Ueda Akinari Essay - Critical Essays

Akinari, Ueda

Introduction

Ueda Akinari 1734-1809

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Wayaku Tarō, Senshi Kijin, and Ueda Muchō) Japanese short story writer, prose writer, and poet.

Akinari is best known for his stories of the supernatural collected in Ugetsu Monogatari (1776; Tales of Moonlight and Rain) and Harusame Monogatari (1907; Tales of the Spring Rain). Writing at a time when Edo (Tokyo) was replacing Osaka-Kyoto as the center of culture and literary activity, Akinari is considered the last great writer of the Osaka-Kyoto literary circle.

Biographical Information

Akinari was born July 25, 1734, in Sonezaki, an area of Osaka devoted to prostitution. His mother, who likely worked as a prostitute, abandoned him shortly after his birth; his father is unknown. However, while Akinari acknowledged this account of his background, it has been challenged by recent scholars who claim he was actually the illegitimate son of a samurai. He was adopted by a prosperous merchant, Ueda Mosuke, in 1737, and the following year contracted smallpox. The disease was nearly fatal and its after-effects included life-long poor health and deformed fingers on each hand. In later life, Akinari, sensitive about his physical appearance, wrote under pseudonyms that referred to his deformities, such as Senshi Kijin (“Pruned Cripple”) and Ueda Muchō (“Ueda the Crab”). Although his education began fairly late, Akinari eventually attended the Kaitokudō School in Osaka, where literary historians believe he studied the Japanese classics and began writing haiku. In 1760, he married Ueyama Tama, a Kyoto native who worked in the home of his adoptive parents. Akinari and his wife adopted a daughter, Mineko. When his adoptive father died in 1761, Akinari assumed control of the family business, a paper and oil shop. In 1771, the business and residence were destroyed by fire, leaving Akinari's family homeless and without means of support. In 1773, Akinari moved to Kashima-mura, where he studied medicine for the next two years. Although he was a successful physician, his practice suffered from his own poor health, and he was continually distressed by his limited ability to alleviate the pain and suffering of those in his care. He left the profession in 1788, apparently because his misdiagnosis caused the death of a young patient, and returned to a life of scholarship and writing. In 1789, both Akinari's stepmother and mother-in-law died, and in 1793 he and his wife moved to Kyoto. In 1797, his wife died and Akinari, whose eyesight was failing, was cared for by Mineko for the next three years. Although he had always been somewhat reclusive and misanthropic, his declining health and the loss of his wife contributed to his generally pessimistic outlook. In 1802, apparently preoccupied with death, he designed his own tombstone and destroyed a number of his manuscripts. Nonetheless, he continued to write, producing several works detailing his scholarly pursuits and offering his opinions on a variety of subjects. At the time of his death, Akinari was working on a collection of historical tales. He died in 1809 at the home of a friend.

Major Works

Akinari's first publications belonged to the genre of katagi-bon (“character book”) and included Shodō kikimimi sekenzaru (1766) and Seken tekake katagi (1767). In 1776, Akinari published his first effort in the yomihon (“books for reading”) genre, Tales of Moonlight and Rain, which comprised nine individual stories. Scholars disagree on when the work was actually composed. Akinari's preface is dated 1768, but many literary historians believe, based on the profoundly pessimistic tone of the stories, that they were written sometime after the 1771 fire that left the author in a state of bitterness and despair. The stories, most of which are adaptations of well-known Chinese and Japanese fables and tales, which in turn were based on actual events, are full of mystery, suspense, and elements of the supernatural, not unlike the Gothic romances that were flourishing around the same time in European literature. Tales of Moonlight and Rain is generally considered Akinari's masterpiece. He then turned to writing and publishing collections of poetry in both the waka and haiku forms, but these never approached the success he had achieved with Tales of Moonlight and Rain. Toward the end of his life he produced Kinsa (1804) and Tandai shōshin roku (1808), collections of scholarly essays, opinions, and accounts of his experiences. At the time of his death, he was working on what would be his most enduring work after Tales of Moonlight and Rain. Tales of the Spring Rain contained both historical and human interest tales, ten in all, and was circulated only in manuscript form until the publication of part of the original manuscript in 1907, by which time some of the ten stories had been lost. The complete version did not appear until 1951.

Critical Reception

Akinari's short stories, particularly those collected in Tales of Moonlight and Rain, were highly acclaimed in his own time. Today these works are considered the finest example of the yomihon genre produced during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Critics praise Akinari's knowledge of Chinese literary traditions as well as those of his own country, his technical mastery, and his originality as a storyteller. According to Leon M. Zolbrod, Akinari's synthesis of the styles, images, and themes of Chinese and Japanese literature, both classical and popular, resulted in “a highly original style of narrative prose.” Zolbrod further credits Akinari with achieving respectability for prose fiction in Japan and helping to establish the genre “as a means of expressing historical criticism and cultural values.” Many scholars, including Dennis Washburn, consider Tales of Moonlight and Rain a classic of Japanese literature. Washburn observes, however, that despite the work's many praiseworthy features, it poses problems for modern readers who are unfamiliar with its Chinese and Japanese source material, uninterested in supernatural tales, or unable to appreciate Akinari's combination of elegant and everyday language. Some scholars have focused on Akinari's personal history as a means of illuminating his prose writing. Blake Morgan Young, for example, contends that the darkly pessimistic tone of Tales of the Spring Rain can be traced to the author's general outlook on life, which became darker as he grew older. During Akinari's last years, according to Young, “he was noted for being a sulking, self-scorning old man, bitterly sarcastic toward the world and its people, and feeling that the masses were full of lies and immorality.”

Principal Works

Shodō kikimimi sekenzaru [as Wayaku Tarō] (sketches) 1766

Seken tekake katagi [as Wayaku Tarō] (sketches) 1767

Ugetsu Monogatari [Tales of Moonlight and Rain] (short stories) 1776

Kakizome kigenkai (sketches) 1787

Yasaishō (poetry) 1787

Yasumikoto (nonfiction) 1792

Kinsa (nonfiction) 1804

Tsuzurabumi (poetry, prose) 1806

Fumihōgu (letters) 1808

Tandai shōshin roku (essays) 1808

Kuse monogatari (sketches) 1822

Harusame Monogatari [Tales of the Spring Rain] (short stories) 1907; revised and enlarged, 1951

Ueda Akinari zenshū. 2 vols. (essays, short stories, sketches) 1917

Akinari Ibun (essays, short stories, sketches) 1919

Ueda Akinari zenshū. 12 vols. (essays, letters, short stories, sketches) 1990-

Criticism

James T. Araki (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Araki, James T. “A Critical Approach to the Ugetsu monogatari.Monumenta Nipponica 22, nos. 1-2 (1967): 49-64.

[In the following essay, Araki offers an overview of criticism of Akinari's tales and an analysis of the structural techniques the author employed in Tales of Moonlight and Rain.]

1 A SURVEY OF CRITICAL APPROACHES

Ueda Akinari aspired to distinction as a poet and classical scholar. His reputation in Japanese literary history today, however, rests almost exclusively on his genius as a writer of short stories—particularly of the Ugetsu monogatari (Tales of the Misty Moon), a collection of nine short...

(The entire section is 8637 words.)

Leon M. Zolbrod (essay date spring 1970)

SOURCE: Zolbrod, Leon M. “A Comparative Approach to Tales of Moonlight and Rain.Humanities Association Bulletin 21, no. 2 (spring 1970): 48-56.

[In the following essay, Zolbrod explains the complex relationship between Tales of Moonlight and Rain and the Chinese and Japanese sources of the collection.]

Tales of Moonlight and Rain (Ugetsu monogatari) is a collection of nine Japanese stories of the supernatural. Although the preface dates from 1768, the book was not published until 1776 in Kyoto and Osaka, and the author, Ueda Akinari (1734-1809), probably completed it shortly before this time. Japanese scholars classify Moonlight and...

(The entire section is 4673 words.)

Blake Morgan Young (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Young, Blake Morgan. “Introduction to ‘Hankai’: A Tale from the Harusame Monogatari by Ueda Akinari (1734-1809).” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 32 (1972): 150-68.

[In the following essay, Young discusses Akinari as a writer who remained outside contemporary literary circles, thus minimizing the influence of other writers on his work.]

Ueda Akinari (sometimes) has been called a good amateur.1 He achieved, as a novelist, the distinction to which he had aspired as a waka poet and classical scholar, and he is worthy of note as a writer of haikai and a devotee of the tea ceremony as well. Possessing a choleric and...

(The entire section is 6533 words.)

Leon M. Zolbrod (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Zolbrod, Leon M. Introduction to Ugetsu Monogatari: Tales of Moonlight and Rain: A Complete English Version of the Eighteenth-Century Japanese Collection of Tales of the Supernatural by Ueda Akinari 1734-1809, translated and edited by Leon M. Zolbrod, pp. 19-94. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1974.

[In the following excerpt, Zolbrod provides an overview of Akinari's Tales of Moonlight and Rain, discussing the work's style, influences, and historical background.]

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Much of the fascination with travel and the lyric beauty of place names in the tales comes from Akinari's sense of history and the passage of...

(The entire section is 18147 words.)

Donald Keene (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Keene, Donald. “Fiction: Ueda Akinari (1734-1809).” In World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867, pp. 371-95. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.

[In the following excerpt, Keene praises Akinari's talent as a fiction writer and maintains that his stories are still widely read today, unlike the works of most of his contemporaries.]

During the hundred years after Saikaku's death only one writer of fiction appeared whose works are still widely read today, Ueda Akinari. He is a difficult writer to classify because his literary production extends into many genres and styles. For most people he is known only as the author of...

(The entire section is 9178 words.)

Blake Morgan Young (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Young, Blake Morgan. “The Final Years.” In Ueda Akinari, pp. 115-40. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1982.

[In the following excerpt, Young provides an overview of the composition and contents of Tales of the Spring Rain, while also discussing Akinari's literary reputation during and after his life.]

During the last years of his life—perhaps as much as the last decade—Akinari was working sporadically on his second major work of fiction, Harusame monogatari (Tales of the Spring Rain). He probably never finished it to his own satisfaction. It was read as a manuscript by a small number of admirers, but it was not...

(The entire section is 6528 words.)

Dennis Washburn (essay date spring 1990)

SOURCE: Washburn, Dennis. “Ghostwriters and Literary Haunts: Subordinating Ethics to Art in Ugetsu Monogatari.Monumenta Nipponica 45, no. 1 (spring 1990): 39-74.

[In the following essay, Washburn contends that in Tales of Moonlight and Rain Akinari achieves a delicate balance between artistic considerations and elements of the supernatural.]

The collection of tales Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Rain and Moon), written by Ueda Akinari, 1734-1809, has been an acknowledged classic of Japanese literature almost from the time of its publication in 1776. The work has been praised for the beauty of its prose style, the careful way in which...

(The entire section is 17468 words.)

Susanna Fessler (essay date spring 1996)

SOURCE: Fessler, Susanna. “The Nature of the Kami: Ueda Akinari and Tandai Shoshin Roku.Monumenta Nipponica 51, no. 1 (spring 1996): 1-15.

[In the following excerpt, Fessler explains Akinari's philosophy on the nature of deities.]

Ueda Akinari, renowned for his fiction writing, was also a serious scholar of kokugaku, or National Learning. Of particular concern for him was the nature of the kami—their ethics (if any) and how those ethics reflected the cognitive nature of the beings themselves. In an age when the nature of the kami was being discussed by a number of kokugaku scholars, including the great Motoori Norinaga, 1730-1801, Akinari...

(The entire section is 3757 words.)

Frederick S. Frank (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Frank, Frederick S. “Ueda Akinari.” In Gothic Writers: A Critical and Bibliographical Guide, edited by Douglass H. Thomson, Jack G. Voller, and Frederick S. Frank, pp. 12-19. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

[In the following excerpt, Frank discusses Akinari's work as part of the Western Gothic tradition.]

The writings of the eighteenth-century Japanese Gothicist Ueda Akinari confirm the presence of the Gothic spirit in oriental literature. All of the traditional features of the genre are firmly embedded in Akinari's tales of terror, with a special place given to the psychological monstrosities of the dream life and the intrusion of the malicious...

(The entire section is 3082 words.)