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The Essential Akutagawa: Rashomon, Hell Screen, Cogwheels, a Fool's Life and Other Short Fiction

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Akutagawa's voice is one of the most remarkable in modern Japanese fiction: an acutely intelligent mind, a humiliated soul, engaging as readily with Baudelaire as with Confucius. These narratives and vignettes -- some having received little attention until now -- delicately dovetail ancient myth with modern reflection. Akutagawa combines Eastern sentiment with Western thou Akutagawa's voice is one of the most remarkable in modern Japanese fiction: an acutely intelligent mind, a humiliated soul, engaging as readily with Baudelaire as with Confucius. These narratives and vignettes -- some having received little attention until now -- delicately dovetail ancient myth with modern reflection. Akutagawa combines Eastern sentiment with Western thought to astonishing effect, offering a uniquely moving insight into mental and social fragmentation.


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Akutagawa's voice is one of the most remarkable in modern Japanese fiction: an acutely intelligent mind, a humiliated soul, engaging as readily with Baudelaire as with Confucius. These narratives and vignettes -- some having received little attention until now -- delicately dovetail ancient myth with modern reflection. Akutagawa combines Eastern sentiment with Western thou Akutagawa's voice is one of the most remarkable in modern Japanese fiction: an acutely intelligent mind, a humiliated soul, engaging as readily with Baudelaire as with Confucius. These narratives and vignettes -- some having received little attention until now -- delicately dovetail ancient myth with modern reflection. Akutagawa combines Eastern sentiment with Western thought to astonishing effect, offering a uniquely moving insight into mental and social fragmentation.

30 review for The Essential Akutagawa: Rashomon, Hell Screen, Cogwheels, a Fool's Life and Other Short Fiction

  1. 4 out of 5

    Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽

    Six deceptively simple (or simply deceptive?) short stories from early twentieth century Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, who died at the too-early age of 35. My favorite is the first story, "In a Grove," where the police commissioner interviews various (unreliable) witnesses, trying to pin down exactly what happened in an apparent murder/rape scene. In "Rashomon," a laid-off servant lingers under a dilapidated gate, caught between an living an honest life that might be the end of him and ad Six deceptively simple (or simply deceptive?) short stories from early twentieth century Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, who died at the too-early age of 35. My favorite is the first story, "In a Grove," where the police commissioner interviews various (unreliable) witnesses, trying to pin down exactly what happened in an apparent murder/rape scene. In "Rashomon," a laid-off servant lingers under a dilapidated gate, caught between an living an honest life that might be the end of him and adopting a life of thievery. An odd occurrence leads him to his choice. The main character in "Yam Gruel" is distinctly reminiscent of the pitiful, picked-upon Akaky in The Overcoat. Sometimes getting what you've always wanted leaves you emptier than when you started. Another standout was "Kesa and Morito," in which a man and woman who've had a brief fling decide to kill the woman's husband - and neither of them really wants to do so. Love and contempt are mixed together in their hearts, one melting into the other until they're almost indistinguishable. There are no easy answers in any of these painful stories. Truth twists away from you and becomes elusive, in one tale after another. I would actually kind of like to taste yam gruel now, and to see a yam that's actually three inches wide and five feet long...

  2. 4 out of 5

    Dan Schwent

    In a Grove: A man is found stabbed to death in a grove. Some people of interest and the key players give their accounts. Yeah, I'm a fan of this. Lots of narrators with varying degrees of reliability. If the other stories are this good, this collection is going to be stellar. Rashomon: A samurai's servant sits under the Rashomon during a rain storm, pondering whether he should become a thief or starve to death. I didn't like this story as much as the first but it was still interesting. I never thou In a Grove: A man is found stabbed to death in a grove. Some people of interest and the key players give their accounts. Yeah, I'm a fan of this. Lots of narrators with varying degrees of reliability. If the other stories are this good, this collection is going to be stellar. Rashomon: A samurai's servant sits under the Rashomon during a rain storm, pondering whether he should become a thief or starve to death. I didn't like this story as much as the first but it was still interesting. I never thought of making wigs in that way. Yam Gruel: Goi, a samurai who is the butt of everyone's jokes, has a life-long craving for Yam Gruel. But what will he do when he's offered all he can ever eat? This was an odd one, more like a fable than the previous two. I felt bad for Goi and really hoped he'd go on a killing spree but, alas, it was not to be. The Martyr: When the umbrella maker's daughter becomes pregnant, everyone suspects, Lorenzo, the orphan raised by Jesuits. Huh. This was an odd one about protecting the people you love at all costs. Kesa and Morito: The tale of a love triangle from two of its participants. This was another story with unreliable narrators. It was well written and fairly twisted. The Dragon: An old man tells the story of a big nosed priest named Hanazo and the prank he played on a village that backfired. All in all, this was an enjoyable collection. By far, my favorite tales were In a Grove and Kesa and Morito, the two unreliable narrator tales. The others were good to mediocre. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Mizuki

    3.5 stars. I read the Chinese translation of this short stories collection, which selects Mr. Akutagawa's best short stories...and Mr. Akutagawa committed suicide at around age 32. Well...the main reason for me to finally bring my lazy butt to read Akutagawa's novels is this: (LINK: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bungo_S...) Spider's Thread and Hell Screen must be best of the best among these handful of short stories in the collection. The haunting feeling of madness, despair and an artist's obsessio 3.5 stars. I read the Chinese translation of this short stories collection, which selects Mr. Akutagawa's best short stories...and Mr. Akutagawa committed suicide at around age 32. Well...the main reason for me to finally bring my lazy butt to read Akutagawa's novels is this: (LINK: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bungo_S...) Spider's Thread and Hell Screen must be best of the best among these handful of short stories in the collection. The haunting feeling of madness, despair and an artist's obsession with the art captured and described in Hell Screen really is really masterful. The story's outline of Hell Screen: in ancient Japan, a powerful, wealthy Duke ordered his painter to paint a scene of Hell on a screen. Soon afterward the painter reported to the Duke that he could not finish the painting and bring the sight of a living, burning Hell to his lord; if he couldn't witness, with his own eyes, a carriage being burnt to ash. Surprisingly, the Duke granted his wish by setting his own expansive carriage on fire, but the fulfillment of the painter's strange desire came with a heavy price... (view spoiler)[Oh well, turned out the painter's beloved daughter was dressed prettily and chained to the carriage to be burnt alive (she was chosen as a victim because she had refused the Duke, I guess?), sad to know the daughter's pet monkey is the only one who cared for her enough to throw itself to the flame and burnt with her. And more shockingly still, despite the painter's utter horror and pain, he watched his daughter being burnt alive in an twisted kind of ecstasy. How terrifying. (hide spoiler)] PS: I also read parts of Akutagawa's last novel before he offed himself, damn...the writing really is depressing and upsetting as shit. PSS: Mr. Akutagawa was heavily influenced by both Japanese's ancient folktales and ancient Chinese literature, both influences show quite strongly in his story telling and the subjects he chose to write about.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Elyse Walters

    There are six Japanese short stories in this collection. We learn from the very start that the author committed suicide at age 35.... His stories are dark... including murder, grief, infidelity, humiliation, isolation, desire, greed, and good & evil, ... I didn’t like these stories nearly as much as I did the short novel I read recently “Kokoro”, by Natsume Soseki .... but they are written beautifully..... most were unsettling.... The author was cynical it seemed to me pretty much about everything. There are six Japanese short stories in this collection. We learn from the very start that the author committed suicide at age 35.... His stories are dark... including murder, grief, infidelity, humiliation, isolation, desire, greed, and good & evil, ... I didn’t like these stories nearly as much as I did the short novel I read recently “Kokoro”, by Natsume Soseki .... but they are written beautifully..... most were unsettling.... The author was cynical it seemed to me pretty much about everything. After awhile -I was ready to move on from all the bleakness.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Luís

    These novels are most often chilling. Akutagawa with exceptional mastery shows what is cruellest and most grotesque in the human condition. As a naturalist writer, he insists on the most macabre details. Feelings of humanity are quickly overcome by implacable necessity or appear unexpected or even supernatural. Two of the short stories presented in this collection inspired Kurosawa for his film "Rashômon". At the time of Heian Kyôto after several years of cataclysms is in terrible distress. The These novels are most often chilling. Akutagawa with exceptional mastery shows what is cruellest and most grotesque in the human condition. As a naturalist writer, he insists on the most macabre details. Feelings of humanity are quickly overcome by implacable necessity or appear unexpected or even supernatural. Two of the short stories presented in this collection inspired Kurosawa for his film "Rashômon". At the time of Heian Kyôto after several years of cataclysms is in terrible distress. The ruined door of Rashô is now only a shelter for foxes and thieves. Corpses are thrown into his gallery, piling up there. It is there that a man waits to protect himself from heavy rain. His boss and wonders have just fired him if it is better to become a thief or starve. Walking through the gallery, he sees a faint glow and the silhouette of an old woman who grabs the hair of a corpse ... This short story, "Rashômon", is undoubtedly the most striking of the collection to which she gives her title. Akutagawa plunges with disturbing fascination into the depths of the human heart.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Paquita Maria Sanchez

    Here is the answer to the obvious question, which I call obvious because of the fact that I thought it, s. commented below asking about it, and my guess is that more will come. So, let me clarify...umm, sort of. It's a little confusing, actually. The Akutagawa story In a Grove, which is in this particular Akutagawa collection, was the basis for the Kurosawa film Rashōmon. The Akutagawa story Rashōmon--which is also in this collection and by the same author, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa--shares no similari Here is the answer to the obvious question, which I call obvious because of the fact that I thought it, s. commented below asking about it, and my guess is that more will come. So, let me clarify...umm, sort of. It's a little confusing, actually. The Akutagawa story In a Grove, which is in this particular Akutagawa collection, was the basis for the Kurosawa film Rashōmon. The Akutagawa story Rashōmon--which is also in this collection and by the same author, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa--shares no similarities save robber characters and, of course, being in this collection and by this particular author: Akutagawa. Further, this edition of Akutagawa stories that I personally read only contains 6 pieces, though goodreads has filed it as if it were the same as another Akutagawa collection which contains 17 Akutagawa stories, including Rashōmon and In a Grove, the latter of which was the basis for the Kurosawa film Rashōmon, and both of which are also, as I said, in the 6 story collection that I read. How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Imagine managing the manger at an imaginary menagerie!* In a Grove alone makes this worth reading, though Rashōmon the short story is amazing in its own right. Yam Gruel is a guts-knotting depiction of what happens when you get what you want, even (especially?) if it's the only thing you ever wanted, and still have so much empty existence left to live through afterward. This one made me feel like I was watching one of those guilt-trippy "save the battered puppies and kitties" commercials with the sappy Lilith Fair soundtracks that make you so sick to your stomach with overwhelming, scary Feelings about this harsh world that you have to change the channel as quickly as possible in order to not cry (or shove a pistol in your mouth). Kesa and Morito is a story of adultery and murder between a couple who simultaneously despise, love, fear, and lust for one another. It is a brief reflection on what we have and what we lose as a result of what our self-hatreds make us think we do and do not deserve, and on the appeal of smashing something to bits if only for the resulting change itself. It is also about the guilt that follows: Could I not endure my loneliness since my ugliness was vividly shown to me? Did I try to bury everything in that delirious moment of putting my face on his chest? Or was I moved by mere shameful desire as he was? ...I can love only one man. And that very man is coming to kill me tonight. Even this rush-light is too bright for me, tortured by my lover as I am. Daaaaamn, gurl. Isss ok! The other two stories concern religious themes of devotion and mass hysteria. I'm not sure how I feel about The Martyr, as it struck me as a sort of Japanese retelling of the Job tale, and that bible story more than most makes me extremely angry that I'm expected to buy the appeal of some all-powerful sadist dickwad in the sky. The Dragon, however, was awesome for the opposite reason: it actually questions the various supposed spiritual phenomena throughout history, anything from possessions to Virgin Mary in the cheese, all through a simple tale of a priest's prank that goes too far. We all saw it happen, so that means it's real! Even though there is zero proof! How could we all think it if it's not true? That never happens! Great collection. I'm sure that the even longer collection that goodreads thinks this collection is, is also great. *Alright, I admit that I made that more difficult than necessary.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Lauren

    "Yes, sir. Certainly, it was I who found the body. This morning as usual, I went to cut my daily quota of cedar, when I found a body in a grove..." Opening lines of "In a Grove", from RASHŌMON and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, translated by Takashi Kojima // originals 1910s-1920s in Japanese, translated and collected in English 1952. Akutagawa is known as the "father of the Japanese short story" - this distinction, as well as my love for short stories made him a must read for my January in "Yes, sir. Certainly, it was I who found the body. This morning as usual, I went to cut my daily quota of cedar, when I found a body in a grove..." Opening lines of "In a Grove", from RASHŌMON and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, translated by Takashi Kojima // originals 1910s-1920s in Japanese, translated and collected in English 1952. Akutagawa is known as the "father of the Japanese short story" - this distinction, as well as my love for short stories made him a must read for my January in Japan queue. In his short life (he died of suicide at 35), he wrote 150 stories and gained popularity and prestige for his work, so much so, that one of Japan's major literary prizes is named in honor of him - the Akutagawa Prize. This collection gathers only 6 of his short stories, and was a wonderful introduction to his style. It contains two of his #classics - In a Grove, and Rashōmon. *Fun Fact* Akira Kurasawa's famous Rashōmon film (1950), despite its name, is actually based on "In a Grove" short story. The film popularized the multiple viewpoints/perspectives and emphasized the subjective nature of truth and justice, regulsrly refered to as "Rashōmon effect". Akutagawa's stories are immersive, eerie, and dark. All good combinations for me!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Sharon Barrow Wilfong

    Collection of short stories by the pre-war Japanese author, Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Akutagawa wrote around 150 short stories before he committed suicide in 1927. The stories are creepy and eerie, but very well done. Perhaps they are even more beautiful in the original Japanese. Nevertheless, there is something dismal and Sartresque about them. Another descriptive word would be thought-provoking as each tale grapples with evil and the hopelessness of man. Though the author is from the 20th century, t Collection of short stories by the pre-war Japanese author, Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Akutagawa wrote around 150 short stories before he committed suicide in 1927. The stories are creepy and eerie, but very well done. Perhaps they are even more beautiful in the original Japanese. Nevertheless, there is something dismal and Sartresque about them. Another descriptive word would be thought-provoking as each tale grapples with evil and the hopelessness of man. Though the author is from the 20th century, the tales show an medieval, traditional Japan. Maybe Akutagawa saw that this way of life was on the verge of disappearing. These perhaps were meant to be moral tales, hoping to provoke the readers into recognizing their own guilt and lack of compassion for their fellow man, much like the Indian writer and poet, Rabindranath Tagore. The first one is probably the most interesting to me. In A Grove, is about a murder with no third person narrator, but several first person narrators. The entire story is through dialogue. Each gives their testimony as to what happened. As each new person gives their version of events, new information is added and enlightens the reader to the actual character of the previous witness. Finally, even the victim gives his testimony through a medium. Spoiler: Another dark yet provoking tale is Rashomon. A recently fired servant visits a place where unclaimed corpses are dumped. While there he discovers a old woman stealing the hair from the corpses to sell. He is angry that someone would stoop to desecrating the dead, but the woman insists she must do so to survive. She then claims the dead woman whose hair she is stealing stole fish when she was alive, but she, too, did it only to survive. So is it evil when one is only doing what one is forced to do? The servant answers her, that if that is the case, he is justified in stealing from her. So he violently takes her clothes from her body and runs off, leaving the old woman naked among the dead. I think it is a point well taken. When one begins to justify evil, where is the line drawn? It's just a matter of might making right. The last story, The Dragon, is the most suspenseful. A priest, tired of being mocked and bullied by his community decides to play a practical joke. He sets up a sign next to a lake that where his temple is that at a certain date, a black dragon that resides at the bottom of the lake will rise to the heavens. As more and more people read the sign, word gets around and increasing hordes of people from all over Japan start arriving to see the spectacle. The priest begins to feel uneasy. He meant it as a joke so he could laugh at his fellow villagers. Now what will happen when everyone is disappointed? The ending is not predictable and rather beautiful.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Traveller

    I think I somehow missed the point of the Yam gruel story. I found the Rashomon story rather cruel and unsympathetic. I think I'll reserve judgment until after we've discussed these in our Brain Pain group. Something that I definitely did notice, is that quite a bit of the original seems to be lost in translation, which might be partly the fault of the translator, but almost definitely also due to the fact that English and Japanese are two languages that seem to be difficult to translate mutually I think I somehow missed the point of the Yam gruel story. I found the Rashomon story rather cruel and unsympathetic. I think I'll reserve judgment until after we've discussed these in our Brain Pain group. Something that I definitely did notice, is that quite a bit of the original seems to be lost in translation, which might be partly the fault of the translator, but almost definitely also due to the fact that English and Japanese are two languages that seem to be difficult to translate mutually. From all accounts that I've heard, it seems that there are some words and expressions that are almost untranslatable from the English to the Japanese, and I daresay vice versa too. In any case, I do know of cases where certain single words in Japanese have no equivalent in English, and have to be "explained" via entire paragraphs or sentences. That doesn't really lend itself to elegance in the translated work. :(

  10. 5 out of 5

    S̶e̶a̶n̶

    I feel ambivalent toward books labeling themselves the ‘essential’ anything (or anyone). I typically avoid them, but in this case it was a decision made for reasons of practicality and convenience. This was my first encounter with Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. Will it be my last? I’m not sure. Akutagawa wrote many types of fiction in his relatively short career, but in this book the pieces that spoke to me the most were the autobiographical ones, ‘Cogwheels’ and ‘A Fool’s Life’, both manuscripts of which I feel ambivalent toward books labeling themselves the ‘essential’ anything (or anyone). I typically avoid them, but in this case it was a decision made for reasons of practicality and convenience. This was my first encounter with Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. Will it be my last? I’m not sure. Akutagawa wrote many types of fiction in his relatively short career, but in this book the pieces that spoke to me the most were the autobiographical ones, ‘Cogwheels’ and ‘A Fool’s Life’, both manuscripts of which were found among his papers following his suicide in 1927 at age 35. Quite a few of the other stories in this book are very good in a conventional way, but it is in these last two that I think Akutagawa grows closest to communicating his own truth. They are fragmentary, like life, and intriguing in their poetic intricacies. Apparently in the last year of his life, as Seiji Lippit tells it in the introduction, Akutagawa held a public argument with the writer Jun'ichirō Tanizaki over the concept of the ‘plotless novel’, in which Akutagawa’s position was that the ‘purest form of fiction is that which dispenses with story’. In fact, Akutagawa later sought the complete ‘destruction of the novel’ [his words], in a deliberate rejection of his earlier conventional fiction. And this gets to the heart of the problem in reading the ‘essential’ works of writers whose writing transforms itself so radically across their careers. There will always be those pieces that stand taller and overshadow the others—the ones that most closely approach the writer’s own personal truth. And these are the ones that interest me. With so many writers still to explore, I’d rather focus on reading these works, no matter how ‘essential’ a certain editor or publisher deems any others.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Smiley

    Whenever we come across this book cover, we may think this Rashomon taken from its second story is the same as the one on the screen. In fact, the film Rashomon based on In a Grove has long been world famous from its 1950 film directed by Akira Kurozawa. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rashomon). Rashomon itself was a notorious ancient, largest gate in Kyoto built in 789 due to its seemingly horror-oriented dilapidation then (p. 31). The other five are In a Grove, Yam Gruel, The Martyr, Kesa and Whenever we come across this book cover, we may think this Rashomon taken from its second story is the same as the one on the screen. In fact, the film Rashomon based on In a Grove has long been world famous from its 1950 film directed by Akira Kurozawa. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rashomon). Rashomon itself was a notorious ancient, largest gate in Kyoto built in 789 due to its seemingly horror-oriented dilapidation then (p. 31). The other five are In a Grove, Yam Gruel, The Martyr, Kesa and Morito, and The Dragon. For some reason, I found reading Yam Gruel ethically rewarding for I had pity on a particularly inferior character as a hero in this story called Goi being well past forty, an official of fifth class court rank whose appearance was so homely and sloppy that his fellow samurai were normally indifferent to him. (pp. 41-42) A case in point reveals his desire to have another fill of yam gruel in a banquet on January 2nd of a certain year; incidentally, a towering samurai named Fujiwara Toshihito has teased him verbally but he remains silent. It's inexplicably so sad and pitiful to read this episode (p. 49) that I scribbled a warning: Do not tease a seemingly poor subordinate, he/she may not be amused (such an underdog may bite). To continue . . .

  12. 5 out of 5

    Steven

    Aside from the titular story, Rashomon, this collection of Akutagawa's stories includes In a Grove, Yam Gruel, The Martyr, Kesa and Morito, and The Dragon. Overall, the stories were fascinating in their deceptive simplicity and succinct elegance. The only downside of this edition—beautifully illustrated and nicely introduced—is that it included only six stories. I'll have to get an edition that covers more of the over 150 short stories that Akutagawa wrote throughout his short life."For the subl Aside from the titular story, Rashomon, this collection of Akutagawa's stories includes In a Grove, Yam Gruel, The Martyr, Kesa and Morito, and The Dragon. Overall, the stories were fascinating in their deceptive simplicity and succinct elegance. The only downside of this edition—beautifully illustrated and nicely introduced—is that it included only six stories. I'll have to get an edition that covers more of the over 150 short stories that Akutagawa wrote throughout his short life."For the sublimity of life culminates in the most precious moment of inspiration." (80)

  13. 4 out of 5

    Rise

    Consider the first story. A Police Commissioner interviews seven individuals regarding an alleged crime of murder: - The first witness is a woodcutter who discovered the body of the dead man; - the second witness is a travelling Buddhist priest who met the man and his wife prior to the incident; - the third witness is a policeman who arrested the only suspect to the alleged crime; - the fourth, an old woman, the dead man’s mother-in-law; - the fifth is the bandit who confessed to the crime; - the sixt Consider the first story. A Police Commissioner interviews seven individuals regarding an alleged crime of murder: - The first witness is a woodcutter who discovered the body of the dead man; - the second witness is a travelling Buddhist priest who met the man and his wife prior to the incident; - the third witness is a policeman who arrested the only suspect to the alleged crime; - the fourth, an old woman, the dead man’s mother-in-law; - the fifth is the bandit who confessed to the crime; - the sixth is the wife of the dead man; and - the final witness, the dead man himself speaking through a medium. That’s it. We have the sketch of the story told from several points of view. The depositions of the first four witnesses overlap with each other, telling of what appears at first as a crime of passion. The last three witnesses are directly involved in the man’s death. The novelty of this story, “In a Grove,” lies in the inconsistencies between the testimonies of the persons involved. The actual circumstances of the man’s death, which initially appears to be an obvious case of murder, become more and more complex and murky as different versions are presented. The elements of a successful crime (motive, opportunity, and means) are turned upside down in every successive telling. We do not know who is telling the truth. Everyone is complicit. Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, the author of this short story, is a Japanese master of the form. In his hands, a short story is a short story. That is to say, it is quick. His words are efficient without sacrificing the complexity of a plot. His tales are suffused with nuance and concrete details. His themes are large themes. His main concerns are basic. He is interested in the ambiguities of human choice, the uncontrollable passions suddenly flaring, the travails of the outcast, and the futility of moral justifications. My copy of Rashōmon and Other Stories is a reprint of the second edition of the book first published in 1952. It contains six pieces, all translated by Takashi Kojima, and with an introduction by Tanizaki Jun'ichirō translator Howard Hibbett. In the book's preface, Takashi Kojima said that the six stories are selected with the aim of collecting the “finest and most representative writings” of Akutagawa. For a prolific writer such as Akutagawa, a mere representation of his best works in six servings, out of the more than a hundred stories he completed, appears to be non-representative at all. But there can be no doubt that the six pieces – six master pieces – are among his finest. Any collection that contains the first two in this book, “In a Grove” and “Rashōmon,” is a book to be treasured. Though it does not contain his other famous stories (“Hell-Screen” and “The Nose”), the book is a perfect sampler of Akutagawa’s literary output. The “most comprehensive” collection of Akutagawa’s stories is said to be the Penguin compilation Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories (2006), translated by Jay Rubin and introduced by no less than Murakami Haruki. Murakami mentions in his introduction that Akutagawa is his third personal favorite among “Japanese national writers,” after Sōseki Natsume and Tanizaki. Three of the collected stories here – “Yam Gruel”, “The Martyr”, and “Kesa and Morito” – are not included in the Penguin edition. Maybe that’s a loss for that edition because these three are real gems. When I watched the 1950 film Rashōmon, directed by Akira Kurosawa, in the UP Film Center more than ten years ago, during a retrospective of films by two Asian directors (Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray), I was not aware that it was based on two short stories by Akutagawa. The film was incontestably one of the finest produced in history. This six-story edition perhaps appeared as a kind of a movie tie-in edition of the film that was fast gaining critical and mass acclaim at that time. I was dumbstruck during the screening of the film. Even now, I could still visualize the husband’s fiery eyes and stone-hard gaze on his wife after the bandit pursued and tricked the couple. Reading the source story was like reading a natural script of the film. It’s like watching again the entire film, a déjà vu experience. The plot of the film was essentially that of “In a Grove,” while its landscape of waste and despair was borrowed from the story “Rashōmon”. Both “In a Grove” and “Rashōmon” deal with human selfishness: the manipulation of truth to justify oneself and the subjectivity of good at the behest of human avarice. In the first story, the characters are consumed by the need to explain or justify their behavior before the High Police Commissioner, to bear witness to something they have “seen.” The film masterfully assigns the role of the High Police Commissioner to the audience, in the same way that the reader "acts" as the Commissioner who listens to all the versions of the story. Each version is tailored in such a way that it casts its teller in the role of the underdog or the wronged. The “Rashōmon” story, like the first, is also about the relational value of truth and goodness. It's about a servant laid off from his job and left to wander around the gates of Rashōmon, an area notorious as hideout for thieves and dumping ground of corpses. In the face of this abject situation, the former servant is driven to do an “evil” thing in order to survive. There lies the paradox of “Rashōmon”. When people are reduced to living at the margins, they are forced to do things that are considered to be taboo. They will die if they don’t. When life contracts into uselessness, subjectivity becomes a precondition of existence, “good” and “evil” following the theory of relativity. Akutagawa’s stories (at least in the Kojima translation) are deceptive because of their sketchy quality. They are not what you might call polished writing. Here and there are awkward sentence constructions. I don’t know if it is due to the translation, but a certain clunky quality of the prose is consistently displayed throughout. As if these are just rough drafts of a master who cannot be bothered to perfect his trade? And yet behind the rough outlines of the plotting are universal truths. The pieces contain truths that most other forms took very long to develop. Akutagawa’s mastery is for a compression of details and a compacted intensity of feelings. Their power and impact are derived not from the flashes of technique but from a rhythm borne out of hurried recognitions. The fragility of life's convictions and principles dawn on us when the temple of the familiar was not found dwelling where it is supposed to. Is it in the inner sanctum of men? There is in fact no temple for Akutagawa, only a harsh condition of living, a bleak view of humanity, a state of nature characterized only by uncertainty. Greed, hate, covetousness, pride, lust – these are the vices pictured in several stories in this collection. One can even add gluttony (to exaggerate a character’s craving in “Yam Gruel”) and get the picture of Akutagawa’s apparent subject matter – the seven deadly sins. His source of conflict is often perversion (e.g., “lust for lust’s sake” in "Kesa and Morito"). Characters pander to their base instincts. They tenaciously hold on to their own needs and wants, pursuing their wishes come what may. They are driven to it, their nature drove them to it. The environment entraps their soul. Akutagawa’s is the kind of writing that makes your heartbeat race fast as you read it. And the kind that stops the heartbeat by some lately introduced complication. His stories, almost always period pieces, do not lose their contemporary feel. They are timeless and alive. They are like "the sublimity of life", which culminates, as one of the stories proclaims, “in the most precious moment of inspiration.”

  14. 5 out of 5

    George

    4.5 stars. A collection of six very different, interesting, memorable Japanese short stories written between 1915 and 1923. ‘In a Grove’ is my favourite. It’s about three individuals telling their different versions of the same tragic incidents. ‘Rashomon’ is a gruesome story about two individuals justifying their actions amidst corpses. Highly recommended.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Sandy

    The little red book with gate on the cover was the darkest book in my early memories. Translated to Sinhalese from Japanese, Rashomon always held a high status. After many years, found the English translation. Read it in one go, while sitting on an uncomfortable airport seat but it became an amazing read regardless. I’m still trying to realize what sort of a mindset Akuthagawa had when writing these short stories. They carry their own depth, own sorrow, own humor and darkness. Simply written yet The little red book with gate on the cover was the darkest book in my early memories. Translated to Sinhalese from Japanese, Rashomon always held a high status. After many years, found the English translation. Read it in one go, while sitting on an uncomfortable airport seat but it became an amazing read regardless. I’m still trying to realize what sort of a mindset Akuthagawa had when writing these short stories. They carry their own depth, own sorrow, own humor and darkness. Simply written yet deeply rooted in such a way they will capture the readers mind and will dance in there. Rashomon gate stayed alive in my head for so many years. Watched the movie sometimes ago. Yet another masterpiece just like all Kurasowa’s movies. I felt it’s the best combination for a movie. Akuthagawa’s writing, Kurasowa’s directing and Toshiro Mifune’s acting. It did justice to the book. Book #05 of 2020..

  16. 5 out of 5

    Mona

    First, I am a big fan of Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Second, Akutagawa himself has been acknowledged as one of the greatest Japanese writers. Third, the story "Rashomon" has been admitted as the best story Akutagawa ever wrote. That's why Akira Kurosawa transfered the story into reel. So, none other reason needed to make you read this one. First, I am a big fan of Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Second, Akutagawa himself has been acknowledged as one of the greatest Japanese writers. Third, the story "Rashomon" has been admitted as the best story Akutagawa ever wrote. That's why Akira Kurosawa transfered the story into reel. So, none other reason needed to make you read this one.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Aravena

    While I had previously seen a few of adaptations based on his works, this was my real introduction to Ryuunosuke Akutagawa, Japan’s literary titan and whom the country’s premier literature award is named after. This particular anthology contains seven of Akutagawa's stories, presumably chosen through their reputation, practicality of translation, and representative value of his style. I’m honestly not much of classic lit reader or critic, but I thoroughly enjoy the collection. Most of these read While I had previously seen a few of adaptations based on his works, this was my real introduction to Ryuunosuke Akutagawa, Japan’s literary titan and whom the country’s premier literature award is named after. This particular anthology contains seven of Akutagawa's stories, presumably chosen through their reputation, practicality of translation, and representative value of his style. I’m honestly not much of classic lit reader or critic, but I thoroughly enjoy the collection. Most of these read like fable, carried by sharp and direct passages as well as refreshing lack of purple prose or tedious navel-gazing. Akutagawa may frequently bring up 'Uplifting and Cheerful’ themes like murder, amorality, and suffering, but they’re also made palatable by engaging narration and sardonic sense of humor that I find consistently funny. As a result, most of these stories have great re-read value despite their inherently bleak nature (I’ve read In A Grove and The Dog, Shiro three times, for instance). Individual commentary: Rashomon (view spoiler)[Not to be confused with the Rashomon film (which indeed has the setting of this story, but is narratively based on In A Grove), this is the kind of story that makes you go, “Well, gee, no wonder this Akutagawa dude killed himself at 35”. It’s a bleak story of amoral survivalism told through a chance encounter in the titular gate between two desperate people. It's certainly not something you’d want to read if you want your spirit lifted, but it’s also told with consummate skill. Akutagawa paints vivid description of the setting and characters that suck me in throughout, even as it left me wincing in serious discomfort. (hide spoiler)] In A Grove (view spoiler)[It’s not the story, it’s how you told them that matters. Such philosophy is most apparent in this story, which details a single incident as told through multiple perspectives. It’s a groundbreaking narration technique at the time, which lead to one of the best film of all time in Rashomon (the nomenclature’s a bit confusing, I know) and the coining of ‘Rashomon Effect’ term to describe similar technique. It’s especially potent in mystery stories, but In A Grove is easily the ballsiest among this kind of story by never revealing the true answer to the readers. More an indirect psychological examination than a typical murder mystery, I’d recommend this if you can only read one Akutagawa, and to follow that up by watching Kurosawa’s magnificent film adaptation. (hide spoiler)] Kappa (view spoiler)[By far the longest story in the collection (taking up nearly half the entire page count by itself), this novella is an unsubtle sociopolitical commentary. Sporting a narrative frame that takes form as fantastical ramblings from a mental hospital client, it depicts a darkly amusing world inhabited by one of the most famous among Japan’s mythological beasts, the kappa. Akutagawa tears into myriad of issues from population control to censorship as filtered through a deeply nihilistic worldview, and it’s not short of interesting allegorical implications (this is one of Akutagawa’s final works before his untimely death, and it also features an artistic kappa called Tock who eventually takes his own life and worry about his posthumous reputation as he returns in spirit form). The longer it goes, the more unpleasant and repetitive it becomes, though. It’s kind of a chore to read the various plight of largely unsympathetic characters in this tale, which gets too overt at times and carries misogynistic undertone in Akutagawa’s depiction of thirsty, manipulative, and deceitful female kappa (depiction of women as ultimate destroyer of men is one of his recurring themes, unfortunately, possibly a byproduct of his troubled upbringing). The sarcasm and black humor with the kappa entertain me, but I struggle to finish this one, stalling twice in the process. (hide spoiler)] Yam Gruel (view spoiler)[A story focusing on an extremely disrespected, lowest-level, samurai and his craving for the luxurious imagayo (the titular yam gruel). The narrative voice sure is extra gleeful in describing the various ways this hapless fellow is ridiculed and mocked by everyone around him, which provides ample source of (cringe) humor throughout. Gets kind of meandering heading to it denouement, but it does close off with good ironic punchline. (hide spoiler)] The Spider’s Thread (view spoiler)[About the Buddha himself giving second chance to a bandit falling to hell because he had saved a spider in his life, which the bandit proceed to squander anyway. I’ve seen the animated adaptation of this from the anime series Aoi Bungaku, but I somewhat prefer the original story’s more concise execution. The story is split into three very short chapters instead of one unbroken narrative, underlining the sense of dramatic progress and shifting perspective. (hide spoiler)] Shiro, The Dog (view spoiler)[Probably my favorite story in the collection after In A Grove. Again, it’s all about execution, as it demonstrates structural strength, unusual perspective, and creative use of simile (Akutagawa’s simile are generally top-notch and a great source of enjoyment for me). This is easily the most uplifting story in the collection (not that it’s a high bar to clear), chronicling a strange and karmic body-swapping experience of a domesticated dog. There are dark moments here and there—this is still Akutagawa we’re talking about—but the funny twist and heart-warming ending make a good antidote to the general unpleasantness of the other stories. (hide spoiler)] Nose (view spoiler)[Just as the collection opens with oppressively bleak stories, it ends with gentle light-hearted note with this and Shiro. Apparently one of the earliest works that put Akutagawa on the map, it earned a letter of praise from none other than the legendary Natsume Souseki. The writer’s signature sense of humor and amusing characterization are once again on point here, leading to lots of hearty chuckle at the expense of an insecure priest worrying excessively about his oversized nose. (hide spoiler)] ~ There’s a sense of universality that makes Akutagawa’s works very accessible, even to people who aren’t familiar with Japanese history and social mores. It has dense prose that tends to go down easy, while maintaining a genuine edge. Whether you’re a literary scholar or a casual reader, he’s always worth a read, and I look forward to discover more of his works in the future.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Toby

    They say Akutagawa is a master of modern Japanese literature despite writing just after the turn of the 20th century, he even has major literary awards named after him in Japan but I can't help but feel that 100 year old stories are not that modern. That being said his stories are largely enjoyable and very well written. The effect of the unique storytelling point of view of In A Grove is really quite remarkable and the rest of the stories collected here all manage to conjure up a firm and believ They say Akutagawa is a master of modern Japanese literature despite writing just after the turn of the 20th century, he even has major literary awards named after him in Japan but I can't help but feel that 100 year old stories are not that modern. That being said his stories are largely enjoyable and very well written. The effect of the unique storytelling point of view of In A Grove is really quite remarkable and the rest of the stories collected here all manage to conjure up a firm and believable image of pre-Westernised Japan, peopled with interesting and conflicted people and filled with nuance, human flaws and metaphors about the loss of Japanese identity. Other than the story used as a basis for Kurosawa's wonderful movie Rashomon I was not overwhelmed with pleasure at reading these stories. Perhaps I don't have the required knowledge or appreciation of the place and time they were written but I just didn't find myself caring one way or another about the outcome of the stories.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sanja_Sanjalica

    Really powerful and more times than not dark, these stories stay with the reader long after reading. Excellent study of human nature and small, but significant moments of life.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Rosanna

    Akutagawa Ryunosŭké—a Japanese modernist writer—uses his subject matter to reflect the social turmoil, loss of identity, and changing environment of his times. Akutagawa lived in a rapidly changing world due to modernization. Some of the most drastic changes that contributed to or were a result of modernism include: the changes in transportation which enabled people to travel in a totally new way and changed people’s conception of time, the introduction and assimilation of foreign culture (West Akutagawa Ryunosŭké—a Japanese modernist writer—uses his subject matter to reflect the social turmoil, loss of identity, and changing environment of his times. Akutagawa lived in a rapidly changing world due to modernization. Some of the most drastic changes that contributed to or were a result of modernism include: the changes in transportation which enabled people to travel in a totally new way and changed people’s conception of time, the introduction and assimilation of foreign culture (Western dress and furniture, influence of Western artists, directors, and writers, etc., adaptation of capitalism), and a rise in consumerism which led to the commodification of art forms. His stories in this collection reflect the repercussions of modernization, illustrating the egotistical nature of humanity, the subjectivity of truth and morality, and the struggle with identity due to a changing world. Not only did Akutagawa live and write in an interesting time but he is one of those rare artists whose life is equally engrossing as his work. His family had a history of madness and Akutagawa lived with the constant fear of going insane, his latter works give us a glimpse of his slippage into insanity. These stories are brilliant, painful, sad, and artistically executed. I highly recommend this collection of short stories for it shows Akutagawa’s diversity with his craft and its genres include: horror, parables, satires, and autobiographical works. Perhaps more importantly these stories show the nature of man and the flaws of the human spirit.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Axolotl

    Justin Isis tells me the translation is so-so but I still thought the stories were entertaining. Really quite memorable: The Lover who is no longer in love but acts like an automaton of solipsistic passion; the dragon in the lake as a metaphor for what writers can do with their handy work, that is "write what happens"; an encounter with the scalp-scavenging crone in halls of a darkened tower in the rainy season; multiple povs of multiple unreliable witnesses---this little collection is really qu Justin Isis tells me the translation is so-so but I still thought the stories were entertaining. Really quite memorable: The Lover who is no longer in love but acts like an automaton of solipsistic passion; the dragon in the lake as a metaphor for what writers can do with their handy work, that is "write what happens"; an encounter with the scalp-scavenging crone in halls of a darkened tower in the rainy season; multiple povs of multiple unreliable witnesses---this little collection is really quite fascinating and makes me long for more encounters with the work of Ryunouke Akutagawa. I have seen Kurosawa's Rashomon but actually Akutagawa's story is not the one called "Rashomon" but "In a Grove", both stories are excellent but "In a Grove" is really something astounding, as the film Rashomon, is in a different way.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Polansky

    Half a dozen stories, by turns humorous and rather horrifying. Akutagawa is a very sly writer, with a deceptively simple style, nested in a lot of traditional Japanese mythology but easily accessible to a Western audience. Yam Gruel – a mocking myth about a pointless, pathetic official whose existence is given meaning by a desire to gorge himself on the eponymous breakfast food – is a lovely little marvel in particular. Lots of fun. Quick sidenote – anyone want to tell me why Kurosawa mis-titled Half a dozen stories, by turns humorous and rather horrifying. Akutagawa is a very sly writer, with a deceptively simple style, nested in a lot of traditional Japanese mythology but easily accessible to a Western audience. Yam Gruel – a mocking myth about a pointless, pathetic official whose existence is given meaning by a desire to gorge himself on the eponymous breakfast food – is a lovely little marvel in particular. Lots of fun. Quick sidenote – anyone want to tell me why Kurosawa mis-titled his famous film? This is not a rhetorical question, I’m confused.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Akemi G.

    This author is a master of short stories. Actually, too much of a master -- his craft is so refined and calculated. (When a story is told by an unreliable character, that is also well-calculated.) I admire his work, and at the same time, I see why he didn't get to write full-length novels ... and why he committed suicide. (I read this in Japanese. I hope the translation holds its original beauty.) This author is a master of short stories. Actually, too much of a master -- his craft is so refined and calculated. (When a story is told by an unreliable character, that is also well-calculated.) I admire his work, and at the same time, I see why he didn't get to write full-length novels ... and why he committed suicide. (I read this in Japanese. I hope the translation holds its original beauty.)

  24. 4 out of 5

    Cody

    Meh. Don't start here if you're new to Akutagawa, though the title story (and Kurosawa's adaptation) still kick major fucking ass. Meh. Don't start here if you're new to Akutagawa, though the title story (and Kurosawa's adaptation) still kick major fucking ass.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    Fascinating read. The stories "In the Grove" and "Rashomon" were used for Akira Kurosawa's famous film "Rashomon" in which 4 people are interrogated about the murder of a samurai and 4 different irreconcilable stories emerge from each witness's different perspective. This has since become known as "The Rashomon Effect" by psychologists. Four other very interesting stories are included. Some containing irony and humor but all thought provoking. Fascinating read. The stories "In the Grove" and "Rashomon" were used for Akira Kurosawa's famous film "Rashomon" in which 4 people are interrogated about the murder of a samurai and 4 different irreconcilable stories emerge from each witness's different perspective. This has since become known as "The Rashomon Effect" by psychologists. Four other very interesting stories are included. Some containing irony and humor but all thought provoking.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Natascha Eschweiler

    Great choice of stories, pretty cover, and certainly the best translation of Yabu no Naka I've read so far. Great choice of stories, pretty cover, and certainly the best translation of Yabu no Naka I've read so far.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Bigsna

    Short stories have always been a a challenge for me, and this is probably the most cryptic set of stories that I have read yet. What is it about these enormously acclaimed Japanese authors of the earlier 20th century. The first I read was Yukio Mishima, who over and above being known for his controversial novels, is most remembered for his ritual suicide by sepukku; and now Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, who is called the "father of the Japanese short story" and has Japan's premier literary award named af Short stories have always been a a challenge for me, and this is probably the most cryptic set of stories that I have read yet. What is it about these enormously acclaimed Japanese authors of the earlier 20th century. The first I read was Yukio Mishima, who over and above being known for his controversial novels, is most remembered for his ritual suicide by sepukku; and now Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, who is called the "father of the Japanese short story" and has Japan's premier literary award named after him, is also remembered for having killed himself at the age of 35. Their literature and writings seem to have a cult following, because they definitely aren't mass market material - and this is what attracted me to read some of their works. This is a set of 6 tales that essentially explore dimensions of human nature. I don't want to summarize the stories here, but I have to say that after reading each one of them, I looked up analyses online to understand the latent meanings that were clearly evading me - and in some cases I was surprised that I had almost completely missed the point - which in itself was amusing. These are good stories to be read aloud, discussed and ruminated over. A good choice for book club reading. They are not very long, but some of them are complex. The movie Rashomon was made based on two stories from this set and is highly acclaimed even today - with a rating of 8.3 on IMDb. That will be an interesting followup to the book.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Kavitha Sivakumar

    A collection of stories. Rashomon is the one that I liked least. The rest are good, especially "In the Grove" Most of the stories have open ended conclusion that made me think... In the Grove: A murder as explained by multiple people, included the murdered victim, who explained through the medium. Seen couple of movies with this plot. A very interesting one! Rashomon: I do not like it as it was just an event and very uninteresting one at that. Though, I learned about Rashomon gate in the old capit A collection of stories. Rashomon is the one that I liked least. The rest are good, especially "In the Grove" Most of the stories have open ended conclusion that made me think... In the Grove: A murder as explained by multiple people, included the murdered victim, who explained through the medium. Seen couple of movies with this plot. A very interesting one! Rashomon: I do not like it as it was just an event and very uninteresting one at that. Though, I learned about Rashomon gate in the old capital Kyoto. Yam Gruel: Unusual, about a spiritless man (does one exist like that?) and his wish for Yam Gruel to eat his fill and the events culminating to that. The Martyr: Seems like it is a true story. Lorenzo was an orphan, adopted by the Church. The umbrella maker's daughter love Lorenzo and send many love letters and eventually get pregnant. Lorenzo was kicked out and suffer the life of a beggar and believer among the heathens. Lorenzo died after saving the life of the baby of umbrella maker's daughter. Why wouldn't the church people believe their favorite person? Kesa and Morito: Odd one as told from the two main character's view about their love, life and the consequences. The Dragon: This is the most light hearted one. One person's lie to play prank on his colleagues who tease him for his big nose ended up being believed by everybody and with an unexpected ending.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Ha Pham

    It's interesting to see where Akira Kurosawa stayed faithful to the original story of Akutagawa and where he took creative initiatives to enrich the story. Akutagawa's "In the grove" only tried to depict the phenomenon of "contradictory interpretation of one same event", and his original "Rashomon" told the story of "how poverty degrade human's conscience" through the symbol of a run-down Rashomon (Gate of Life). On the other hand, Akira's "Rashomon" is a combination of the two stories plus a br It's interesting to see where Akira Kurosawa stayed faithful to the original story of Akutagawa and where he took creative initiatives to enrich the story. Akutagawa's "In the grove" only tried to depict the phenomenon of "contradictory interpretation of one same event", and his original "Rashomon" told the story of "how poverty degrade human's conscience" through the symbol of a run-down Rashomon (Gate of Life). On the other hand, Akira's "Rashomon" is a combination of the two stories plus a brighter outlook on humanity. It criticized human's ugly habit of lying to benefit themselves, but he also express the idea that "men are still good" through the final scene (The heavy rain stopped, the peasant decided to raise the orphan he found at Rashomon as his own child). Overall, I would highly recommend this book and the movie of the same name by Akira Kurosawa.

  30. 5 out of 5

    marie

    I read two from a collection of Akutagawa's short stories: "Rashomon" and "In A Bamboo Grove". My first reaction was: he's so modern! The 2 stories are like thrillers, suspenseful, with unexpected twists. "In A Bamboo Grove" is a sophisticated story of an event seen from different perspectives. The reader is forced to think what the most plausible narrative is as the truth is left hanging ----there is nothing cut-and dried here. The author's story is almost as fascinating as his 2 short stories, I read two from a collection of Akutagawa's short stories: "Rashomon" and "In A Bamboo Grove". My first reaction was: he's so modern! The 2 stories are like thrillers, suspenseful, with unexpected twists. "In A Bamboo Grove" is a sophisticated story of an event seen from different perspectives. The reader is forced to think what the most plausible narrative is as the truth is left hanging ----there is nothing cut-and dried here. The author's story is almost as fascinating as his 2 short stories, too.

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