Estimated reading time: 10 minute(s)
In today’s post, I will review the Rashoman and Other Stories, a Tuttle Classics translation of six of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short stories. The collection includes translations of the following Akutagawa short stories: In a Grove, Rashomon, Yam Gruel, The Martyr, Kesa and Morito, and The Dragon. I will begin with a brief introduction to the life and works of Akutagawa before offering brief summaries of each of the short stories in the collection.
An Introduction to Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), was a renowned author of short stories in Japan who was active from 1914 to his death in 1927. In that span, he authored more than 150 short stories.
Prior to beginning his own literary career, Akutagawa studied English literature in college. David Pearce of Times Literary Supplement noted that Akutagawa owned three copies of the Bible, which he annotated – and which, we will see, inspired one of the works in the short story collection that we are reviewing today. Pearce adds that Akutagawa came to be known as “the quintessential ‘Taishō writer.’” as his career corresponded almost exactly with the 14-year reign of Emperor Taishō, a period of relative liberalism in Japan between the Meiji era and the militarism of the early Shōwa period.
Akutagawa found success during his lifetime. Pearce notes that his talents were recognized by his idol, the author Natsume Sōseki – thanks in part to his 1916 short story, “The Nose” (not included in this collection). Akutagawa was also one of the first Japanese authors to achieve international recognition during his lifetime.
In 1950, the first short story in the collection that we will review, “In a Grove,” was portrayed in the film Rashomon.
Akutagawa’s output decreased in the last few years of his life, and he committed suicide by overdosing on barbiturates in 1927 at the age of 35.
“Rashomon and Other Stories” Measurables
Title: Rashomon and Other Stories
Publisher: Tittle Publishing
Year of Publication: 2011 (original 1952)
Author: Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Translator: Takashi Kojima
Introduction: Howard Hibbert
ISBN (physical): 9784805314630
ISBN (ebook): 978146290014
Cover: Kindle edition (retrieved from Goodreads)
Reviewing: Kindle edition
The original version of this translation was published in 1952.
The translations in the Tuttle Classics edition of Rashomon and Other Stories are quite readable. At no point was I at a loss to understand anything in the translation, and it reads very well in English. While I cannot attest to its fidelity to the original Japanese – for I neither read nor speak Japanese – I can say that the stories make for good reading in English. As an additional matter, I have not read any other translations of Akutagawa’s short stories – so I am not writing this review as a means to compare these translations to other translations or collections that may be available – including ones that cover more of his writings.
I enjoyed the short story collection – and it was more than worth the $1 that I spent on the ebook. For purpose of the instant review, I will not endeavor to provide an in-depth literary analysis of each story. Instead, I will briefly introduce the stories in the collection in turn such so as to give potential readers an idea of what they may expect to find in this collection. I will write more in-depth pieces on individual Akutugawa stories and passages in the future. You will find links to those added to this article when they are published.
“In a Grove”
Akutagawa originally published “In a Grove” in 1922. It is also known as “In a Bamboo Grove.” As I noted above, this story was retold in “Rashomon,” a well-known 1950 movie in Japan.
“In a Grove” is the most structurally novel and ambitious story in the collection. It contains seven separate accounts of the same event. What is that event? A samurai was traveling with his wife. The samurai is found dead in the grove. Tajomaru, a well-known criminal in the area, was arrested for the crime and confessed to murdering the samurai after raping his wife. Beyond these basic facts, there is much in dispute.
The seven accounts of the event are not entirely reconcilable. The first four accounts come from people who were not present during the violent events, but either came across the scene after the fact or had some knowledge about the dramatic personae. The last three accounts are from the man who attacked the samurai and his wife, the samurai’s wife, and the ghost of the samurai himself.
After reading the accounts and carefully documenting the facts that each person asserts, readers will find that they are left with many unresolvable contradictions in the stories. No matter how much you wrestle with the different accounts and consider what motivations each character may have to portray events as having happened in one way or in another, the truth remains elusive. What begins as something of a murder mystery ends with nearly as many unanswered questions as it starts with.
“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.”
Akutagawa published Rashomon in 1915. The story is named after the Rashomon – a gate in Kyoto. It is worth noting that while the famous movie “Rashomon” shares a name with this short story – and uses the gate in the movie – that movie is based on “In a Grove.”
Rashomon is the shortest of the short stories in the collection, and it offers one of the bleaker views of the human condition. The story is about the servant of a samurai who had just been discharged from his job. Homeless, and with nowhere to go, he took shelter under the Rashomon on a rainy night, surrounded by dead bodies and those who would soon join them.
The laid-off servant considered whether he should live honestly and starve to death, or turn to crime to sustain himself. While he did not want to starve, “he was still unable to muster enough courage to justify the conclusion that he must become a thief.” That would change rather dramatically when he came across an old woman collecting hair from the dead. The former servant confronted her, demanding to know why she was collecting the hair from the dead. After hearing her justification for why there was nothing wrong with taking the hair from a particular dead woman, the servant found the “courage” he needed to cast aside his humanity and justify whatever actions he felt were necessary to survive in his new circumstances.
He was lost in thoughts of how to make his living tomorrow, helpless incoherent thoughts protesting an inexorable fate.
Akutagawa published “Yam Gruel” in 1916.
The main character of Yam Gruel was a low-ranking, unattractive samurai in the service of a regent. Akutagawa reports that we do not even know his name, for “he was so ordinary a man as to be unworthy of recording in a chronicle.” For that reason, Akutagawa called him by his rank – “Goi.” The man’s fellow samurai did not like Goi at all, disregarded his instructions, and made fun of his appearance and mannerisms.
Goi had but one desire in his life- yam gruel. Akutagawa tells us that in the ninth century – when this story occurred – “it was regarded as the supreme delicacy…” Once every year, on January 2nd, all of the samurai serving the regent were invited to a grand banquet, where each samurai got a tiny amount of yam gruel. On the occasion of the banquet in the story, Goi wondered aloud whether he should ever have his fill of yam gruel after finishing his small amount. This caught the attention of Fujiwara Toshihito, the dignified Finance Minister, who responded by inviting Goi to his mansion to have his fill of yam gruel.
Thus, Goi is dragged on an adventure by Toshihito. Upon reaching their destination , Goi finds himself not only, somewhat disturbed as he faces a large amount of yam gruel but strangely unsatisfied . We are left to wonder whether what sustained Goi was his love of yam gruel or his longing for it.
But at the same time he had been happy, treasuring up his desire to gorge himself on yam gruel.
Akutagawa published “The Martyr” in 1918. Akutagawa concluded the story with a postscript asserting that he borrowed “The Martyr” from a collection of Christian stories called the “Legenda Aurea,” which he stated had been published by the Nagasaki Church. He later admitted that the story, set in the brief period when Christianity was allowed to flourish in Japan in the seventeenth century, was his own invention. It was a fine invention nevertheless. The Martyr is, without question, the one story in the collection most unlike the others.
Please note that I will not go into details about the second half of the story, for that would serve to spoil what turns out to be a rather significant revelation.
Several years before the main events of the story proper, we are told that a young Japanese boy was starving in front of the Church of Santa Lucia in Nagasaki on Christmas night. The boy, who was found wearing a rosary on his wrist, kindly deflected any inquiries into his family or past circumstances. The brothers of the church took the starving boy in and christened him “Lorenzo.”
Despite the mysteries surrounding Lorenzo, the Jesuit brothers loved him dearly for his piety and grace. One of the brothers, Simeon, took Lorenzo under his wing.
When Lorenzo was on the cusp of manhood, unsavory rumors spread that he had intimate relations with the daughter of an umbrella-maker who lived close to the church. The Father Superior of the church asked Lorenzo about the rumors, and Lorenzo insisted steadfastly that they were entirely unfounded.
Soon, however, the daughter of the umbrella maker was revealed to be pregnant and she insisted that Lorenzo was the father. This caused an uproar in the town, and notwithstanding Lorenzo’s statements, the church excommunicated Lorenzo, leaving him to poverty.
Subsequent to his excommunication, Lorenzo lived the life of a beggar on the outskirts of town, scorned by his fellow Christians and reviled by the heathens for having ever been Christian. These circumstances persisted until a great fire in Nagasaki engulfed the umbrella maker’s daughter’s home. Lorenzo’s actions thereafter would ultimately redeem his name and shed light on the truth of the events that led to his excommunication.
[T]he sublimity of life culminates in the most precious moment of inspiration. Man will make his life worth living, if he tosses a wave aloft high up into the starry sky, o’er life’s dark main of worldly cares, to mirror its crystal form in the light of the moon yet to rise.
“Kesa and Morito”
Akutagawa published “Kesa and Morito” in 1918.
This is perhaps the darkest tale in the collection – which is no small thing to note after discussing “Rashomon.” Similarly to “In the Grove,” the short story is composed of multiple narratives – but two in this instance instead of seven. The first and longer of the two accounts comes from Morito’s perspective. The latter is told from Kesa’s.
Morioto had once loved Kesa. Kesa, however, married another man, who loved her so much that he even mastered poetry to win her affection. Morioto, Kesa’s cousin, reunited with her, and despite now holding each other in contempt, they engaged in adulterous relations. On a whim, Morioto suggested that they kill Kesa’s husband. To his surprise, Kesa agreed immediately – and though he had no desire to kill Kesa’s husband, Morioto felt that he had started down a path he could not turn back from. However, as Morioto proceeds one evening to complete his evil deed, the second dialogue suggests that he may find someone different than he expects.
And tonight I am going to murder a man I do not hate, for the sake of a woman I do not love.
Akutagawa completed “The Dragon,” also known as the “Old Potter’s Tale,” in 1919.
“The Dragon” is the sole story in the collection that can be described as whimsical. Although it tackles some similar ideas about perception and reality as “In a Grove,” it does so without the murder, rape, and betrayal.
The story begins with a noble, who is simultaneously full of energy and a bit lazy, as he walks into a tea house. He informs the patrons that he wants to write a story book, but that he does not know any stories worth writing. Instead of going through the trouble of coming up with his own stories, he wanted to gather unusual anecdotes and stories from people from all walks of life. After receiving a favorable response from the guests at the tea house, he sat down to hear their stories. He began with an old potter, and it is that story that makes up Akutagawa’s short story.
The potter explained that when he was growing up, there was a Buddhist priest who the locals made fun of because of his large, red nose. One day, the priest decided to play a prank on the locals by posting a sign by a pond that a dragon would ascend to heaven from the pond on a certain date. Little did he expect that people would take the notice board seriously and convince themselves that a dragon would actually rise from the pond on the promised day. The rumor spread, and a great number of people began gathering in the town, including the preist’s aunt, a priestess herself, who hoped to see the dragon before she died.
The story continues through the promised day, and in the end, many of the people who gathered did not leave disappointed.
Or it may be that he felt guilty when he thought over the fact that his trick had caused such great general excitement, and that without being aware of it, he began to desire in his heart, that a dragon should really ascend from the pond.
I discovered Akutagawa from a reference to “In a Grove” in volume 7 of My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong, As I Expected. Because it was a good read, I will note this as an example of why one should follow up on interesting-sounding references in books.
The Tuttle Classics collection of Akutagawa short stories is available for a low price in ebook form, and it makes for interesting reading. “In a Grove” is worth the price of admission alone for its unique take on a murder mystery that remains shrouded in mystery. “The Martyr” and “The Dragon” were my two personal favorites from the collection, the former for its thematic elegance, and the latter for its use of a charming story in its own right to make a subtle point about the will to believe. In the future, I look forward to writing a bit more about some of the stories in the collection.