Ryūnosuke Akutagawa was only thirty-five years old when he committed suicide in a state fo declining health. Yet, in his short life, the impact of his work led him to become known as the ‘father of the short story’. He came to international attention when Akira Kurosawa made Rashomon. Although his life was short, the timing of his work was vital as reflection of Japanese society’s integrating the influence of Western modernity with the Eastern tradition.
Early in his career, Akutagawa took old Japanese tales and made them more accessible by adding a psychological element determined by human nature. This is best demonstrated in the Penguin edition of Akutagawa’s work, Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories.
Last year, one of my favorite publishers out there – Archipelago Books – put out a new collection of Akutagawa’s work, Mandarins, which includes three short stories never translated into English. What I love about this collection is that it bends towards the modern and gives us a peek into the Meiji”>en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meiji_period”>Meiji Period and how the Japanese struggled to reconcile the old and the new. His writing is sparse, dark and psychologically astute. Although it seems there are not many details, his universal emotional themes make the work very visceral. The title story is full and produces moments of happiness that seem rare in Akutagawa’s work. My favorite piece, “The Life of a Fool”, is unforgettable and blends all of Akutagawa’s abilities masterfully. We see his minimalistic writing, his talent for exposing the dark side of human nature and his proclivity to highlight the ambiguities of life.
A fantastic collection and introduction to Japanese literature.
Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories
By Ryunosuke Akutawaga
Translated by Jay Rubin