The first Japanese author popularized in the West, Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) restated old legends and medieval history in modernist psychological terms. A prolific writer of naturalistic "slice of life" short fiction, he produced 150 stories and novellas that address human dilemmas and struggles of conscience tinged with gothic darkness. Contributing to his mystique was his rapid mental decline and suicide at age the age of 35.
A Tokyo native, Akutagawa was born in the historic, multicultural Irifunecho district on March 1, 1892, to Fuku Niihara and Binzo Shinhara, a dairy merchant. He was named Niihara Ryunosuke in infancy to honor the family of his mother, the scion of an ancient samurai clan. After her mental deterioration when he was nine months old, he passed from the custody of his father, who was unable to care for him. His maternal uncle, Michiaki Akutagawa, adopted him, giving him the surname Akutagawa. Shaken by what he perceived to be parental abandonment, he grew up friendless. In place of human peer relationships, he absorbed fictional characters from Japanese storybooks. In adolescence, he advanced to translations of Anatole France and Heinrich Ibsen.
An Early Literary Master
At the age of 21, Akutagawa entered the Imperial University of Tokyo and majored in English literature with a concentration in the works of British poet-artist William Morris. Two years before graduating, Akutagawa joined Kikuchi Kan and Kume Masao in founding a literary journal, Shin Shicho (New Thought), in which he published his translations of Anatole France and John Keats. In his early twenties, Akutagawa produced "Rashomon" (The Rasho Gate) (1915), a novella set on a barren, war-torn landscape in twelfth-century Kyoto. It is the tale of an encounter between a grasping Japanese servant and an old woman who weaves wigs from the hair she salvages from corpses. The action, which depicts post-war survivalism, derives its power from widespread poverty and a short-term morality suited to the demands of self-preservation. In the estimation of critic Richard P. Benton, the story "suggests that people have the morality they can afford."
After reading "Rashomon," novelist Natsume Soseki, the literary editor of Asahi, a national Japanese newspaper, became Akutagawa's mentor and encouraged his efforts. "Rashomon" remained his masterwork and became his most dissected title following director Akira Kurosawa's screen version in 1951, which won an Academy Award for best foreign film.
A brilliant student and reader of world literature, Akutagawa taught English for one year at the Naval Engineering College in Yokosuka, Honshu. At age 26, he married Tsukamoto Fumi and sired three sons. To support his family, in 1919, he edited the newspaper Osaka Mainichi, which sent him on assignment to China and Korea. Because of poor mental and physical health, he left the post. Rejecting teaching posts at the universities of Kyoto and Tokyo, he devoted the rest of his life to writing short stories, essays, and haiku.
Literature from Classic Sources
Akutagawa filled his works with allusions to classic literature, including early Christian writing and the fiction of China and Russia, both of which he visited in 1921. Among his publications were critical essays and translations of works by William Butler Yeats. A major contributor to Japanese prose, Akutagawa expressed to a wide reading public a vivid imagination, stylistic perfectionism, and psychological probing. For "The Nose" (1916), the story of a holy man obsessed by his ungainly nose, he invested the Cyrano-like tale with deep personal dissatisfaction not unlike the feelings of discontent and alienation that plagued the writer himself.
As described by literary historian Shuichi Kato in Volume 3 of A History of Japanese Literature (1983), Akutagawa developed literary tastes from the shogunate period of late sixteenth-century Japan. Kato states: "From this tradition came his taste in clothes, disdain for boorishness, a certain respect for punctilio and, more important, his wide knowledge of Chinese and Japanese literature and delicate sensitivity to language." As a means of viewing his own country with fresh insight, he cultivated a keen interest in European fiction by August Strindberg, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nicholai Gogol, Charles Baudelaire, Leo Tolstoy, and Jonathan Swift. In particular, he studied Franz Kafka and American poet Edgar Allan Poe, masters of the grotesque.
Retreated into Self
Writing in earnest at the age of 25, Akutagawa produced memorable short fiction in the Japanese "I" novel tradition of shishosetsu, which is both confessional and self-revealing. At the height of his creativity, he began examining deeply personal attitudes toward art and life in such symbolic writings as "Niwa" (The Garden), the story of a failed family and the tuberculosis-wracked son who restores a magnificent garden. As the author began expressing more of his own neuroses, delicate physical condition and drug addiction, the tone and atmosphere of his fiction darkened with hints of madness and a will to die.
One dramatically grim story, "Hell Screen" (1918), depicts the artist Yoshihide who pleases a feudal lord by painting a Buddhist hell. For source material, the lord agrees to set fire to a cart, in which a beautiful woman rides, but tricks the artist by selecting Yoshihide's beloved daughter Yuzuki as the victim. For the sake of art, Yoshihide watches her torment and paints the screen with bright flames devouring her hair. His work complete, he becomes a martyr to art by hanging himself at his studio.
Suicide at 35
In his last two years, Akutagawa suffered visual hallucinations, alienation, and increasing self-absorption as he searched himself for signs of his mother's insanity. As macabre thoughts and exaggerated self-doubts marred his perspective, he pondered the future of his art in a prophetic essay, "What is Proletarian Literature" (1927). Morbidly introspective and burdened by his uncle's debts, he considered himself a failure and his writings negligible. Two of his most effective fictions, "Cogwheels" and "A Fool's Life," recount his terror of madness as it gradually consumed his mind and art.
Following months of brooding and a detailed study of the mechanics of dying, Akutagawa carefully chose death at home by a drug overdose as the least disturbing to his family. He left a letter, entitled "A Note to a Certain Old Friend," describing his detachment from life, the product of "diseased nerves, lucid as ice." In death, he anticipated peace and contentment.
Much of Akutagawa's most intriguing writing—"Hell Screen," "The Garden," "In the Grove," "Kappa," "A Fool's Life," and the nightmarish "Cogwheels"—reached the reading public over a half century after his death. Largely through increased interest in Asian literature in translation and through cinema versions, these titles bolstered the value of Japanese short fiction. To honor Akutagawa's genius, in 1935, Kikuchi Kan, his friend from their university days, and the Bungei Shunju publishing house established the Akutagawa Award for Fiction, a prestigious biennial Japanese literary prize. The Nihon Bungaku Shinkokai (Society for the Promotion of Japanese Literature) selects the best short story from a beginning author to receive the prize as well as publication in the literary magazine Bungei Shunju.
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