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||Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892-1927)|
Short-story writer, poet, and essayist, one of the first Japanese modernists translated into English. Akutagawa published no full-length novel. He was a stylistic perfectionist, who often favored macabre themes. His short stories 'In a Grove' and 'Rashomon' inspired Akira Kurosawa's classic film from 1950. In 1935, the writer's friend Kikuchi Kan established the Akutagawa Prize, which is generally considered among the most prestigious Japanese literary awards for aspiring writers.
"Yes, sir. Certainly, it was I who found the body. This morning, as usual, I went to cut my daily quota of cedars, when I found the body in a grove in a hollow in the mountains. The exact location? About 150 meters off the Yamashina stage road. It's an out-of-the-way grove of bamboo and cedars." (from Rashomon and Other Stories, tr. by M. Kuwata, Takashi Kojima)
Akutagawa Ryonosuke was born in Tokyo into a family which had lived for generations in the shitamachi district of Tokyo, famous for its cultural traditions. Shortly after Akutagawa's birth his mother, Fuku, became insane. His father, Niihara Toshizo, a dairyman, was not able to take care of his son, and Akutagawa was adopted by his uncle, Akutagawa Dosho, whose surname he assumed. In 1913 Akutagawa entered the Tokyo Imperial University, where he studied English, graduating in 1916 with a thesis on William Morris. Throughout his life, Akutagawa remained a voracious reader of the Western novels.
While still at the university, Akutagawa started to write short fiction. His first literary work was a 1914 translation of Anatole France's Balthasar (1889). With his friends, Kikuchi Kan and Kumé Masao, he founded the literary magazine Shin Shicho, where he published 'Rashomon' (or 'The Rasho Gate,' 1915). The tale, set in 12th-century Kyoto, depicts a ruined city, where a former servant tries to survive and must choose between immorality and virtue. The novelist Natsume Soseki was impressed by Akutagawa's work and encouraged him in his writing.
After graduating Akutagawa took up teaching at a naval school in Yokosuka and married Tsukamoto Fumiko. Primarily Akutagawa wanted devote himself entirely to literature and refused invitations to teach at the universities of Tokyo and Kyoto. Eventually he resigned to become a full-time contributor to the Osaka Mainichi newspaper. During his most active phase in 1921, Akutagawa traveled to China as a correspondent, but due to health problems he was not able to write any articles there.
Akutagawa created almost all his central works in the ten years before his suicide. His early short pieces were carefully plotted historical tales, but toward the end of his short life, he focused more on his own emotional state and contemporary settings. Akutagawa gained first fame with 'The Nose' (1916), which drew on Tales of Times Now Past (ca. 1107). In the Gogolian story a Buddhist monk troubled by his oversize, dangling nose.
European and Chinese literature was familiar for Akutagawa. He
was a regular customer of Maruzen, Tokyo's foreign-language boohoo, and
was interested in such writers as Strindberg, Mérimée,
Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, and Tolstoy, all of whom he read in
English translations. Although he never visited West, his
understanding of Western mind was profound.
In 'Cogwheels,' Akutagawa refers to two of his favorite authors: "On one of the shelves upstairs at Maruzen I found Strindberg's Tale and read a few pages while standing there. It describes experiences not unlike my own. And it had a yellow cover. I put it back and pulled out a thick book my hand happened to fall on. In it what should there be but an illustration of cogs with eyes and noses not unlike human beings! It was a collection of pictures by inmates of a lunatic asylum assembled by some German. Even in my depression, my spirit could be felt rising in rebellion and with the desperation of an addicted gambler kept opening book after book. Oddly enough, almost every book had clearly hidden stings in its sentences and illustrations. Every book? Even in Madame Bovary, which I had read many times before, I felt I was only the bourgeois Monsieur Bovary in the end." (translated by Will Petersen) In his autobiographical works Akutagawa also shows interest in the debate about socialism and social classes. Japanese sources for his stories include Konjaku monogatari, works of Tokigawa, early Meiji anecdotes, and Christian writing as in ‘'Kirishitohoro shonin-den,’ about the former Saint Christopher.
Akutagawa's accuracy in his expression is seen in the way he
describes sensations ("Only for an instant, on his dry lips he felt the
touch of the butterfly wings. But years afterward, on his lips, the
wing's imprinted dust still glittered."), everyday items ("An iron wine
bottle. Some time or other this finely incised wine bottle had taught
him the beauty of form."), and milieus ("Thirty years old, he
had for some time been in love with a vacant lot. A ground of moss, on
it broken bricks, fragments of roof tile. But in his eyes a landscape
by Cezanne.") Poetic interpretation of his
observations and nearly aristocratic aestheticism, connected Akutagawa to the
feeling and attitudes of remote generations of writers. However, he was
not blind to the struggle of his own generation, and its radicalism,
which can be read from his essay 'What is Proletarian Literature',
written in 1927. Akutagawa prognosed that the bourgeoisie will sooner
or later yield their position to the proletariat.
The famous debate in 1927 between Akutagawa and Tanizaki Jun'ichirō
about "plotless novel" began when the latter remarked that he was
coming to like novels with well-made plots. "To exclude the
appeal of plot is to discard the special privilege of the novel form."
Tanizaki dismissed fictional works that merely describe the author's
personal life. Akutagawa questioned the value of an
"interesting plot" in favour of the "depth of poetic spirit". He argued that a novel without a story is the purest form of fiction, and
moreover, "the novel without a proper story is not merely a novel
depicting details of one's personal life. It is, among all
novels, the closest one to poetry."
Akutagawa wrote some 150 stories several of which have been filmed. 'Rashomon' together with 'In a Grove' ('Yabunonaka'), about a rape-and -murder case in tenth-century Kyoto, formed the basis for Akira Kurosawa's famous film, which was unsuccessfully remade in Hollywood in 1964 under the title 'Outrage'. Many of Akutagawa's earlier pieces were set in the ancient Japan, but he brought into them a modern psychological point of view. 'Autumn' (1920), 'The Garden' (1922), and 'The House of Genkaku' (1927) represented his move toward realism. Often he depicted dark undercurrents of the mind and favored macabre themes. In the feverish 'Hell Screen' Akutagawa examined artistic creativity and asked the question, what happens if one is ready to break all moral rules to fulfil one's artistic goals, in this case to kill. The same idea of using a painter as a vehicle for horror, had been used by LeFanu and Poe.
The story is narrated in first person by a side character, an eyewitness of the events. Yoshihide, the protagonist, is a bad-tempered but great artist. His only daughter Yuzuki, gentle and devoted to his father, works as a maid for the Lord of Horikawa, who bids Yoshide to paint a picture of hell. The artist laborers day and night and his apprentices are in a constant state of terror because of his weird behavior. Finally he tells his lord that he cannot paint anything for which a model is lacking and one part remains unfinished: a carriage falls down through the sky. A court lady in it writhes in agony, her hair in disordered in the raging fire. After some days, the scene is arranged to the artist; a woman is burned but she is Yuzuki. "Then, wonderful to say, over the wrinkled face of this Yoshihide, who had seemed to suffer on a previous occasion the tortures of hell, over his face the light of an inexpressible ecstasy passed, and forgetful even of his lordship's presence he folded his arms and stood watching. It was almost as if he did not see his daughter dying in agony. Rather he seemed to delight in the beautiful color of the flames and the form of a woman in torment." A month later the Hell Screen is completed and Yoshihide hangs himself in his studio. "The first and most prevalent rumor was that he had burnt Yoshihide's daughter to death in resentment over thwarted love. But there was no doubt that it was the daimyo's purpose to punish the perversity of the artist, who was painting the Hell Screen, even if he had to kill someone to do so."
a few exceptions, Akutagawa’s last pieces in which he
examined his own work and place in the world as an artist, did not gain
such success as his older tales. On his debate with Tanizaki he was on
the losing side, but his arguments have not lost their relevance.
Akutagawa committed suicide by taking an overdose of veronal on July
24, 1927, at the age of thirty-five. He fell into sleep reading the
Bible. To many, his death signified the end of the era of
intellectualism and aestheticism; accroding to Marxists critics, it was
"one aspect of a collapsing bourgeoisie".
Paranoid and delusional, Akutagawa had suffered from visual hallucinations, believing, among othe things, that maggots were in his food. Six months before his death, Akutagawa's brother-in-law had killed himself to escape his debts; Akutagawa was expected to look after the family, a burden, for which he did not have the strength. In his suicide note, entitled 'A Note to a Certain Old Friend,' the author wrote: "The world I am now in is one of diseased nerves, lucid as ice. Such voluntary death must give us peace, if not happiness. Now that I am ready, I find nature more beautiful than ever, paradoxical as this may sound. I have seen, loved, and understood more than others." Akutagawa's autobiographical works include 'The Early Life of Daidoji Shinsuke' (1925), which was left unfinished, 'A Fool's Life' (1927), and 'Cogwheels' (1927). His last important work, Kappa (1927), depicted supernatural water creatures (kappa), familiar from folklore. In the satirical story, an upside-down version of Japanese life, an inmate in a mental asylum, Patient No 23, tells about his travels in an underground country, which he do no want to leave. Akutagawa wrote the story in less than two weeks, in a creative outburts before his death.
For further reading: Modern Japanese Literature by D. Keene (1956); Akutagawa Ryunosuke: His Concepts of Life and Art by K. Tsuruta (1968); 'Akutagawa Ryunosuke: The Literature of Defeatism' by T. Arima, in The Failure of Freedom (1969); Akutagawa: An Introduction by Beongsheon Yu (1972); World Authors 1950-1970, ed. by John Wakeman (1975); Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature by Makoto Ueda (1976); The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature by H. Yamanouchi (1978); Akutagawa and Dazai: Instances of Literary Adaptation, ed. by James O'Brien (1988); Parallelisms in the Literary Vision of Sin by Tsutomu Takahashi (1997); Encyclopedia of World Literature, vol. 1, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Topographies of Japanese Modernism by Seiji Lippit (2002); Akutagawa and Dazai: Instances of Literary Adaptation by James O'Brien ( 2004); Holy Ghosts: the Christian Century in Modern Japanese Fiction by Rebecca Suter (2015) - Note: Special thanks to Sachin Gandhi who gave the idea for this page and helped with the quotations. - PL