baby’s Sickness”, two stories where Akutagawa’s helplessness, depersonalization and guilt rise from apparently-innocuous lines like bitter smoke. Even Akutagawa’s rewrites of fairy tales or legends have a steely undertone to them, a humor that somehow manages to make us feel like we’re in on the cosmic joke too.

This must have been harder to pull off than it seems, since at his most emotionally incendiary, Akutagawa’s main sentiment is one of unparalleled disgust at human arrogance. It would be difficult for any writer to produce something like “Hell Screen” and not make the audience feel like they were invited into burning along with the characters. But Akutagawa never seemed to be including the reader as one of his enemies. If anything, the fact that you were reading him at all meant you had in his eyes taken that many more steps away from the rest of the monsters. You were letting him that much closer to you, and vice versa, and we would both be all the better for it.


Akutagawa always seemed keenly aware of how being a writer automatically set one apart from others. If he had no prescription for how that schism could be closed over, he at least could see it for what it was. In “Absorbed in Letters”, Akutagawa turned to a profile of one of Japan’s most commercially-successful authors of antiquity, Bakin Takizawa, whose Hakkenden has since been the subject of endless retellings (literary, cinematic, graphical, animated). It opens not with Takizawa at his writing desk, but in the public bath, steeping himself both in hot water and an overheard criticism of his work—a criticism which indicts him for producing nothing original (Hakkenden was inspired by a Chinese work) or contemporary (as opposed to, say, Ikku Jippensha, a cheery chronicler of everyday peoples’ foibles). At home, poor Takizawa is beset by more challenges. His publisher wants to squeeze work out of him by comparing him to another writer. He remembers letters from another writer asking to be taken on as a disciple, which he also had to refuse. Only the company of a fellow artist, a painter, and his own affectionate family stir within him the impulse to soldier on—even if his own family’s main concern is that he doesn’t bring in quite enough money. But in the art there is fulfillment, a sense of eternity, a plan for a future that includes the wonder of the present moment. The story was written in 1914, long before Akutagawa began his decline into mental illness, but there is one paragraph that is tinged with foreboding all the same:

In this aging man’s heart hovered the shadow of death. [Emphasis Akutagawa’s.] But death having once threatened him seemed to have nothing formidable to conceal. Rather it was that the sky … quietly stirred in him a longing for the comfort of Nirvana. Released from all soil and toil, if he could sleep in that death—if he could sleep, dreamless, like an innocent child—that would be a wondrous thing, so weary was he of living. Over many decades he had come to feel the ennui of unceasing creative work. He was tired ….

It is, as we learn, through “unceasing creative work” that he rejuvenates himself all the same—so much so, we are led to believe, that the real Takizawa even continued to write by employing his daughter as a transcriptionist long after his own eyesight failed. And even the flavor of the longing for death is different here from the longing Akutagawa expressed at the end of “Spinning Gears” when he wrote these pitiable, mortifying words: “Isn’t there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep?” It is a darkness that is dispelled, with whatever naïveté is still possible for a man of his age, and with the striking of creative lightning—something Akutagawa even documented in “Gears” as well, but at a moment in his life when the magic of the artistic impulse was no longer able to drive out his demons. I don’t think Akutagawa believed in the tired homily that it was only because of adversity that an author could produce truly great work; if anything, his own life seemed to be evidence good work could be produced despite such things. “Spinning Gears” was the work of a man looking for something, anything, to cling to, and finding his search blocked at all turns; “Letters” portrays someone who had it all along, and just needed to see it for what it was.


The creative impulse, the urge to make others believe even if only for the time one has one’s eyes on the page, brings me at last to the story McVittie spoke of when he wrote those irksome words “The Japanese have still not lost the capacity to believe.” That story is “The Badger”, a short tale of how the belief in the enchanting quality of those creatures as enshrined in Japanese folklore leads first one, then another, to believe in their power. “Between bewitchment and belief in bewitchment there is not much distinction.” (Emphasis his.) At the end he implores that we must not be “contemptuous” of badgers—which could be read as a plea for the continued power of the imagination, or (as I prefer to read it) a warning that we must not take lightly the human capacity to deceive one’s self, since self-deception can spread like a brushfire and too easily cause truth to become intermixed with lies and confabulation.

Maybe this seems a strange insight to derive from any author, whose main business is making things up and being entertaining about it. Especially Akutagawa, who disliked naturalism and preferred lyricism to formal storytelling, perhaps as ways to further enhance his brand of bewitchment. But making things up is not the same as cant or lying or dishonesty. We know full well the author is inventing, but he does so according to both personal and universal rules. The personal rules are laid down by him within the context of his work; the universal ones are drawn from the world and the people his work most closely resembles, typically our own world and the humanity we know. We more readily believe in a man who can fly than a man who decides with no preamble and no repercussions that it’s okay for a stranger to kill his children. The former we call merely suspension of disbelief, while the latter we call gross inobservancy of human nature. The former can lead us to new insights. The latter leads us into a brick wall. Akutagawa may have given us Kappa that ate their own dead (and passed laws to ensure this continued to be the case), but he did this in the context of what we would see in it—and hinted that to force ourselves to embrace the wholly inhuman as a kind of existential character-building exercise, with no idea of what was really at risk, would only leave us longing for madness as an escape. (Feel free to consider that my most meticulous reading of Kappa, if simply calling it second-hand Gulliver falls short of the mark.)

Akutagawa saw little sign that the Japan he lived in would be any less self-deceiving than the Kappa-dotted, badger-bewitched Japan of old. At least there the delusion had an earthier origin: the homegrown fancy (shilling for superstition) of a civilization. The modernity embraced by Japan in the 1920s, and later in the ‘30s after Akutagawa’s death, fell away from making a livable world and towards the service of the imperious and violent. It was not by itself a civilizing, life-giving force. For it to become such a thing, one had to also bring to the table a keen wit, a sense of humor, and a measure of skepticism. Akutagawa had all three, and put them into the service of his work. It is a tragedy we did not have those things for longer than we did, but what we do have manages to still speak for itself, and it even speaks through a translation that has dated and cries out to be revisited anew.

Tags: Japan Ryūnosuke Akutagawa books review