Rynosuke Akutagawa’s short stories have the quality of fine jewels created by a master gemologist. They are crafted with great care and attention to detail; they are multifaceted, glimmering from a variety of viewing angles; they have hidden depths of meaning that are revealed upon close scrutiny; and they have a polish that makes their brilliance linger in readers’ memories. The subject matter of Akutagawa’s body of work can be divided loosely into three groups.

His earliest phase is represented by such stories as “Rashmon,” which concerns self-interest for the sake of survival; “Imogayo” (1916; “Yam Gruel”), which deals with gluttony; and “The Nose,” a study in vanity. In his early works, Akutagawa retold stories from Japanese history and legend in modern language and from a contemporary psychological perspective. These tales were intended to demonstrate humankind’s eternal conflict between noble and base instincts, and they generally serve to ironically illuminate less savory motivations that lead to socially unacceptable forms of behavior.

In the second group of stories, Akutagawa’s emphasis shifted to realism to examine the nature of art and art’s effects on life. Stories such as “Hell Screen,” in which a medieval painter sacrifices his daughter to death by immolation in order to capture her agony for art’s sake, and “Seika no ichi” (1922; “The Garden”), in which a modern man sacrifices his own health to restore a dilapidated Japanese garden to its pristine splendor, are emblematic of this period.

The final group, characterized by stories like “Cogwheels,” a harrowing hallucination, and “A Fool’s Life,” a series of vignettes that encapsulate the author’s mental deterioration, consist of intimate personal documentation of the author’s absorption with his descent into insanity, which culminated in his suicide.

Many of the stories Akutagawa wrote throughout his career were overt examinations of faith, such as “Hkynin no shi” (1918; “The Martyr”) or “Nankin no Kirisuto” (1920; “Christ in Nanking”). Other stories contain religious undertones or incorporate elements of superstition and the supernatural. An early opponent of the self-confessional naturalism that held sway in Japanese literature during the time he flourished, Akutagawa seamlessly blended aspects of Eastern and Western philosophical thought. A well-integrated product of his Asian heritage and his English-oriented education, Akutagawa simultaneously combined the stoicism and fatalism of the one culture with the exuberance and spontaneity of the other.

In his scores of stories based upon historical material, Akutagawa was especially interested in three distinct eras from Japan’s past. Of primary interest is the Heian (meaning “peace” or “tranquillity”) period, an era that stretched for nearly four hundred years, from 794 to1185. During this period, the Japanese capital was moved to Kyto, such Chinese influences as Confucianism dominated, and the samurai class came to power. Equally important, art and literature rose to prominence in the Japanese imperial court. The world’s first novel, Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji monogatari (c. 1004; The Tale of Genji, 1925-1933), and Sei Shnagon’s court exposé Makura no sshi (The Pillow Book) were written during the Heian period, as were the words to Japan’s national anthem. Akutagawa’s most widely recognized stories, “Rashmon” and “In a Grove,” are set in this historically significant age.

A second era of interest is the Edo period (1603-1868), particularly the late Tokugawa Shogunate (1853-1867). This was a time of great upheaval, when Japan struggled to move from an isolated feudal culture to a modern society in step with the Western world. Akutagawa’s “The Assassination of a Culture” (1918) is one of his stories set in this period.

The third era of concentration is the time in which Akutagawa came of age, the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Japan began to modernize and become a world power, and the succeeding Taisho age (1912-1926). These periods were marked by many economic and societal reforms; Japan embraced Western technology and...

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