By Darran Anderson
Some things are worse than dying. Akutagawa Ryunosuke evidently thought so. Consumed by the fear he would lose his mind, as his mother Fuku Shinbara had when he was a child, he checked out of life with an overdose of veronal sleeping tablets. The redeeming thing, if there is one, is that while he was alive Ryunosuke burned his chilling fables indelibly onto Japanese literature and the nation’s psyche. Translated by Jay Rubin, Penguin Modern Classic’s Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories is a superior introduction to a fascinating character, one whose work was as fleeting and mesmeric as his life.
It’s nigh on impossible to think of Rashomon without conjuring up images of Akira Kurosawa‘s exceptional film of the same name (itself based on a composite of Ryunosuke’s stories). The crumbling temple. The endless rain. The huddled thieves. The end of a world. Yet when you read the original short story memories of Kurosawa drift away. It’s a credit to the strength of Ryunosuke’s writing, his ability to make the most otherworldly visions tangible, that you find your mind being lead away from the film and into realms of the imagination. Kurosawa’s vision is his own, this is something else entirely.
You’d be hard pushed to find a tale more atmospheric than ‘Rashomon’. It’s an exceptional piece of work: part horror, part folk tale, part existential exploration of the darkness in the soul of man. There’s a kind of Japanese Gothic that has existed for centuries (Oni demons, the terrifying y’kai spirits, the haunted forest and suicide spot Aokigahara Jukai -The Sea of Trees) which finds it’s first modernist expression here.
Set in the aftermath of “earthquakes, whirlwinds, fires, famine,” in a 12th century Kyoto where they smashed Buddhas for firewood, where nothing is sacred, Rashomon gate is a symbol of social and moral decline. Occupied by feral beasts and cadavers discarded like “clay dolls” on its upper floors, “a lowly servant trapped by the rain” with “no place to go and no idea what to do” seeks shelter beneath its arch. Within its chambers, he chances upon a hideous white-haired crone, creeping along the floorboards, scavenging hair from the corpses. It’s a genuinely alarming story and an astute fable, one that suggests the dread depths to which humans will stoop when they have to, and then, just as you settle into judgement, Ryunosuke subverts all that has come before in a final exquisite twist. Somehow he’s melded a personal tale and a folkloric one and in the process created some universal phantasm. The prescience of it is mind-blowing, a great age falling into disorder, humanity turning into wolves. Even the imagery of the decaying gate seems to prophesise the skeletal remains of Hiroshima’s Promotional Hall (now the A-Bomb dome) and the glowing crucifix girders at Ground Zero.
Ryunosuke never wrote a full-length novel, preferring the fine art of the short story. And after the stunning entrance of ‘Rashomon’ he spun an eclectic series of them. With ‘The Nose’ he out-Gogols Gogol, with a hilariously absurd tale of a man with a gigantic nose, some light to accentuate the darkness elsewhere. Even at its most deliberately ludicrous though, characteristically, it remains a sharp study of obsession, with egotism earning a large degree of misfortune. It suggests Ryunosuke saw the modern age of self-obsession coming, nailing the delusion, tedium and counter-productive qualities of vanity (“the harder he tried, the larger it looked”). There’s a boisterous comic lightness to the story but also a devastating truth at its heart, like all great comedy, with the ludicrousness of his treatment (“actually quite simple, boil the nose and have someone tread on it”) to the incisive wit of,
“Everyone of course sympathises with people who suffer misfortunes. Yet when these people manage to overcome their misfortunes, we feel a certain disappointment. We may even feel…a desire to plunge them back into those misfortunes. And before we know it, we come…to harbour some degree of hostility toward them.”
Many of his other stories dazzle. ‘In A Bamboo Grove’ (the story of which forms the main content of Kurosawa’s Rashomon film) is a full-blown modernist classic, taking inspiration from an ancient Japanese tale (from the legendary Konjaku Monogatarish anthology) and an Ambrose Bierce story ‘The Moonlit Road’, in which a murder is recounted by the victim through a clairvoyant. One of the finest treatises on the nature of truth, ‘In a Bamboo Grove’ follows the contradictory testimonies of witnesses to the murder of a samurai and the rape of his wife in a forest. The wildly divergent accounts (from woodcutters, Buddhist priests and criminals) lead to an open ended mystery; who, if any, are telling the truth and perhaps, given the nature of reality, are they all telling the truth? In the end it boils down to a fascinating, disconcerting thought; in a word of impressions and opinions, does truth exist? Or are there many truths? In which case how do you judge innocence or guilt, good or evil?
‘The Spider Thread’ is a near-perfect parable of human folly. Employing Grand Guignol-esque visions of damnation, it showcases Ryunosoke’s unsurpassed talent in being tender and petrifying at the same time. As always a moral lesson is at work here; providing a glimpse of the moral abyss of individualism.
The collection reaches it’s apex with ‘Hell Screen’, Ryunosuke’s out-and-out masterpiece. There’s something prophetic in the timing of its creation (1918), with the distant war in the west wasting the lives of an entire generation of young men and with the militarist elements of Japan gathering for their assumption. He could see it coming, it seems and crystallised all the horror into this one mind-blowing story. The less dissected the macabre tale remains the better, to select out random lines seems like vandalism, but trust me it’s a work of unadulterated genius, a study of inhumanity building to an climax that once read will never be forgotten. It’s so intense a work that you worry for the mind that thought it up.
As the years pass and the collection progresses, Ryunosuke’s writing becomes somewhat clouded, at times rambling. It remains of an undoubtedly high calibre with frequent stunning turns of phrase but it lacks somewhat the atmosphere of old and the piercing clarity, a more personal internalised darkness prevails in place of the dark world-view of old. Ryunosuke grew more and more melancholic, tortured by the fear of dementia he dosed himself with barbiturates. With ‘O-Gin’ he’s slipping further into a quagmire of religious doubt and fervour, clinging to platitudes in a world going mad, dredging history and myth for some guidance, something to cling to. But as Camus once said there is nothing to cling to.
The reasons for his anxiety seem numerous and complex. His health had suffered since travelling to China as a journalist in 1921 and the distance of his father threw a shadow over his entire life. Above all he was haunted by his mother, a ghost-like figure who, after a mental breakdown, remained at the family home without speaking, silently painting werewolf-like creatures. What he expresses in his later works (i.e. ‘Spinning Gears’) read like clinical descriptions of the onset of madness. He was bombarded by too much information “intersecting borders of tatami mats or the four corners of a ceiling would fill him with…nervous tension,” he “would sometimes feel the fear shoot through him like a bolt of lightning, along with an ominous suspicion that the fear was itself a sign of impending madness” and “his mind ran in endless circles from one anxiety to the next, like a cat chasing its own tail.”
It was a vicious circle: the more tormented he was at the prospect of losing his mind, the more his sanity slipped away. Suffering from hallucinations, stomach ailments and insomnia, he saw maggots writhing in his food and was worn out by bouts of paranoia. In his last weeks his increasingly troubled state becomes all too evident in the unstrung but alluring series of miniature thoughts and recollections, ‘The Life of a Stupid Man’. Yet the strange childlike wonder and satirical edge still exists, shining in the brilliant ‘Kappa’ with its embryos and mythological creatures. In 1927 he attempted suicide with a friend of his wife. On June 24th of the same year he finally succeeded, outlining the reasoned and moving ‘A Note to a Certain Old Friend’. He was thirty-five and left behind a wife and three children. The dreams of cosmopolitan Japan, for a generation, died with him. They would not re-emerge again until after Iwo Jima, the Rape of Nanking, the firebombing of Tokyo, Nagasaki…
Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories is not a perfect introduction, the disconcerting light-hearted phrase occasionally juts in otherwise dark tales and vice versa (whether this is the writer or translators doing is unclear). His later work tends to drift in a distracted manner, in a way serving as a pathological study of someone losing the plot. These are minor details though and altogether this is an impressive, engaging introduction, easily the finest entrance to a virtuoso writer, flawed perhaps but all the more intriguing for his flaws. In a time when Ryunosuke is relatively forgotten in the western world it is also necessary, aided by an introduction by the ever-popular Haruki Murakami and mentioned in the likes of Jim Jarmusch‘s Ghost Dog. As the first modern proponent of the dark atmospherics common to films and manga from the incredible rarity Oni Baba to recent fare like The Ring and Dark Water, the welcome resurrection of Ryunosuke begins here.
History has proved his prophecies to be accurate. The bridge between hermit Japan and its modern counterpart (born only a quarter of a century after the nation opened to the west), Ryunosuke was right in predicting that an age was dying and worse was to come. Today, again, an age is coming to an end and some other world is coming to pass. In these uncertain days, Rashomon is a tale blazing in its timeliness.
Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Akutagawa Ryunosuke
Translated by Jay Rubin, introduced by Haruki Murakami