What We Are Reading: Ryunosuke Akutagawa

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A couple of weeks ago we began reading Ryunosuke Akutagawa – the Japanese father of short story. We cannot say we knew much about him prior to our reading of him. He is not a well known literary icon for us. This is embarrassing considering the highest literary honor in Japan is named after him: the Akutagawa award.

Akutagawa RyunosukeWe figured it was time to get to know this man. We have loved his short stories. Dark, atmospheric psychological pieces riddled with troubled individuals. Characters are often morally challenged. For example, what choices a person will make when one’s life is at stake. In “Rashōmon,” Akutagawa examines survival – what it is and when does it exist. What will someone do to survive? What are morals worth, especially when they are tested.

It seems there are few saints in Akutagawa’s worlds. At times everyone is suspect and the truth is always spelled with a lower case “t”. It is at the point of questioning that this writer reveals the underlying theme or idea of his work. His modernist piece “In a Grove” contorts the truth to the point of uncertainty. The characters do not know what events have taken place or who performed what actions. The reader does not have any more information than the characters in the story do. It is all chaos, but for fans of Japanese film, there may be a sense that this story has been encountered before.

Legendary Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa, borrowed from Akutagawa for his film Rashōmon. Kurosawa utilized “Rashōmon” and “In a Grove” for his film. Although Akutagawa died before Kurosawa made the film, the author remained influential, and his popularity has continued to rise. Akutagawa is regarded as the master of short story in Japan. Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories

In his work, medieval aspects of Japanese culture surface. He incorporates Noh, a form of Japanese theater that predates Kabuki. “The Nose” utilizes stories from the 13th century.”The Spider’s Thread” has some basis in Buddhism. Akutagawa incorporates and works with the past of his country. “In a Grove” is one story that addresses Modernist questions and problems. In this story, the author orients contemporary issues in his, then, contemporary setting. A tumbling sort of concern for what is real and what is factual plays out in the story.

Indeed, the conflicts presented to the characters of “In a Grove” pressed on Akutagawa and other Modernists. Between the wars, Akutagawa to his life at the age of 35. His legacy, secured by the greatest national award and his inspiring stories, celebrate him.

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