One of Penguin Classics's most popular translations- now also in our elegant black spine dress ... Read more
Customer Reviews (10)
Death and Madness
"Rashomon" tells the story of a "lowly servant" sheltering from the rain on the steps of a rashomon (outer castle gate). He has recently been laid off and sits pondering his future. He hears a sound and ventures inside the rashomon to see what it was. Inside are heaps of dead bodies from the recent plague and a strange old woman wandering about, going through the corpses' clothes. The servant attacks the old woman, strips her of her clothing, throws her onto the heap, and runs off.
"In a Bamboo Grove" features a married couple and a robber. The story is told from the perspective of all witnesses and it emerges that the husband was murdered but who did it and why is the mystery.
These are the two most famous Akutagawa stories and are an excellent start to the collection. However, afterwards they become quite mediocre and even a bit tedious. The forced gothic of "Hell Screen" plods along until a near hysterical ending that undermines the seriousness of the story, that of obssession and the artistic mind. "The Nose" is a very odd story about a priest with a very big nose, has it shortened, and it grows back again. It's one of those "be grateful for what you have, accept who you are" type tales and not nearly as brilliant as Gogol's "The Nose" (Gogol being one of Akutagawa's influences and, frankly, a better short story writer).
As the title suggests there are 18 stories here but those are the only ones I can remember. The last couple in the section called "Akutagawa's Own Story" are interesting, with "Life of a Stupid Man" playing with form and presenting an interesting take on autobiography through small snippets of a life glimpsed in passing. "Spinning Gears" is the final story he wrote before his suicide (pills) and is about the slowly disintegrating mind of Akutagawa. The desperation and mounting paranoia give the reader an insight into Akutagawa's fragile and fractured mindset. The strange imagery is also fascinating. The spinning gears he sees around his eyes confuse and scare him while at every turn he sees signs of death - a decaying animal corpse, dying people in hospitals, and above all his morbid fear of going insane like his mother.
I won't say I didn't enjoy the book as there were some stories here that were excellent, and whether it's Jay Rubin's translation or not, the writing was always of a high standard. And students of literature will find reading "Rashomon" and "In a Bamboo Grove" very rewarding as will film students who are interested in the work of Kurasawa who based his film "Rashomon" on those stories. But compared to other short story writers and other Japanese writers, Akutagawa isn't nearly on their level.
roshomon-does truth exist, or only opinion?
Roshomon is one version on the subject of personal versions of the truth. "Outrage", with Paul Newman and Claire Bloom,is a film version of the same theme. A rape occurs, the witnesses have different opinions. The fact of intercourse between the character played by Newman and Bloom is a fact.Whether it is rape or love depends on who is telling the story.
This story translated from Japanese is well written, worth reading,and skillfully touches on this eternal debate.
The current popular version of this debate seems to be that facts and truth do not exist.
However, the sun rises from east to west. A man can not be younger than his mother. Are these facts, or is it possible they are just opinions or a subject of an extensive debate?
The world, according to some, is flat. As absurd as such a belief is today, someone who argues that from his perspective,the world does appear flat has merit. Objects do not fall into space, but sit ridgely on a table. Without the benefit of contact with modern science one could argue his opinion without being considered mentally ill.But, that same person he could not argue that the sun always rises in one place, and sets in another; or that he can not be younger than his natural mother.
The philosopy that no facts exist, or that all actions depend on personal observation is currently a popular theory. In the recent past, the majority of the world heard a US President state he did not have sex with a woman. He then justified that comment, to avoid commiting perjury, that from his point of view, his actions were not "sexual". For personal reasons of their own, others concured that his point of view was correct, and he did not suffer from an abberation.
"Crime and Punishment" is a story of a man, who decides that a selfish and evil woman should be robbed. In the course of the robbery, she is killed. And a completly innocent person is also killed. The writer creates a justification for the actions of the killer. He considers himself better than the murdered woman,more worthy and entitled to live. The torment within his mind and judgment of society eventually exposes that facts and truth. Some one was killed, and killed them. Ethical discussion and personal opinion is not sustained, and punishment follows.
The current trend of philosophy seems to be tacking in a different direction.A more recent Woody Allen movie, also named "Crime and Punishment" moves away from the act of murder to a justification based on circumstance. The killer by proxy,is a sucessful, married man who is tempted into an affair. He is honest with the woman. He is married and in love with his wife, and would never leave her. His point of view remains constant. The mistress has fallen in love and wants him to leave his wife.The ehtical problem presented is to prevent hurting his wife; and more selfishly to maintain his reputation and career. His choice, based on his conception of honesty, is that he is the person wronged. In his mind, the only solution is to rid himself of the woman. Although tormented by his decision, he feels justified in having the "trouble" removed by a hired assassin. The idea of killing his mistress is too revolting, as is the act itself.However, he goes on with his life, and the viewer is left with the perspective that the personal torment begins to fade as he goes on with his life.
The new philosphy isthe fact of the murder has somehow been justified from the perspective that the murder was not murder, but a difficult but justifiable judgment. Whether the mistress was killed, a fact; or murdered as a result of an ethical perspective of one person, must be decided by the viewer or reader.
The Best of a Master
Considered to be one of the greatest national writers of Japan, Rynosuke Akutagawa had a short but brilliant career in the early twentieth century. This collection includes some of his best known short stories, such as "Rashmon", "Spinning Gears", "Loyalty", and "The Nose", as well as some of his lesser-known works. The stories range from humorous, to historical, to agonizingly autobiographical. The Penguin Classics edition also includes a wonderfully insightful introduction by Haruki Murakami.
For much of Akutagawa's early career, he delved into Japan's literary past. The story "Loyalty" is a complex tale based on a true event that took place during the Tokugawa period, when the young head of a noble family went insane, creating a crisis among his samurai retainers. Samurai were meant to be loyal to the death, but that loyalty also extended to the Shogun. If one's master posed a thread to the Shogun, where should your loyalty lie? This is the problem that faces two very different retainers, each of whom must make an almost impossible decision. The story explores not only loyalty, but the issues of sanity, respect, obligation, and shame.
Some of the more humorous stories include "Horse Legs" and "The Story of a Head That Fell Off", both involving dead men who suffer terrible humiliations, one at the hand of some spiritual bureaucrats, and the other because of a medical miracle. But the final section of the book, which include those selections that tell Akutagawa's own story, is possibly the most moving and compelling. Akutagawa's childhood was difficult, as his mother went insane shortly after his birth. He was afraid of mental illness for the remainder of his life, and the final story of the book, "Spinning Gears" tells the tale of his last months spent in depression and constant anxiety. He suffered from insomnia, hallucinations, and constantly worried about his own sanity. It is the final passage of the story that conveys Akutagawa's overwhelming despair:
"I don't have the strength to keep writing this. To go on living with this feeling is painful beyond description. Isn't there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep"
The story was published posthumously in 1927, the year Akutagawa took his own life. The story progresses toward that inevitable conclusion, and gives us an insight into Akutagawa's tortured mind.
book is good, but the binding fell apart
I am enjoying the book. However, the binding fell apart and most of the pages have fallen out. I have had to tape them back in to finish reading the book.
Westernism comes to Japan.
Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Rashomon and 17 Other Stories (Penguin, 2006)
I'll admit I picked this up less because it was Akutagawa than the bit that said "illustrated by Yoshihiro Tatsumi", who's been one of the best in the business for over thirty years. When I actually got it, I found out Tatsumi was only responsible for the cover, but I went ahead and read it anyway. Eighteen of Akutagawa's stories, including "Rashomon" and "In a Grove" (the two stories that, in combination, Kurosawa adapted into the movie Rashomon). Very simple, almost stark at times. Haruki Murakami, in his introduction, stops short of naming Akutagawa as the founder of Japanese modernism, but all signs seem to point that way; if you're a fan of Japanese modernism, this is a no-brainer. For others-- well, if you haven't been exposed to any Japanese media culture at all, you might be in for something of a surprise. Not so much on the level of the stories themselves, which are quite wonderful and universal in their emotional scope, but in the directness of Akutagawa's prose style. This isn't the kind of thing you'll find in American story anthologies; we tend to gussy things up with flowery language and endless subplots and Moments of Great Import(TM). Akutagawa just has a story to tell (in many of the earlier stories, he's just retelling old fairy tales in new language, though the later stories show a more autobiographical side), and he tells it, and that's the end of it. You may find this as refreshing as I do, just be aware of what's lurking between these covers. ****
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