Akutagawa Ryunosuke Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.