Original Title: 羅生門 (Rashōmon)
Author: Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川 龍之介, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke)
Translator: Jay Rubin
Genres: Literature, Japanese Literature
What happened to the lowly servant, no one knows.
Stories in this book:
- In a Bamboo Grove
- The Nose
- Dragon: The Old Potter’s Tale
- The Spider Thread
- Hell Screen
- Dr. Ogata Ryosai: Memorandum
- The Story of a Head That Fell Off
- Green Onions
- Horse Legs
- Daidōji Shinsuke: The Early Years
- The Writer’s Craft
- The Baby’s Sickness
- Death Register
- The Life of a Stupid Man
- Spinning Gears
Ryūnosuke Akutagawa was actually one of the few Japanese authors that I knew before I started this project. He’s one of the more well-known ones out there. There was a collection of his stories in my school’s library, but when I started to read them, I wasn’t impressed. The translation was awkward and the story was confusing, and I only finished a couple before I gave it up and returned the book.
It turns out, I am not alone in my opinion. I mention this to emphasize the fact that a good story can be ruined due to a terrible translation, and that it’s better to see which ones are available before picking one up.
This collection is much, much different. The writing is beautiful, and Akutagawa’s creative genius shines through. The tales are morbid, strange, and cynical. Hell Screen, the longest one in the book, was one of the ones that I tried to read previously. The first time, it was like trying to complete a puzzle with pieces that didn’t go together; this time, I was absorbed completely.
Akutagawa has been compared to Atsushi Nakajima on multiple occasions, but to be honest, he reminds me of Osamu Dazai. Both authors committed suicide, and death and alienation are two recurring themes in their work. There are multiple differences in style – Dazai’s No Longer Human felt very sad in a numb, hollow way, whereas Akutagawa’s stories are more dramatic – but both authors suffered in similar ways, and it’s reflected in their writing.
–I don’t have the strength to keep writing this. To go on living with this feeling is painful beyond description. Isn’t there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep?
The most controversial ones are Akutagawa’s non-fictional work. (Daidōji Shinsuke: The Early Years – Spinning Gears.) There is especially criticism regarding The Life of a Stupid Man, Akutagawa’s “autobiography”, told in fragments. Akutagawa’s personal life, though interesting, is inconsequential to me regarding the story’s merit; it didn’t affect how I read it. I loved it because I thought that it was beautifully written, and the way it’s sectioned gives it a poetic feel that I particularly liked. I wasn’t that impressed with Spinning Gears, neither was I O-Gin or Green Onions, but as a whole I think this is a great illustration of Akutagawa’s craft.
Akutagawa was, in a way, tragic. His skills once put him at the top – but changing times, mingled in with his own doubt and other’s criticism, resulted in his decline. That is why although quite a few of his works are considered to be masterpieces, there are others that are far less than that. I don’t think Akutagawa’s work is something that you will always love 100% of the time, but an author is never perfect, and many of his stories are true classics.