A descent from Kyoto into hell

Ryunosuke Akutagawa: Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories

I first encountered the work of Ryunosuke Akutagawa as an undergraduate at Bristol University. I used to go every week to see a subtitled foreign film, put on I think by the film studies department. This was my introduction to world cinema.

The first sequence of films I saw included some classics of Japanese cinema, mostly by the brilliant director Akira Kurosawa.

One of the first of these films – and one that impressed me so much I can still play back key scenes in my mind decades later – was ‘Rashomon’. It was much later that I learned it was based on two stories by Akugatawa. These are the first in the Penguin Classics collection: Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories.

Akutagawa cover ‘Rashomon’, the first of these, is based on a 12th-century tale, and was first published in 1915 when Akutagawa was a 23-year-old student. It’s set in the crumbling gatehouse at the southern entrance to Kyoto and the avenue leading to the imperial palace during the dying days of the Heian period. The tale is set at the decaying end of the era, and the once-magnificent gate is in ruins. Only the scruffy servant, who has a weird encounter among the corpses that are abandoned in the roof chamber, survives in the film, which preserves the rain-soaked setting but not the dark, cynical tale itself.

‘In a Bamboo Grove’, the second story, provides the main influence on Kurosawa’s 1950 film, which is also told from multiple points of view, each of them adding a twist, and warping the reader’s perspective of ‘reality’. None of the conflicting accounts is entirely reliable, and all are cynically self-serving.

The other four in this group of early Akutagawa stories, grouped under the heading ‘A World in Decay’ by the translator, Jay Rubin, are also re-tellings of medieval Japanese folktales. The best is ‘Hell Screen’, about an artist’s Faustian obsession with creating the perfect representation of reality in his work.

The second section, ‘Under the Sword’, begins with two stories set in the early seventeenth century, when the Tokugawa government began to change its policy of tolerance towards the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who’d begun arriving in Japan in 1549. Like Martin Scorsese’s new film, ‘Silence’, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo (which was also filmed in 1971 by Masahiro Shinoda in Japanese), ‘O-Gin’ portrays the regime’s increasingly violent persecution of Christians.

Portrait of the young Akutagawa

Portrait of the young Akutagawa via WikiMedia Commons

Akutagawa’s stories are dominated by the moral and cultural convulsions he and his country were experiencing as a result of the modernising, westernising tendencies of the early twentieth century in Japan.

The final group is called ‘Akutagawa’s Own Story’. These stories were written in the period of increasing mental instability (he feared that he would inherit his late mother’s madness) that culminated in his untimely suicide at the age of thirty-five.

Here Akutagawa changed his literary approach dramatically. It’s a series of fragmentary cathartic semi-autobiographical narratives, scrupulously depicting mundane, even trivial surroundings and a protagonist-narrator whose world and sanity, like his narrative, is fragmenting and distorting like a nightmare Expressionist montage film sequence. The technique and neurotic, introspective content are familiar to any reader of the angst-ridden works by the likes of Knut Hamsun, Dostoevsky, Strindberg (both of whom have works mentioned in the final story) and Kafka.

‘The Life of a Stupid Man’, the penultimate story, contains 51 loosely linked fragments. Section 49, “A Stuffed Swan”, ends with these chillingly reflexive words:

Once he had finished writing “The Life of a Stupid Man”, he happened to see a stuffed swan in a secondhand shop. It stood with its head held high, but its wings were yellowed and moth-eaten. As he thought about his life, he felt both tears and mockery welling up inside him. All that lay before him was madness or suicide. He walked down the darkening street alone, determined now to wait for the destiny that would come to annihilate him.

The final story, ‘Spinning Gears’, which was first published posthumously, shows this disintegrating persona finally descending into hell. It’s deeply disturbing, as the narrator struggles to write while tormented by visions of his dead mother, and terrifying hallucinations of the eponymous spinning gears. The fifth of its six sections begins, with characteristic bleakness:

Now the light of the sun became a source of agony for me. A mole indeed, I lowered the blinds and kept electric lights burning as I forged on with my story.

The narrator flees from a bar, where he’d drunk a whiskey to try to ease his malaise, and feels the desire, ‘like Raskolnikov’, to confess ‘everything [he] had done.’ His nerves are in tatters. The desolate ending leaves the reader feeling much the same.

This is an uneven collection: as Haruki Murakami says in his introduction, the best stories are outstandingly good. The less successful ones are still worth a look.

And if you’ve never seen a Kurosawa film, I’d urge you to seek one out. Then read these stories.

Grant Rintoul wrote a fine post on Akutagawa’s story ‘Hell Screen’ recently as part of his story-a-day-for-Advent project at his 1stReading’s blog: link HERE

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10 thoughts on “A descent from Kyoto into hell

  1. Fascinating stuff, Simon. I’m tempted to give these stories a go at some point in spite of your comments on their variability – I like the sound of the early stories in particular. For some reason, I seem to have missed out on most of Kurosawa’s films, another gap I need to address at some point (hopefully in the New Year). Ikiru will be my starting point, but I’ll add Rashomon to the list too.

  2. Thank you! I’ve seen quite a few of Kurosawa’s films (some of his early ones quite recently), but I’d never heard of Akutagawa. I’ll have to get this book. Murakami’s recommendation is another definite plus.

  3. Thanks for the mention!
    Having read Hell Screen, it’s great to hear about some of the other stories. I have In a Bamboo Grove and The Life of a Stupid Man as a Little Black Classic but I think I’m just going to have to bow to fate and buy the whole volume!

  4. I just recently read Grant’s review of Hell Screen in the Little Black Classic, but had decided to pick up the whole collection. Your review absolutely confirms that. Interesting that they’re a bit uneven, but they never sound less than at least interesting.

    Rashomon is an extraordinary film.

    Happy Christmas by the way!

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