Akutagawa Ryunosuke 1892–-1927
(Born Niihara Ryunosuke) Japanese short story writer, novelist, poet, translator, and critic.
Akutagawa is considered one of the foremost writers of Japan's modern era, a period that began in 1868 under the rule of the Emperor Meiji. His works, particularly his short stories, contributed greatly to his generation's thoughtful consideration of such issues as the function and merits of different literary genres and the artist's role in contemporary Japanese society. They also proved instrumental in extricating Japanese literature from what critics consider the morass of gossip and tedious didacticism into which it had fallen before the Meiji Restoration.
Akutagawa was born in Irifunecho, a district within Tokyo. His father was the enterprising owner of five dairies by the time Akutagawa was born. Shortly after Akutagawa's birth, his mother, who suffered from mental illness, lapsed into a schizophrenic state from which she never recovered. Memories of his mother's insanity and the resulting fear that he may have inherited her mental condition preyed upon Akutagawa his entire life; these factors also strongly influenced his writing, often serving as themes in his fiction. After his mother's death, his mother's elder brother and his wife, who gave the boy their family name, Akutagawa, adopted him. His adoptive parents had remained largely untouched by Western culture, and they instilled in him a reverence for Japanese traditions, particularly in literature. Akutagawa developed a fondness for ancient legends and tales of the grotesque, both of which later figured significantly in his work. However, he was a voracious reader, and by the time he reached middle school he was reading the works of Henrik Ibsen, Rudyard Kipling, and Anatole France, among others. Akutagawa attended Tokyo Imperial University, where he excelled in his studies of English literature, translated many Western works, and became active in publishing a student-produced literary periodical, as well as regularly participating in a discussion group conducted by the renowned novelist Natsume SÇseki. Akutagawa had begun publishing short stories in periodicals by the time he graduated in 1916, and he was widely acclaimed as one of the brightest newcomers on the literary scene. He accepted a part-time teaching position at the Naval Academy at Yokosuka, meanwhile strengthening his reputation during 1917 by publishing his stories in various magazines and in two collections. In 1918 Akutagawa married the niece of a friend he had known since childhood; in the same year he also entered into a contract with a Japanese newspaper to publish his fiction. This enabled him to resign his post at the Naval Academy and devote himself entirely to his writing. In 1921 Akutagawa was sent to China by his newspaper as an “overseas observer,” an assignment that proved to be a turning point in his life. Never having enjoyed sound health, he suffered during his travels from a number of debilitating illnesses that left him weakened, depressed, and helpless to combat a developing mental illness brought on by fears of a deterioration similar to his mother's. His writing, which up to this point was firmly rooted in history and legend, grew introspective and autobiographical. Akutagawa's fear of madness became obsessive, and he sought temporary respite from both psychological and physical troubles through the use of drugs. Following the mental breakdown of a close friend, Akutagawa committed suicide in 1927.
Major Works of Short Fiction
While Akutagawa did not confine himself to any particular genre during his career, his greatest work was done in the short story form. He consistently attempted to examine predictable and universal patterns of human behavior, and to depict those natural aspirations and illusions that transcend barriers of space and time. Conflicts between the natural inclinations of human beings and the demands imposed by ordered societies, as well as humanity's struggle with baser propensities, echo throughout Akutagawa's works. For example, “Rashomon,” which has come to be synonymous with its author's name in part because of the 1950 film version by director Kurosawa Akira, depicts the moral collapse of a man driven to assault and thievery by the horror he witnesses in a society that has itself collapsed and lives by the savage morality of expediency. In this story Akutagawa portrayed the psychological drama of humanity caught in the confrontation between circumstantial chaos and structured morality, an approach unceasingly fascinating to him, in one of the ancient settings he had always found so effective as dramatic background. His second volume of short stories, Tobako tu akuma (1917; Tobacco and the Devil), featured stories set in medieval Japan and drew heavily on Asian legends in form and theme. “Kumo no Ito” (“The Spider's Thread”) deals allegorically with one man's pervasive egoism, a flaw that proves fatal both to himself and to others. While Akutagawa's subjects constitute faithful representations of both the grim and the foolish aspects of human behavior, they are not always devoid of humor. “Hana” (“The Nose”), one of Akutagawa's best-known stories, addresses egoism by relating the predicament of a Buddhist monk who has succeeded in shortening his enormous nose, the bane of his existence and, as he sees it, the impediment to his social acceptance, but his vanity is penalized by disfigurement of his face and coldness from his peers.
After his death Akutagawa was largely neglected in Japan by critics who considered his style affected and his poetic approach to fiction overly refined—as evidenced, for example, in his subtle characterization. If not for the lively interest of a Western audience, which was removed from Japanese literary debate and which found in his work a fresh Eastern perspective on dilemmas long familiar in Western literature, Akutagawa might have been completely forgotten. The history of Akutagawa's critical reception is far more complex; due to neglect by Western readers of the later stories, and a tendency in Japan to rate the author's efforts purely in terms of personal preference, more comprehensive critical estimations of Akutagawa's career were largely nonexistent for a time. However, more recent commentators have found that Akutagawa's stories are skillfully written and demonstrate scope unrestricted to his own time and culture, and for that reason widened the dimensions of their genre and helped make short stories a more important part of Japanese literature. Through his early work as a translator and his later concern with important critical issues, he helped introduce and foster the tradition of the European novel in his own country, where, according to some critics, the novel form might otherwise have degenerated. Far from being dismayed by the differences between East and West, Akutagawa used them as sources for both the content and spirit of his work; the result was a significant achievement in the development of modern Japanese literature.
Rashomon [Rashomon, and Other Stories] 1916
Tobaku tu akuma [Tobacco and the Devil] 1917
The Puppeteer 1919
Tales Grotesque and Curious 1930
Jigoku Hen [Hell Screen and Other Stories] 1948
Japanese Short Stories 1961
Exotic Japanese Stories: The Beautiful and the Grotesque 1964
Kappa (novel) 1947
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SOURCE: Introduction to Tales Grotesque and Curious by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, translated by Glenn W. Shaw, The Hokuseido Press, 1930, pp. i-vii.
[In the following essay, Shaw gives an account of Akutagawa's influences and development as a short story writer.]
[Akutagawa's] graduation thesis was entitled, Wiriamu Morisu Kenkyū (A Study of William Morris).
He was like Morris in his surrender to the fascination of the Middle Ages, but he had none of the practical reforming tendencies of that artist socialist. He has been more aptly compared to Flaubert for the seriousness with which he took his art and the preciousness of his style. And the post-bellum point of view has been expressed by a Japanese social worker who, at his death, compared him, as a man with a keen sense of humor and knowledge of human nature and “an arbiter of elegance in the vicious society in which he lived,” to Petronius.
He says of himself while at the University that he did not attend classes very well and was an idle student, but we may take this for the expression of a sincere wish to be more like some of his hardier classmates, for Kikuchi Kan, one of them and today the literary Crœsus of Japan, says that Akutagawa went to his classes faithfully and had the confidence of his professors.
Kikuchi first came to admire Akutagawa when, with a few others at the University,...
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SOURCE: “Fresh Tales from Japan,” in The Saturday Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 10, March 7, 1953, pp. 59–60.
[In the following review, Halsband offers high praise for the English translation of Rashomon.]
The recent success in this country of the Japanese film Roshomon probably explains why there has now been published Roshomon and Other Stories, by Ryuonsuke Akutagawa. The six stories which it contains need no recommendation except their own merits—which are fresh and striking. Their themes are varied: a pair of stories deal with murder and with seduction and rape; a pair are comic, about a glutton cured by gorging, and a mischievous priest deceived by his own deception; the remaining two relate the robbing of a thief, and the martyrdom of a saintly boy-girl. All are brief and incisive, yet with a wealth of over-tone which enlarges their meanings beyond specific people and places. The sensibility with which they are presented by Akutagawa—who died a suicide in 1927—is cynical and subtle.
Here, obviously, is no pretty-pretty playing with Japanese garden life, but a relentless stripping of character and motive. The rationalization of a ghoulish thief is as bitterly sensitive as the thoughts of an unfaithful wife who prepares to substitute herself for her husband to be killed by her lover. The translation by Takashi Kajima, except for a few clumsy phrases, is clean...
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SOURCE: “Akutagawa's Rashomon: The Development of the Theme Through Setting and Symbolism,” in Literature East and West, Vol. 15, No. 4, December, 1971, pp. 867–71.
[In the following essay, Lewis examines the meaning of the story “Rashomon” through its setting and symbolism.]
In “Rashomon,” a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the central theme—the destruction of conventional morality—is skillfully conveyed primarily through patterns of imagery and the setting. Through a combination of casual events and psychological justifications, the protagonist shatters the facade of noble principles that would eventually result in his death by his realization that his resurgent doubts about the immorality of stealing in order to live are merely symptomatic of a harsher reality—that principles are only fabrications of social convenience with little validity when measured against survival itself.
The author constructs and embellishes this theme by establishing the setting in conventional symbols and images: it is a cold, rainy evening, and the servant has taken refuge from the weather (and his plight) in the Rashomon, the deserted gate in Kyoto's outer wall, itself symbolic of the decline of ancient values. The physical features of the setting are vehicles, both on a literal, casual plane and also on the symbolic level, of the destruction of the servant's traditional views of...
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SOURCE: “Akutagawa Ryunosuke,” in Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature, Stanford University Press, 1976, pp. 111–44.
[In the following essay, Ueda discusses Akutagawa's interest in literary criticism and the representation of the artist's life in his short stories.]
Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892–1927) was a writer who could easily have become a scholar or literary critic. An extremely self-conscious man, he never failed to criticize the artist within himself, usually with unforgiving scrutiny. Naturally the basic problems of art and artist are abundantly reflected in his works. “The Hell Screen,” a masterpiece of his early period, centers on a painter caught between the conflicting demands of life and art. Kappa, a major work of his later years, has a poet, an aphorist, and two composers among its main characters. A sizable number of his other major pieces, such as “Absorbed in Letters,” “Withered Fields,” “Genkaku Sanbō,” “Cogwheel,” and “A Fool's Life,” also have artists for their principal characters and deal with problems relating to art. As an essayist, too, Akutagawa wrote a good deal about literature, from the casual and polemic “Literary, Too Literary” to the more theoretical “Ten Rules for Writing a Novel,” “Literature: an Introduction,” and “On the Appreciation of Literature.” There can be no doubt that, like his mentor...
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SOURCE: “The Flight to Parnassus,” in Akutagawa: An Introduction, Wayne State University Press, 1972, pp. 15–42.
[In the following essay, Yu examines major themes in Akutagawa's short stories, focusing on “The Nose” as the starting point of his fiction career.]
Of Akutagawa's early writings, only a handful—translations of France and Yeats,1 and pieces like “The Old Man” (written in 1914) and “Youths and Death” (1914)—appeared in the third New Thought. None of these writings attracted critical attention; nor did his more ambitious “Rashomon” (1915), which he managed to place in another little magazine. Even “The Nose” might have suffered the same fate but for Soseki's personal blessings. Upon reading this story in the first issue of the fourth New Thought, Soseki at once wrote a congratulatory letter to the young author: “I found your piece very interesting. Sober and serious without trying to be funny, it exudes humor, a sure sign of refined taste. Furthermore, the material is fresh and eye-catching. Your style is well-polished, admirably fitting.” The elder novelist did not forget to add a word of advice: “Go on and produce twenty or thirty stories like this one. You will soon be incomparable in literary circles. ‘The Nose’ alone may not attract many readers. Even if it does, they may let it pass quietly. But...
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SOURCE: “From Tale to Short Story: Akutagawa's Toshishun and It's Chinese Origins,” in Reality and Fiction in Modern Japanese Literature, M. E. Sharpe Inc., 1980, pp. 39–54.
[In the following essay, Lippit argues that Akutagawa's use of traditional existing stories allows him to shift his focus away from the problems of modern storytelling and instead deal more directly with the story elements themselves.]
Following in the path of Mori Ogai and Natsume Sōseki, writers whom he especially admired, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892–1927) started his writing by rejecting the confessional self-revelation and open self-search which characterized Japan's I-novelists, including the naturalistic writers like Katai and the idealistic Shirakaba writers. Akutagawa, who was also strongly influenced by Western fin-de-siècle literature, chose the short story as his form from the start, and studied Poe, Anatole France, de Maupassant, Gautier, and Merimée, among others.
Although the short story has been the dominant form in modern Japanese literature, it was often—particularly in realistic works—meant only to be a short form of the novel. In fact, the Japanese term shōsetsu is used to refer to both the novel and the short story. Such writers of the I-novel as Shiga Naoya (who wrote major novels) and Kajii Motojiro (who wrote short fiction exclusively) excelled in using the short-story...
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SOURCE: “Akutagawa Ryunosuke,” in Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era, Henry Holt and Company, 1984, pp. 556–93.
[In the following essay, Keene presents an overview of Akutagawa's short stories and his place in modern fiction.]
The most striking literary figure of the fifteen years of the Taishō era was Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892–1927). He established his reputation early in his brief career, and even when his style and manner had greatly changed he retained his hold on the mass of readers. His short stories, especially those of the early period, have acquired the status of classics, and are read in the schools and frequently reprinted. He was also the first modern Japanese writer to attract wide attention abroad, and most of his important works have been translated. His writings, together with those of Natsume Sōseki and Mori Ōgai, “constitute the basic elements in the literary background of modern Japanese.”1
Akutagawa was born in Tokyo, the son of a dairyman named Niihara Toshizō. Most of his father's customers were foreigners, and that, no doubt, was why the Niiharas were one of only three Japanese families living in the Irifune foreign concession. It has often been suggested that Akutagawa's fascination with the exotic reflected this early background, but considering that he left the foreign concession when still an infant, this seems...
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SOURCE: “Akutagawa and the ‘Western’ Short Story,” in Revue de Litterature Comparee, Vol. 65, No. 2, April, 1991, pp. 175–83.
[In the following essay, Goyet contends that Akutagawa's short stories are stylistically and thematically situated in-between the standards of Western and Eastern short fiction.]
The Japanese did not have a special word for “short story” before the last years of the XIXth century. Up to that time, the same word monogatari was used indifferently: e.g., for the Genji monogatari and its thousands of pages, and for the Ugetsu monogatari of Ueda Akinari, tales of a few pages each. Length had never been a criterion for judging a prose work. Even at the end of the XIXth century, when the opening of the country to the Western world brought about new trends in Japanese literature, the emerging modern literature was slow to pay attention to the criterion of length. The word chosen to name the new-born “novel”: shôsetsu, was made up of the two sino-japanese characters for “short” (shô) and “story” or “apologue” (setsu), although the works in question, such as the programmatic Floating cloud, Ukigumo, of Futabatei Shimei, were often full-length novels. The specific word for “short story”, tanpen shôsetsu, was created later, in response to the multitudinous translations of Western short stories,...
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Allen, Louis. “Dark Estrangements.” Times Literary Supplement (28 April 1989): 466–67.
Includes translations of Akutagawa's short stories in an overview of modern Japanese fiction.
Lippit, Seiji M. “The Disintegrating Machinery of the Modern: Akutagawa Ryunosuke's Late Writings.” The Journal of Asian Studies 58, No. 1 (February 1999): 27–50.
Reevaluates Akutagawa's late fiction, as well as his ideas about modern fiction writing, to interpret his thoughts on purity in fiction.
Additional coverage of Akutagawa's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 117, 154; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 180; and Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 16.
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