Akutagawa Ryunosuke

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Glenn W. Shaw (essay date 1930)

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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, they began in 1914 the publication of the third series of the magazine Shinshichō. His maiden effort appeared in the first issue, attracting no particular attention. But in the following year he published in the magazine Teikoku Bungaku two stories, the second of which, “Rashōmon,” became the title story of his first volume … and is now always associated with his name. It is a gruesome thing concerning the old two-storied south gate of Kyōto in the days when that landmark was falling into decay with the rest of the ancient capital toward the end of the twelfth century. By way of lame extenuation, this much, at least, may be said for the story (which is the fourth in this volume), that in other tales, Akutagawa has written with even more disgusting realism of this truly distressing period.

In December, 1915, while still at the University, Akutagawa became a disciple of the preeminent writer of the day, Natsume Soseki, who probably had a greater influence than any other man on his literary life. Mori Ogai, the versatile army surgeon, who tried his hand at so many things in the literary field during the periods of Meiji and Taishō, has been credited with having had the next greatest influence on him.

In 1916, in a fourth revival of the magazine Shinshichō, Akutagawa published “Hana” (“The Nose”), the second story in this book, which drew from Natsume the highest praise. He told his young disciple that if he would write twenty or thirty more stories like it, he would find himself occupying a unique position among the writers of his country, a prophecy which came true. Out of old material, with the greatest attention to detail and to the atmosphere of the period of which he wrote, Akutagawa had produced a grotesquely amusing thing, writing into it some modern psychology and the little lesson that ideals are precious only so long as they remain ideals. This new way of treating historical material in Japan attracted the attention of his countrymen and became characteristic of much of Akutagawa's work. Of this sort of tale, “Lice” and the Chinese story, “The Wine Worm,” go one step further...

(This entire section contains 819 words.)

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in grotesquery, while “The Pipe” turns to lighter and more wholesome humor.

In 1917, when Akutagawa published his second volume of short stories, Tobako to Akuma (The Devil and Tobacco), he had already established himself as one of the foremost writers of the day. The title story of the volume is the opening story in this book. In it we see an Oriental saturated with western literature playing with an old theme in a highly amusing and clever way. (Incidentally Akutagawa was himself an inveterate cigarette smoker.) It is one of the many stories he wrote about the early Catholic missionaries of the sixteenth century, one of them so cleverly that it fooled Japanese students of the period into believing that it was a translation from an old Latin text, non-existent, but called by Akutagawa Legenda Aurea.

[There] can be no doubt that he had more individuality than any other writer of his time and has left in Japanese literature a mass of artistic work, often grotesque and curious, that, while it undoubtedly angers the proletarian experimenters who now hold the stage and fight with lusty pens and a highly developed class consciousness against all that he stood for, will continue to live as long as men go on treasuring the fancies their fellows from time to time set down with care on paper.

Robert Halsband (essay date 1953)

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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 and lucid; and the volume itself is tastefully printed, illustrated, and priced. The unusual excellence of the stories suggests that more of contemporary Japanese literature deserves publication in English.

Patricia M. Lewis (essay date 1971)

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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 honor and morality. This tradition is emphasized by the fact that the protagonist has been released from his function as the servant of a samurai, the literal and symbolic figure of traditional Japanese life and custom. The old order has been disrupted: the servant has been discharged, and the time-honored code of morality has been displaced. On a larger scale, the decaying Rashomon is representative of the declining prosperity of Kyoto, and it is this decline that has resulted in the servant's dismissal. Thus, it is subtly significant that he should take refuge in an edifice that is suffering, as he is, from the effects of economic pressures. These pressures precipitate his confrontation with his own moral precepts just as they precipitate the desecration of the Buddhist images which are sold as firewood. The setting at the gate is also important because it is on the perimeter of the city and opens out to the unknown, the significance of which will be discussed later in this paper.

But the decaying state of the Rashomon is not the only symbolic indication of future realizations. The deathly ominous red sky “in the afterlight of the departed sun,” the depressing effect of the rain, the “howling wind in the evening dusk,” and the presence of the “white droppings of crows”1 dotting the crumbling stones, all contribute to the realistic setting of the story, but also operate on a symbolic level to portend the transformation of the servant into an absurd here devoid of metaphysical anchorage. The symbolic death of metaphysics is intensified by the ghostly aura created by the presence of the unwanted corpses as well as by the image of “a fat black cloud impaling itself on the tips of the tiles jutting out from the roof on the gate.”

It is the presence of the bodies in the surreal flickering light which magnifies his receptivity to the nightmarish confusion of reality with appearance: “He caught sight of a ghoulish form bent over a corpse.” This confusion is paralleled by his vacillation between the alternative of death and good or the alternative of life and evil, but the confusion is subliminally negated by the red, festering pimple which, like his final commitment to evil, is resolutely emerging. But the conventional view of evil as the absence of good is torturously inverted. For the servant, good becomes the absence of evil, or at best, a superfluous construct of appearances superimposed on a reality that makes no distinctions. It is therefore his commitment to reality instead of appearance that supplants his original conflict. And it is his realization of this distinction expressed in the “certain courage [which] was born in his heart,” that designates his emergence as an absurd figure.

His emergence is also conveyed by the author on an imagistic level. When the servant first sees the light in the tower, he is described as “huddling, cat-like …” When creeping to the tower to investigate the light, he is compared to a lizard. But after his acceptance of the absurd and his resultant detachment from conventional codes, he is ironically elevated to the level of mythological powers by the image of thundering footsteps pounding in the hollow tower.

Animal imagery is also employed in describing the old woman: she is compared to a monkey killing the lice of her young; her arms have “no more flesh on them than on the shanks of a chicken”; she gazes at the servant with the “sharp red eyes of a bird of prey”; and, a “sound like the cawing of a crow came from her throat.” It is significant that these images are drawn during the servant's moments of confusion between appearance and reality, until he is aware that she is “A ghoul no longer; only a hag. …” It is during these moments of confusion that the significance of the sword becomes evident.

The servant's sword, reminiscent of traditional bonds and samurai ritual, is a conventional symbol of violence, but violence tempered by a code of honor. Because the servant never considers selling the sword in order to buy food, the importance of the sword and its tradition is indirectly emphasized. It is ironic that the sword subdues the woman and thereby frees the servant from the illusion that he battles a ghoul. When the servant sheathes his sword and raises his hand to touch the pimple on his cheek, his metamorphosis from honor to the absurd is nearly complete.

The motif of appearance and reality is further exemplified by the old woman stealing from the corpses hair that will be made into wigs. Not only does the initially apparent desecration of the bodies serve to horrify the servant and thus act as catalyst to his epiphany, but the idea of wig-wearing also carries with it overtones of artificiality, subterfuge, a deliberate attempt to mask reality with an artifact of appearance. And it is ironic that the old woman's words, “… I pull out the hair … to make a wig …,” banish the unknown—the realm of appearance.

This same motif is apparent in the depiction of the bodies: “Some of them were women, and all were lolling on the floor with their mouths open or their arms outstretched showing no more signs of life than so many clay dolls. One would doubt that they had ever been alive, so eternally silent they were. Their shoulders, breasts, and torsos stood out in the dim light; other parts vanished in shadow.” The fusion of clay dolls with shadow again juxtaposes appearances and reality, inducing them to merge in the bizarre, surrealistic, limbo-like setting. It is in limbo that life and death are no longer dichotomous.

Perhaps the most complex image and symbol pattern lies in the recurrence of “the unknown.” The first instance where this occurs is when the servant is climbing the board lacquered stairs leading to the tower over the gate. He is halfway up the stairs when he sees a flickering light in the tower. “What sort of person would be making a light in the Rashomon … and in a storm? The unknown, the evil terrified him.” The second instance occurs after the servant has stolen the old hag's clothes and disappeared into the night: “Shortly after that the hag raised her body from the corpses. Grumbling and groaning, she crawled to the top stair by the still flickering torchlight, and through the gray hair which hung over her face, she peered down to the last stair in the torch light. Beyond this was only darkness … unknowing and unknown.”

The images are inverted: the servant, in a state of moral conflict, sees the light in the tower as he climbs the stairs and fears an unknown that awaits him; the hag, who has resolved, or perhaps denied moral conflict, looks down the stairs into the darkness. And there lies the unknown for her. Because the images are inverted, their symbolism must likewise be inverted. As the servant transcends the unknown by his metamorphosis to the absurd and his implied commitment to life (conveyed by the light imagery, ghostly though it may be), the old hag, now faced with the consequences of her amoral “non-code” turned back upon her, must undergo a reversal of the servant's metamorphosis from conventional morality to valueless existence. She is no longer detached from a code of values because her encounter with the servant has altered her perception of reality. For her, the darkness beyond the stairs is death. And therein lies the despair of this story.

Although a congruity of theme, action, character and imagery exists within the story proper, the entire incident is beyond the confines of rational or normal experience. But the bizarre seems less so when placed in a nebulously remote time.2 Like the servant's pimple, the author has established a festering poetic truth that is not contingent on a believable, or rather, mundane setting.


  1. Parenthetically, it should be noted that the crows, conventional symbols of death, are not present in the Rashomon while the servant is there. Death will not be his choice.

  2. The setting in antiquity is established first by the fact that it is in the Rashomon itself, and second by the intrusion of the author in the references to “Old chronicles say …,” and “As rumor has said. …”

Makoto Ueda (essay date 1976)

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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 Sōseki before him, he devoted many hours to pondering the nature of literature.


One of Akutagawa's clearest definitions of literature appears in his essay “Literature: an Introduction,” where he calls literature “an art that uses words or letters for its medium.” He continues: “To elaborate, it is an art that transmits life by means of three elements: (1) the meaning of words; (2) the sound of words; (3) the shape of ideograms.” This definition reveals two factors that are basic to Akutagawa's concept of literature. The first is his emphasis on the medium of literature, namely, language. The second is his assumption that literature aims to “transmit life.”

Of course, literature does use language for its medium. But Akutagawa seems a bit overemphatic on that point. In a definition of literature as brief as this, one would usually forgo mention of sound and meaning; certainly, one would not want to refer to the visual effect of ideograms. To Akutagawa, however, those formal elements of language were so important that he could not help bringing them in. This fact is substantiated in the essay itself: two of its three sections are devoted to words, letters, sounds, ideograms, structures, etc. Although the shape of ideograms was hardly a universal issue, Akutagawa could not bear to leave it out. For him, literature was above all an art of words.

The reason for his emphasis on words is explained in the same essay. It is that words, when arranged in an orderly fashion, create form, without which contents cannot exist. “Contents that lack a form are like a desk or chair without its form,” he wrote. A work of literature could exist only when it took on a form, just as a desk was a desk by virtue of its form. Life, before it had been given form by the artist, was nothing but crude material, just as a desk was coarse lumber without the carpenter. Words were the very means by which wild nature was molded into form and given a place in human life.

As might be expected, Akutagawa favored unambiguous words and lucid syntax. Explaining his principles of composition, he once said:

More than anything else, I want to write clearly. I want to express in precise terms what lies in my mind. I try to do just that. And yet, when I take up my pen, I can seldom write as smoothly as I want to. I always end up writing cluttered sentences. All my effort (if I can call it that) goes into clarification. The quality I seek in other men's writings is the same as the one I seek in my own. I cannot admire a piece of composition lacking in clarity. I am sure I could never bring myself to like it. In matters of composition, I am an Apollonian.

What aspects of life should the literary artist try to clarify with the words that are his shaping tools? Akutagawa's answer is implied in the word he used for “life” in the definition of literature already quoted. The Japanese word is seimei, usually translated as “life” but primarily referring to “the source of life.” Akutagawa chose this word in preference over seikatsu, which can also be translated as “life,” but which more precisely means “activities in life.” Seimei is energy, vitality, the inner biological force that keeps a living thing alive and vigorous. Seikatsu is the outer manifestation of seimei—eating, drinking, talking, walking, running, fighting, and every other kind of human behavior. Literature, Akutagawa seems to be saying, should transmit the source of life; it should not aim merely to copy outward manifestations of that source.

As can be imagined, Akutagawa was against those who insisted that a novel should copy the tangible realities of life as they are. In one of the first critical essays he published, he attacked a school of tanka, quite influential at the time, that was known as the Seikatsu School. “I know I am being rude in saying this,” he wrote, “but I cannot understand what makes those distinguished poets write exclusively in the style of that school. If they wish to express nothing more than those plain—if the word is offensive, I would be willing to say ‘realistic’ or ‘plebeian’—those plain feelings, they need not go to all the trouble of confining themselves to the 31-syllable form. Instead, they might as well choose such forms as free verse or the novel, which are more conducive to narration.” Akutagawa was saying, in effect, that the Seikatsu School poets presented seikatsu but not seimei. He made the same point about fiction, a literary form that by his own admission was more conducive to description of everyday life. A target of his attack was Flaubert, then one of the reigning deities among Japanese novelists. After citing Flaubert's words that an artist should be like God, manifesting Himself in all His creations but remaining invisible to man, Akutagawa caustically remarked: “For that very reason his Madame Bovary lacks emotional appeal, even though it creates a microcosm.” The author of Madame Bovary, he thought, might well have succeeded in his creative task, but why had he concealed himself so thoroughly, as if he wanted nothing to do with his readers? There was such a thing as being too godlike. As a commentary on Flaubert, this is hardly just. But Akutagawa was aiming his barbs at the Japanese naturalists of his day, who had made Flaubert an idol, and here he was much nearer the mark. The Japanese naturalists, as he correctly pointed out, wrote boring novels because, with all their attention to surface facts, they had neglected the one essential ingredient: the source of life itself.

But where was this all-important “source of life” to be found? Akutagawa's answer is best expressed in his works of fiction. However, there are answers of a sort to be found throughout his other writings. Among them is the following, which appears in a letter he wrote to a friend when he was still an undergraduate student:

These twain, sprung from the same homeland, are named Good and Evil. They were given these names by folk who knew nothing of their homeland. Let us now rename them, to mark their common origin. Shall their name be Logos? A high-sounding name, you say. But Logos pervades the universe. Logos is in all men. The Greater Logos moves the constellations; the Lesser Logos moves the human heart. Those who reck not of Logos shall surely perish! Such behavior, for want of a better name, we call evil. Logos is neither emotion nor intellect nor will. If we have to define it, we might say it is Supreme Intellect. Good and Evil are only utilitarian concepts that vaguely define men's conduct in terms of their relation to Logos. Sometimes I feel as if the stars are mixed in my blood and circulating in my veins. The founders of astrology must have felt as I do, only more strongly. Unless we know the Logos, there is no health in us. Whatever we write must partake of its influence, else it will be worthless. It is only by and through the Logos that a work of art becomes meaningful.

Clearly, whatever Akutagawa meant by “Logos,” it was neither good nor evil; rather, it was the prototype of them both. It was not an external power like fate; rather, it was part of one's very existence, as familiar—and as close—as one's own heartbeat. From this point of view, his “Supreme Intellect” was a misnomer.

Akutagawa stressed that art must partake of this Logos, this power that lies deep in the existence of man. Most of his major stories can be interpreted as attempts in this direction. “Rashōmon” is a study of how man's survival instinct supersedes moral values. “In a Grove” takes the reader into a subterranean world of sex and death where the so-called facts and truths of the daylight world disappear in the murk. The priest's monstrous nose in “The Nose” is symbolic of an incurable deformity in human nature—a deformity with which every man has to live. The hero of “The Hell Screen” has a more tragic fate: his deformity is the artist's irresistible passion to copy the dark hell that is human life. Akutagawa's Logos finds even more direct expression in “Doubts,” the story of a man who kills his wife when he is unable to release her from under a fallen beam in their burning house. He chooses to beat her to death with a few swift and savage blows rather than leave her to meet a slower, more painful end in the fire. After the incident, however, doubts begin to fill his mind that, somewhere deep within him, he had always wanted to kill her, because she had not been a sexually ideal wife for him. His doubts grow more serious and more importunate with time, until he has a nervous breakdown. “I may be a lunatic,” he finally reflects, “but, then, wasn't my lunacy caused by a monster that lurks at the bottom of every human mind? Those who call me a madman and spurn me today may become lunatics like me tomorrow. They harbor the same monster.”

The young Akutagawa, after dutifully pursuing his Logos, found such a monster waiting for him in the end. Seimei, the “source of life” that made men want to go on living, turned out to be a monstrous force capable of driving a man to bludgeon his wife to death. An ordinary person does not do such things simply because he has never been faced with an extreme situation. This dreadful wisdom casts an even darker shadow on Akutagawa's stories as time goes by. The heroine of “A Clod of Earth,” known to her entire village as a model of diligence, is a merciless, egotistical monster at home; her industry and her egotism spring from the same internal source. “Genkaku Sanbō” is a story filled with monsters: the old painter who often wishes for his concubine's death; his invalid wife who is silently jealous not only of the concubine but of her own daughter; his grandson who in his childish innocence hurts everyone who gets close enough to him; and his sickroom nurse who takes a sadistic pleasure in watching others suffer. Kappa is not a social satire, as has often been claimed; it is the story of a man who has become awakened to the monstrous “source of life” (symbolized by kappas),1 and who eventually goes insane as a result. Doubts, anxiety, and fear about the weird forces that underlie human existence make up the atmosphere of “Cogwheel.” “It is unspeakably painful to live with these feelings,” says the hero at the end of the story. “Isn't there anyone who would kindly strangle me to death while I am asleep?”

Akutagawa's last thoughts about “the source of life” are unmistakably expressed in his famous suicide note entitled “Note to an Old Friend.” “What is known as the source of life is in reality nothing more than animal energy,” he wrote near its end. “I, too, am one of the human animals.” Finally, he confesses that when he was young he wanted to think of himself as God, but that at last he realized he was wrong. No doubt he was recalling his student days—the days when he believed in the Supreme Intellect as the source of human life. Now he found that what he had taken to be divinity was no more than animality.

For Akutagawa, then, to depict nature was to depict the monstrous animality that was the source of human life. The agreeable part of nature—the part that was pleasing to the eye and mind—was all on the surface, even though it might be all that an ordinary person saw in his daily life. Akutagawa would have no part of such superficiality. He wanted extreme circumstances under which man would be forced to face his own monstrous nature. His tales are full of such circumstances for that very reason. He himself wrote in explanation:

… suppose I have a theme and would like to make it into a novel. In order to give it an artistically powerful expression, I need some extraordinary incident. But the more extraordinary I imagine it to be, the less plausible today's Japan becomes as a setting for it. If I give it a contemporary setting, I will most likely strain my readers' credulity. This will probably ruin my chances of getting the theme across. I already suggested one solution to this problem when I said it was difficult to place an extraordinary incident in a contemporary setting. The solution is nothing other than this: to make the incident happen in some remote past (the use of the future for this purpose would be possible but rare), or in a country other than Japan, or both.

The microcosm created by Akutagawa in his fiction was simply a means to an end, namely, illustration of his theme; it was not an end in itself. Here he differed from Tanizaki, with whom he otherwise had much in common. Tanizaki created a world of fantasy according to the dictates of his imagination; Akutagawa first conceived his theme, then made up a fantasy world to suit the theme.

The reason why Akutagawa took this attitude is clear enough: he had a stronger faith in the power of words as such. A novelist, he thought, could penetrate to and express the source of life through his mastery of words. Unfortunately for Akutagawa, mastery of words proved no substitute for mastery of life. His definition of literature thus fell prey to conflicting principles. Literature, he said, was an art that used words to transmit life. But what if life should resist transmission by words? Language is Apollonian, life Dionysian. Akutagawa wanted art not merely to imitate nature, but to conquer it. He wanted too much.


It follows from Akutagawa's concept of literature that a novelist needs two qualifications above all else: command of words, and deep feeling. He is a verbal artist, but he is also sensitive enough to penetrate the surface of life and reach the source of human vitality beneath.

That a novelist must be a competent prose writer is a truism. Probably for that reason, Akutagawa did not stress this point in his essays. In “Ten Rules for Writing a Novel,” he put style in seventh place. Nevertheless, he held up an ideal of literary craftsmanship.

Literature is an art that depends on language for its expression. It goes without saying, then, that a novelist must work hard to improve his writing. If he finds himself indifferent to the beauty of language, he must realize he lacks one of a novelist's chief qualifications. Saikaku gained the nickname “Saikaku the Dutchman” not because he broke the contemporary rules of fiction, but because he had learned the beauty of words by writing haikai.2

The passage is noteworthy for its rather peculiar reference to Saikaku. This seventeenth-century novelist has often been praised for his sturdy prose style (Shiga, as we have seen, admired him in this respect), but rarely for his quaint vocabulary. Akutagawa here seems to be advocating a highly individual style, including an unusual vocabulary, together with a certain disregard of ruling literary conventions.

Akutagawa's high regard for individuality in writing probably accounts for some unique advice of his: “High school students wanting to become writers should waste as little time as possible on such subjects as Japanese literature or Japanese composition.” He did not want aspiring novelists to produce model schoolroom compositions or imitate the styles of famous writers. Instead, he recommended that they concentrate on two subjects usually loathed by young would-be writers in Japan: mathematics and physical education. The choice is interesting because it seems to reflect Akutagawa's concern with language as an organizer of chaos rather than as a means of communication. Just as mathematics creates an arbitrary universe completely controllable by discursive reason, so physical education provides the means of controlling physical circumstance. In both cases, the theme of control is paramount. In Akutagawa's view, a novelist works on human experience in the same manner as a mathematician works on his universe of mathematical concepts or an athlete on his physical constitution. In short, he saw the creative process as strenuous and deliberate.

The artist's creative activities are conscious, however much of a genius he may be. Take, for instance, the case of Ni Yün-lin, who drew a pine tree with all its branches outstretched in one direction.3 I do not know if he knew why the stretching of the branches produced a certain effect in the painting. But I am certain he was fully aware that the extended branches would produce that effect when he drew them. If he had done it without knowing what the result would be, he would have been no more than a robot. So-called unconscious creative activities remind me of the imaginary seashell vainly sought by the nobleman in the old story.4 Rodin despised l'inspiration for that reason.

According to Akutagawa, the creative process was to represent the human life-force, in the sense discussed. The second of the artist's two chief qualifications was that he has plenty of that force in himself; otherwise he would never be able to grasp it, far less give expression to it. Akutagawa once wrote that someone who composed a work of literature must be a barbarian deep down, no matter how cultivated he might be on the surface. By “barbarian” he meant a man with superabundant animal vitality. He used an English word, “brutality,” to describe the dominant quality of the medieval Japanese tales collected in Ages Ago.5 Akutagawa gave that quality to Yoshihide, the painter-hero of “The Hell Screen,” who originally appeared in Ages Ago. The painter is described by Akutagawa as creating a “weird, truly bestial impression” with his ugly appearance, particularly his bright red lips. This appearance has earned him the nickname of Yoshihide the Monkey. A pet monkey that appears in the same story is also named Yoshihide, and the close relationship between the painter and the animal is unmistakable. The same sort of animality is seen in Bakin, the novelist-hero of “Absorbed in Letters,” another major Akutagawa story about an artist. Bakin is sixty years of age in the story, yet he is described as showing “an awesome flash of vigorous animal force” on his cheeks and around his mouth. It should be noted, however, that Akutagawa gives noticeably more animal vitality to Yoshihide the painter than to Bakin the novelist. Yoshihide has headstrong energy and barbarous pride that make him sneer at the tyrannical ruler of the country. Bakin, on the other hand, is put out when a frivolous gossiper in a public bathhouse adversely criticizes his work. The difference can be attributed to several factors, not the least important of which is that one is a painter and the other a novelist. A painter, Akutagawa believed, could express himself more freely than a novelist. Indeed, Bakin is described as being envious of a painter because the latter did not have to worry about government censorship.

There is evidence that painting, to Akutagawa, was a better medium than prose for embodying the human life-force. The novel, he thought, was a rather impure art form. The very first item in his “Ten Rules for Writing a Novel” is an affirmation to that effect: “One should realize that the novel is the least artistic of all literary genres. The only one that deserves the name of art is poetry. The novel is included in literature only for the sake of the poetry in it. In other respects, the novel differs not at all from history or biography.” Of course the question here is what Akutagawa meant by “poetry.” This is made somewhat clearer in the second of the rules: “The novelist is a historian or biographer, in addition to being a poet. Hence he is compelled to relate himself to the human life (of a given age and of a given country). This fact is proved by the works of Japanese novelists, from Lady Murasaki to Ihara Saikaku.” Akutagawa seems to be implying that a poet is the only kind of literary artist who does not depend on contemporary society for his subject matter. A novelist can and should be a poet, but he is also obligated to be a historian or biographer, and that makes him an impure poet. In this respect, a painter has more artistic freedom than a novelist, because he can be more subjective, and therefore more faithful to the source of vitality within him.

Akutagawa's term “poetic spirit,” which became a subject of controversy in his famous quarrel with Tanizaki, can be interpreted in the same light. Akutagawa did not explain the term clearly—not to Tanizaki's satisfaction, anyway—but he must have meant the poetic residue of the novel, after the elements of history and biography had as it were evaporated from it. The poetry corresponded to his conception of what life ultimately was, as opposed to what it had been on such and such an occasion. The theme of human bestiality is present here, but perhaps not fully realized. At any rate, this is what is suggested by Akutagawa's remark to Tanizaki that “by poetic spirit I mean lyricism in its broadest sense.” Elsewhere he suggested that the most lyrical examples of Japanese poetry were to be found in the tanka of The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, primitive poems of the eighth century and earlier that expressed “simple feelings in a moving way.” In another essay he recalled how touched he was one day when he heard a deer's cry in the mountains. “It seemed to me,” he continued, “that all lyric poetry must have had its origin in such a cry—the cry of a male deer calling for his mate.” Akutagawa's unconscious syllogism is here complete: the poetic spirit, in its purest form, is contained in lyrics; lyrics originate in a male animal calling for a female; therefore, poetic spirit has its source in animal instinct. “Poetic spirit” ultimately goes back to animal instinct.

If this interpretation is accepted, it follows that a novelist should nurture the beast in him, for it is the very source of his artistic creation. He should try to improve his physical condition by exercising, as Akutagawa advised high school students who aspired to become writers. The weaker the artist's health, the weaker his creative urge. The artist with failing health would inevitably meet a tragic end, like Tok, the poet in Kappa who kills himself while longing to reach the Valley of Life where clear water flows and medicinal herbs flower. Akutagawa himself committed suicide when he felt he had lost the “animal force” in himself. “I, too, am one of the human animals,” he wrote in his suicide note. “But I seem to be losing the animal force. Witness the fact that I have lost my appetite for food and for women.”

Loss of animal force is a characteristic ailment of modern man, surrounded as he is by the products of human intellect. A novelist, Akutagawa thought, should resist these pressures and never lose sight of human bestiality. The ninth of Akutagawa's ten rules for writing a novel touches on this point:

A person aspiring to be a novelist should always be cautious not to respond to philosophical, scientific, or economic theories. No ideology or theory is capable of controlling man's entire life, as long as he remains a beast in human form. A person who responds (knowingly, at least) to such theories will meet needless inconveniences in following his life's course—the animal life.

This is a sad verdict on the role of ideas. But Akutagawa in later life seems to have reached a point at which he was forced to acknowledge the powerlessness of modern learning in the face of man's biological nature. In Kappa, for instance, Mag the stoic philosopher cannot quite overcome his sexual drives; Gael the millionaire businessman is at the mercy of his wife; the doctors in kappaland have not found an effective way of controlling undesirable hereditary traits. In short, the products of human intellect are no match for basic human animality, and a wise artist should put no trust in them.

It is ironic that Akutagawa, who stressed the intellectual power of language and the artist's command over it, eventually had to face up to the powerlessness of intellect. Akutagawa began by regarding the novelist as a specialist in language on the one hand and a seeker after experience on the other. As it turned out, the two functions were incompatible. After all, to the extent that the novelist was still a historian or biographer—which he could not help being part of the time—he continued to depend on the generalizing power of intellect. This was the heart of his dilemma. If he became too much of a historian or a biographer, the poet within him would be overwhelmed and his work would lose its “poetic spirit.” On the other hand, if the poet within him grew too powerful, he would not be able to relate to the outside world; he would end up as a social misfit, a misanthrope, or a madman. According to Akutagawa, then, there could not be a happy novelist.

Akutagawa offered three solutions to this dilemma, none of which was very attractive. One was not to become a novelist, or at least to stop being one. “If a person wants to live a relatively happy life,” he said, “the best course he can take is not to become a novelist.” The second was suicide, the course taken by Yoshihide the painter, Tok the poet, and, finally, Akutagawa himself. The third was prolonged perseverance. Bakin, the other notable artist-hero in Akutagawa's fiction, is an example of this: he keeps repeating to himself: “Learn! Don't get upset! And endure harder!” Each of these solutions is so drastic that it is clear Akutagawa regarded the novelist's situation as desperate. This tragic view may well be a reaction to his earlier optimism (if not arrogance), when he thought the chaos of human reality could be given order by means of language, a human invention. He thought a novelist could overcome the world with mere words. The world proved to be too powerful, and Akutagawa was too perceptive not to realize when he was beaten. He could not console himself with belief in the redemptive power of ethics, religion, or Marxism; he had too clear a view of human bestiality. On the other hand, he was also too proud, or too afraid, to embrace the powers of chaos. He was too much of an intellectual to accept the prospect of insanity, of being a burden to others simply in order to stay alive. His ideal of the novelist, then, had to be a tragic one—as tragic as his own life.


Akutagawa's dualistic concept of art is also reflected in his ideal of beauty. On the one hand, he was very much attracted to the primitive, dynamic type of beauty that is created by an artist with more natural vitality than formal training. On the other hand, he could not help feeling an affinity with the elegant, urbane type of beauty produced by the professional artist who is completely at home in modern society. This, then, was yet another of his dilemmas.

Akutagawa made his views on art abundantly clear in two successive sections of his long essay “Literary, Too Literary.” These two sections are entitled “The Call of the Wild” and “The Call of the West.” In the first, he recalls how repelled he was when he first saw Gauguin's painting of a Tahitian woman who was, as he felt, “visually emitting the smell of a barbarian's skin.” He then goes on to say that, despite his initial reaction, he gradually became fascinated with this orange-colored woman. “Indeed,” he wrote, “the power of the image was such that I felt almost possessed by the Tahitian woman.” Why he was so enchanted by her is clear enough. He saw in her a “source of life,” the vigorous life of primitive people. “Gauguin—at least as I see him—meant to show us a human beast in that orange-colored woman,” he reflected. “Furthermore, he showed it to us with more power than the painters of realistic schools.” Naturally he recognized the same type of beauty in the works of other Postimpressionist painters. He saw it, for instance, in Van Gogh's paintings of the Arles period. He especially adored Matisse, of whom he said: “What I am seeking is his type of art, the kind of art that is brimming with vitality, like grass in the sunshine vigorously growing toward the sky.”

Akutagawa also recognized a “Tahiti School” in literature. His subtitle, “The Call of the Wild,” is obviously a reference to Jack London's novel, though there is no clear evidence to show how much he liked it. The strongest expressions of his enthusiasm in this regard are directed at Ages Ago, Bashō, and Shiga Naoya.

Akutagawa has generally been considered the “discoverer” of Ages Ago for modern Japanese readers. That massive collection of old tales had attracted little attention through the centuries, until Akutagawa published an essay called “On Ages Ago,” praising it in the highest terms. The chief value he found in Ages Ago was what he termed “the call of the wild,” which he explained as follows. “I finally discovered the sterling worth of Ages Ago. The artistic value of Ages Ago lies not only in its vigor. It lies in its beauty—the beauty of brutality, if I may borrow a word from the English. It is the type of beauty farthest removed from anything elegant or delicate.” He then cited a tale from Ages Ago that he thought exuded this brutal beauty. The tale was about a man who was suddenly gripped by sexual passion while traveling alone in the countryside. Unable to calm it in any way, he at last pulled out a large turnip from a field by the road and satisfied himself with it. Some time later the turnip was picked up and eaten by a young maiden who had no knowledge of how it had been used by the traveler. In due time she became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy. The story makes clear what Akutagawa meant by “brutal beauty”: it was an artless, lowbrow, crude type of beauty, tempered by bawdy humor. Certainly, as Akutagawa noted, it was far removed from elegant or exquisite beauty. Also noteworthy was the way in which the story revolved around the traveler's virility: primitive vigor—the vigor of the life-force—is an essential ingredient in “brutal beauty.”

Akutagawa has also been credited with throwing new light on Bashō. Before he published “Miscellaneous Notes on Bashō,” the seventeenth-century haiku poet had been visualized as a lean, travel-worn sage who had no interest in mundane affairs. Akutagawa presented a new image of Bashō by describing him as a sturdy, energetic man with a great many fleshly interests, including heterosexual and even homosexual ones. Here, for instance, is his condensed version of Bashō's biography: “He committed adultery and thereupon eloped from his native province Iga; arrived at Edo, where he frequented brothels and other such places there; and gradually evolved into one of the age's great poets.” As an example of Bashō's superabundant energy, Akutagawa quoted a haiku of his:

In the summer woods
I kneel before the divine footwear:
my journey's start.(6)

Akutagawa did not spell this out, but it is obvious that the poem, with its images of summer trees, giant footwear, and a traveler just setting out, gave him an impression of vigorous life far removed from exquisite, graceful, or delicate beauty.

The same type of beauty can be found in the works of Shiga Naoya, who, as we saw in the last chapter, tried to capture the beauty of a healthy animal vigorously pursuing its natural way of life. Largely for that reason, Akutagawa admired Shiga's works more than those of any other contemporary Japanese writer. “Mr. Shiga's works,” he once wrote, “show they are by a writer who, above all, is living a wholesome life in this world.” He went on to point out that they show “poetic spirit” and that Shiga was a poet as well as a novelist. Referring to a scene of Voyage Through the Dark Night where the hero enjoys a night with a prostitute, Akutagawa commented: “Only a poet could have sung ‘It's a rich year! It's a rich year!’ at the sight of a woman's voluptuous breasts. I feel a little sorry for my contemporaries, who have given relatively little attention to the sort of ‘beauty’ that Mr. Shiga has created.” Again the beauty Akutagawa spoke of is not elegant or urbane. Though not as “brutal” as that of Ages Ago, it has the natural appeal of animal good health and vitality—the call of the wild.

Yet, with all his admiration for a dynamic, masculine beauty, Akutagawa did not produce a literary oeuvre in which that quality predominates. He did write stories about primitive, violent men—“The Robbers,” for example, and “Lord Susanoo”—but they are not among his more successful efforts. He also wrote a number of tales based on Ages Ago, “Rashōmon” and “The Nose” among them, but they are noticeably lacking in the beauty of “brutality.” As has been pointed out, his friend Tanizaki noticed this fact and told him that he could not write stories like Shiga's because he lacked the physical strength. Akutagawa himself admitted that none of the contemporary imitators of Shiga, including himself, had succeeded in emulating Shiga's “poetic spirit.” The hero of “Cogwheel,” who is obviously Akutagawa himself, confesses that Voyage Through the Dark Night has turned out to be a frightening book for him. Akutagawa listened to the call of the wild, but his own work does not have it.

Why was this so? Tanizaki's explanation is surely inadequate. Akutagawa may have been fascinated with the call of the wild, but he was also drawn to an opposing force, a force that he termed “the call of the West.” It is this latter force that seems to predominate in his works of fiction, though he says less about it in his essays. The reason may well be that Akutagawa himself was somewhat at a loss to explain this other “call” in analytical terms. In fact, he called it “mysterious.”

Underlying the West, as we call it, is ever-mysterious Greece. As an old saying goes, one cannot know the temperature of water until one drinks it. The same applies to Greece. If someone were to ask me for a concise explanation of Greece, I would advise him to look at the few examples of Greek pottery on display in Japan. Or I might recommend that he study photographs of Greek sculpture. The beauty of those works is the beauty of Greek gods.

“The call of the West,” then, seems to be the call of ancient Greek civilization, of the Hellenism that lies at the roots of Western culture. If that is the case, Akutagawa's attraction to the West is quite consistent with his admiration for Supreme Intellect, the force that conquers chaos. As we have seen, he called himself an Apollonian. The Western style of beauty is, above all, the beauty of intellect organizing chaos into order. Applied to a literary work, it is the beauty of a tale with a logically ordered structure that gives form to the chaos of raw life and the human psyche.

Akutagawa's stories, especially his early ones, show this type of beauty. “Rashōmon,” “The Nose,” and “Yam Gruel” all have a well-ordered structure patterned on the hero's thinking. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Progression from beginning to end is attained through analysis of the hero's psychology; the general effect is of light thrown on the dark corners of the mind until everything is revealed. The weird, uncanny part of the human mind is brought under control; fear of the dark is dispelled. The servant in “Rashōmon,” who is at a loss when the story begins, clearly knows what to do at its close. At the same time, the reader learns how to behave in a chaotic, war-ridden society. The priest in “The Nose,” unable at first to tolerate his grotesque nose, finally makes peace with himself as he comes to know his mind better. The petty official in “Yam Gruel,” who makes himself ridiculous by his fondness for yam gruel at the tale's beginning, succeeds in overcoming his weakness, whereupon the tale ends. The reader of these stories is left with the feeling that life, chaotic and uncontrollable though it may seem, can be brought under control by intelligence and self-knowledge.

Intellect, in reordering the conventionally ordered world, sometimes begets humor and irony. In some of his tales, Akutagawa laughs at people who are important only because they are wedded to the existing social order. In “The Handkerchief,” he gives a highly satirical picture of what really goes on in the mind of an internationally known philosopher and moralist. In “The General,” he shows a greatly respected general to be petty, inconsiderate, and vainglorious. In “Lice,” he has fun with the spectacle of some ostensibly courageous samurai being completely stripped of their dignity when attacked by lice. Akutagawa once remarked: “According to Pascal, man is a thinking reed. Does a reed think? I really can't say. But I do know that a reed, unlike a man, does not laugh. I cannot imagine a man being serious—or, indeed, having any humanity—unless I can also imagine him laughing.” By “humanity” he must mean intellect; only a creature with intellect can laugh. Akutagawa's stories, especially his early ones, are often humorous because of their intellectuality.

Human intellect, while begetting humor and irony on the one hand, evolves elegance and delicacy on the other when it functions as an aesthetic principle. A man-made world is self-insulated; having no room for such “animal” activities as procreation, it tends to cut itself off from the roots of life. Art in such a world is, above all, artificial. It therefore has no greater goal than its own refinement. The artist, however confident of his dexterity, has to make his work meticulously artificial in order to prove it. Such elegant beauty is a mark of civilization in the sense that it shows a distance from barbarism. Akutagawa liked elegant, sophisticated beauty; he had to, as long as he approved the progress of civilization. While attracted to Gauguin and Van Gogh, he confessed he was also fascinated by the works of Renoir and Redon. “Like all art lovers of my generation,” he recollected, “I was first an admirer of those moving, powerful works of Van Gogh. But slowly I began to develop a taste for Renoir's works, the ultimate in elegant beauty.” He drew a similar parallel between Gauguin and Redon. “I feel the call of the wild in Gauguin's orange-colored woman,” he wrote. “But I also feel ‘the call of the West’ in Redon's ‘Young Buddha.’” He attributed his fondness for an elegant, sophisticated style of beauty to the fact that he was a city dweller. His claim that a civilized person like himself could never really understand Gauguin or Van Gogh seems at times to proceed from a genuine inferiority complex. At other times, however, he seems to have been overcome by a sense of superiority before such “barbarous” works.

Of all Akutagawa's works, the one that shows elegant, urbane beauty in its most touching form is “The Lady Roku-no-miya.” This court lady, precisely because of her courtly refinement and elegance, is lacking in the will to live and eventually has to meet a passive death. An elegant, courtly atmosphere also prevails in “Heichū, the Amorous Genius,” and its hero, who is a courtly, sophisticated Don Juan, meets a similar fate. Indeed, the Akutagawan protagonists who are urban dwellers with delicate sensitivities and impaired vitality outnumber the more primitive and vital ones. The stories in which the latter appear do not always produce a graceful effect, but none creates a crude or vulgar impression, either. If one is to make a comparison, they are closer to Renoir than to Van Gogh.

If elegance and sophistication are marks of advanced culture, so are pluralism and complexity. The more intellectual a person is, the more skeptical he tends to become. Akutagawa liked to create deliberate ambiguity in his stories, because he did not believe in simple truths. In an aphorism entitled “Interpretation,” he wrote:

Any interpretation of a work of art presupposes a degree of cooperation between artist and interpreter. In a sense, the interpreter is an artist who, using another artist's work for his theme, creates his own work of art. Hence, every famous work of art that has withstood the test of time is characterized by its capacity to induce a multiplicity of interpretations. But, as Anatole France has pointed out, the fact that a literary work has the capacity to induce multiple interpretations does not make it ambiguous in the sense that the reader can easily give it any interpretation he likes. Rather, it means that a good work is like Mount Lu; it is many-sided, and therefore encourages viewing from many angles.7

A work of art, Akutagawa is saying, is the better for being many-sided and multilayered, because life is many-sided and multilayered. A simple-hearted rustic may see all human life in black-and-white terms, but a modern intellectual would not and should not do so. Truth in human life is always complex, always elusive. A good work of literature recognizes that fact and creates a complex effect.

The multilayeredness of Akutagawa's stories is well known. The most famous is “In a Grove,” in which the same event is narrated in such widely different ways by its three participants that the reader is left wondering what really happened. The reader knows exactly what is going to happen in “Kesa and Moritō,” but he also knows that Kesa (or her ghost), Moritō, Wataru, and others will have widely differing interpretations of it when it happens. In “Doubts,” the hero is unable to decide on his true motive for killing his wife and finally goes insane. The hero of “Cogwheel” cannot look reality in the face because phantasmal cogwheels in his eyes obstruct his sight; as a result, he has difficulty distinguishing between what he sees and what he imagines. The painter in “Dreams,” likewise, cannot discern reality from dreams, and the reader also does not know what really happened to the model who just disappeared. Kappa, a story narrated by a mental patient, has inspired a good many controversies about its meaning. In “The Painting of an Autumn Mountain,” multiplicity of interpretation is itself the main theme: the famed Chinese painting of the title gives such different impressions at different times that the on-lookers are not sure if they have seen the same painting.

It can be said that this skeptical disposition of Akutagawa, while it gave his fiction complexity of meaning, prevented him from pursuing “the call of the wild” with wholehearted devotion. He was torn between “the call of the wild” and “the call of the West,” as he himself conceded. The tales he wrote show, as a result, neither the vigorous strength of the former nor the graceful beauty of the latter—or, at least, not as much as he would have liked them to show. Many of them are both logical in conception and orderly in construction. Nevertheless, something raw and weird remains lurking beneath the surface. Other tales of his try to present human animality in its primitive form, and yet they lack a strong lyrical appeal because the theme has been intellectualized. It was Akutagawa's unhappy fate as an artist to pursue two conflicting sets of aesthetic ideals without being able to reconcile them. In the final analysis, however, the best of his works—“The Hell Screen,” “In a Grove,” Kappa, “Cogwheel”—derive their basic appeal from that conflict. These stories move the reader by showing a penetrating intellect desperately trying to cope with the murky, chaotic realities of the human subconscious and ending in failure. Despite their author's nostalgic longing for ancient Greek civilization, their beauty is not that of classicism. Rather, it leans toward the grotesque.


Akutagawa revealed his ideas on the structure of the novel in the course of his famous controversy with Tanizaki, even though he did it in a somewhat haphazard way and invited misunderstandings as a result. As against Tanizaki, who argued that a novel would be better for having an ingenious, well-constructed plot, Akutagawa maintained that plot itself has no artistic value, and that a novel without a complicated plot can be a fine work of art if it has plenty of “poetic spirit.” As the controversy became famous, he came to be considered the champion of the “plotless” novel, in spite of his repeated insistence that he did not necessarily regard it as the best form of fiction.

Akutagawa's use of the term “plot” was also widely misunderstood. Certainly he did not mean a novel without structure. “I am not insisting that every writer should write a novel lacking a plotlike plot,” he stressed. “In fact, most of my own works have a plot. Without dessin, there cannot be a work of painting. It is through plot that every work of fiction comes into being.” Here Akutagawa was using the word “plot” to mean “structure,” and he approved of plot in this sense without reservation. When he talked about the “plotless” novel, he had a different type of plot in mind: it was a more “plotlike” plot, a plot with a sequence of events the reader would find interesting (Akutagawa once used the term “shocking” in this context and was consequently misunderstood still further). Roughly, it meant a story in the popular sense. In advocating a “plotless” novel, Akutagawa was advocating a novel without a “good story.”

What he meant by the plotless novel becomes clearer when one reads his argument in favor of the plotless play: “Now I am sick and tired of watching a playlike play—that is to say, a play with plenty of dramatic interest. I want to see a play as free as air, a play that hardly has a plot.” This is an unusually forthright statement for a diffident man like Akutagawa; perhaps he found it easier to make because he was talking about a genre to which he was an outsider. What he was objecting to was the “well-made,” Ibsenesque plot, with its series of clashes between protagonist and antagonist. He liked a more lyrical plot—a plot with “poetic spirit,” as he would have said. He expressed his sympathetic approval of a certain Japanese producer whose favorite Western playwright had changed from Ibsen to Maeterlinck to Andreev.

The form of prose fiction Akutagawa advocated, then, was a poetic, and not dramatic, novel. It might or might not have a protagonist. In all likelihood, it would not have an antagonist. It might or might not present a series of events; when it did, the events would not be sensational ones, and they would be arranged loosely rather than with tight dramatic logic. There would be no single story line that would hold the different parts of the novel together. In general, it would create the impression that the novelist wrote it in a casual mood, digressing whenever he felt like it. Ostensibly, the structure was so loose that a careless reader might think the novel had not ended when it actually had.

Have there been such works of fiction? Akutagawa cited Jules Renard's “Ways of the Philippes” and Shiga Naoya's “The Fires” as leading examples. “Ways of the Philippes,” included in The Winegrower in His Vineyard, is a short story made up of some dozen brief episodes with a rustic vinedresser's family for their common characters. The episodes are varied in their time, setting, and subject matter. The first is a casual conversation exchanged between Philippe and his wife concerning their centuries-old house, with the narrator cutting in from time to time. The second episode takes place a few months later: it describes the Philippes waiting in vain for their soldier son to come home for the New Year. In the third episode, the Philippes are seen butchering a pig. In the fourth they have just been married. The bridegroom eats fourteen plates of food at the wedding dinner, while the bride sits there silently with no appetite at all. Other episodes are of similar nature, all dealing with the daily events of life normally following their course in a peaceful French village. The same uneventfulness is also seen in Shiga's “The Fires,” though it ranges over a much shorter span of time and space. The story describes the happenings of just one day in the life of a man building a cottage with his wife and friends near a lake in the woods. They play cards in the morning since it is rainy, but they begin working on the cottage when the sky clears in the afternoon. After supper they go boating on the lake. When it gets dark they make a bonfire on the shore; as they sit around the fire one of them tells a strange experience he had the previous year. That is all.

“Ways of the Philippes” and “The Fires” seem to fit well with Akutagawa's idea of a plotless novel. Certainly, the reader would not read them for their story's sake. In both instances, the plot is loose or nonexistent; various episodes from the life of an ordinary Frenchman or a Japanese are just put together, seemingly at random. Pervading the episodes are the personalities of the dramatis personae, who are all simple, honest, sincere people (in the case of Philippe, this simplicity of character is developed to the point of naiveté). Together they create a warm, congenial atmosphere in a rustic setting. The reader visualizes good-natured, simple-hearted people leading wholesome lives entirely removed from the strains and stresses of “keeping up with the times.” The sincerity of their basic attitude creates a lyrical mood. That mood, and not a well-developed story line, is the unifying principle in these works.

Akutagawa did make a few efforts to write in the vein of Renard and Shiga, notably in a series of short autobiographical pieces that have Yasukichi, a teacher of English at a naval academy, for their common hero. The results are largely unsuccessful because the characters are far from attractive, and the narrator's observations are too unimaginative to animate the trite events he describes. Markedly more successful in this genre are several works of his last years, notably “On the Seashore” and “The Mirage,” both of which describe the leisurely life of a recent college graduate who is vacationing at a beach resort for a few days. Most of the scenes in these two stories show the young man walking and talking on the sandy shore with friends from his college days; that is all. Yet the stories impress because the few incidents they depict, while trivial in themselves, are presented through the eyes of a hypersensitive young man, a young man abnormally sensitive to decay, death, ghosts, and the dark side of life in general. The young man is totally different in personality from Philippe or the narrator in “The Fires,” yet he grips the reader's attention by his uncanny capacity to sense weird things hidden from the ordinary eye. His presence creates an eerie mood that holds the different episodes together. Admittedly, “On the Seashore” and “The Mirage” have somewhat more structure than “Ways of the Philippes” or “The Fires.” But of all Akutagawa's works they are the ones that best embody his idea of the plotless novel.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that those pieces constitute only a small proportion of Akutagawa's canon. He himself admitted that most of his works had a story to tell. Even when arguing most vehemently in favor of the plotless novel, he still declared that he had no intention of confining himself to writing essaylike stories. It would be misleading, then, to conclude that Akutagawa's concept of plot centered on the plotless novel. If he seemed to have become its champion at the time of the famous controversy, it was partly because Tanizaki drove him into that position, and partly because he associated the idea of an intriguing plot with the “popular” novel, which he detested. His stand in favor of the plotless novel was never so strong that he had to label other kinds as inferior. He championed the essaylike novel mainly because Tanizaki appeared to overpraise the novel that had an interesting story to tell.

In the final analysis, what Akutagawa really wanted to say in his controversy with Tanizaki seems to be that novels can have different types of structure, and that it is wrong to say one type is better than another. As a novelist, he did not like to be restricted in form; he wanted to be completely free to use any kind of structure he saw fit. Life, he thought, had many layers of meaning. Since literary works should present many types of life, it followed that novels should have many types of form and structure.

Akutagawa did write stories in a wide variety of forms. To mention only the principal types, he wrote essaylike stories like “On the Seashore” and “The Mirage”; dramatic pieces like “In a Grove” and “Kesa and Moritō”; märchen like “The Spider's Thread” and “Tu Tzu-ch'un”; traditional tales like “The Robbers” and “The Hell Screen”; lyrical stories like “The Mandarin Oranges” and “Flatcar”; fantasies like “Strange Island” and Kappa. Akutagawa also tried his hand at many literary forms besides prose fiction. He was one of the period's major haiku poets. He also wrote poems in the tanka form, and revived an obsolete verse-form called sedōka that had a 5–7–7–5–7–7 syllable pattern. He had some free verse to his credit, too. In the area of nonfiction, he made lasting contributions with his aphorisms and journals. His aphorisms, serialized in a magazine under the title Maxims of a Midget, attracted a great deal of attention at the time. His journals were also quite popular; some readers who do not like his fiction consider his Records of a Journey to China to be his finest work.

It can even be said that one of the main charms of Akutagawa's writings lies in the great variety of literary forms that he employed. He was a versatile writer, and he enjoyed displaying his versatility. In fact, he once said he had become a novelist because it gave him the opportunity to do so. “I write prose fiction,” he explained, “because it is more all-embracing than any other form of literature, allowing me to toss in anything and everything.” Accordingly, his idea of plot had to be a comprehensive one.

The same applies to his idea of prose style. He did not say it specifically, but it is obvious that he wanted to see a great variety of styles in prose fiction. His own works are, indeed, sufficiently varied in this respect. “Ogata Ryōsai's Affidavit” and “The Old Murder” are written in a certain style that used to be employed in the official language of the past. “The Martyr” and “St. Christopher's Life” have a very peculiar style, apparently modeled after the language of sixteenth-century Japanese Christians. In “The Hell Screen” and Heresy, though they are written in modern Japanese, he tried to convey the flavor of the language spoken by an ancient Japanese courtier. “A Clod of Earth” and “Genkaku Sanbō” are written in a simple, matter-of-fact style, stripped of all the decorative elements usually associated with literary language. “The Dog Shiro” and “The Three Treasures” show stylistic features reminiscent of a tale for children. “On the Seashore” and “The Mirage” are, as can be imagined, written in a lucid, precise style that approaches Shiga's.

Akutagawa never attempted to classify Japanese prose styles in a methodical manner, but he did set up two examples at opposite stylistic poles: Shiga and Sōseki. He thought that Shiga and his followers “wrote in the manner of speaking,” while Sōseki was a writer who “spoke in the manner of writing.” By the former he meant simply a colloquial style, that is, a style that reproduces the vocabulary and rhythm of daily speech. But the meaning of the phrase “spoke in the manner of writing” is more ambiguous. He did not mean a bookish style, for that would have been to “write in the manner of writing.” A short essay of his entitled “Composition That Makes One Visualize” throws light on this point:

I like the kind of composition that makes the reader visualize the scene. I detest the kind that does not do so. In my view, there is a fundamental difference in sensibility between a person who writes “The sky is blue,” and one who writes “The sky is blue like steel.” While the former feels the color as merely “blue,” the latter feels it as “blue like steel.” He added the phrase “like steel” not because he was a better technician in composition; he did so because he had a more accurate grasp of what he saw. Sōseki had such a grasp and, as can be seen from his writings, it was of a highly individual and yet superb kind. Here is the opening sentence of “Snake,” from his Spring Miscellanies: “As I opened the wooden door and stepped outside, I saw a horse's tracks, large and brimming with rainwater.” With just one sentence, the impression of a country road full of rain puddles is vividly created. I like this type of writing.

In an ordinary conversation one does not say “The sky is blue like steel,” or “As I opened the wooden door and stepped outside, I saw a horse's tracks, large and brimming with rainwater.” These sentences are too calculated in their effect to be spoken extemporaneously, at least by an ordinary person. Yet what they lose in spontaneity, they gain in accuracy and individuality. Since they make more use of similes, metaphors, and symbols, they also gain in vividness. Their meaning is at once more complex and more accurate, as any figurative language is. In short, the style that “speaks in the manner of writing” is the style of poetry (one recalls that Sōseki was himself a writer of haiku).

It goes without saying that Akutagawa, who stressed the importance of “poetic spirit” in the novel, favored the style that “speaks in the manner of writing.” Indeed, his typical style is the polar opposite of the style that “writes in the manner of speaking.” It is anything but spontaneous; indeed, Akutagawa was a perfectionist. He once reflected:

I know I overtax my nerves unnecessarily in composing a piece. I cannot help it. There are certain words that I simply cannot bring myself to use on certain occasions. The tone of certain phrases disturbs me too much. For instance, I find it difficult to use a place name like Yanagihara (“willow-field”)8 because, to my mind, it makes the entire passage green; I cannot use the word unless the passage includes a word of another color to tone down that green.

Akutagawa was here talking about the writing of prose fiction, but what he said can be applied, with equal aptness, to the writing of haiku. Haiku poets take great care to create a harmony of colors, sounds, tactile sensations, etc., and they often go about doing so in a very self-conscious manner. Akutagawa's style is deliberate in the same way as the language of haiku is deliberate.

Akutagawa was often criticized for his artificiality by contemporary critics, many of whom were admirers of Shiga's more natural style. Always sensitive to criticism, the young Akutagawa tried hard to write more spontaneously, but without satisfactory results. One day he brought this problem to the attention of his mentor, Sōseki, and asked how he could possibly learn to write like Shiga. Sōseki answered: “He [Shiga] can write in the way he does because he writes spontaneously, without trying to create a piece of prose,” and added that he, too, could not write like Shiga. Later on, however, Akutagawa seems to have been more confident of his own style. He remarked, for example, “My friends tell me: ‘Your writings are too deliberate. Don't be so deliberate.’ But I don't recall ever having been more deliberate than necessary. More than anything else, I want to write clearly.” He went on: “No matter what other people may say, I shall go on trying to produce composition as clear-cut as calcite, one that permits the minimum amount of vagueness.” Consciously or unconsciously, he did what he said. Even when he wrote such Shiga-like pieces as “On the Seashore” and “The Mirage,” his style remained somewhat less spontaneous than Shiga's. Given his view of language, this was probably inevitable. He considered words—and the arrangement of words known as style—as so many tools with which to organize the chaos of life. As long as he held such an Apollonian view of literature, he had to be an Apollonian in matters of style, too.


Akutagawa was adamant in repudiating the idea that literature was merely play or entertainment. For him, a literary work written to amuse the reader was “popular” literature, a product of commercialism that had nothing to do with “genuine” novelists. He wrote:

Today I stopped by the roadside to watch a fight between a rickshaw man and a motorist. I found myself watching it with a certain interest, and wondered what kind of interest it was. No matter how hard I tried to convince myself otherwise, I could not but feel that it was the same sort of interest I would have in watching a fight on the kabuki stage. … I have no intention of denying the value of literary works that produce this sort of interest. But I believe there can be interest of a kind higher than this.

The main question is what Akutagawa meant by a “higher” kind of interest. Instead of explaining, he simply observed that the first few pages of “Kylin,” an early Tanizaki tale, produced that kind of interest. “Kylin” is the story of how Confucius, in his old age, toured China to propagate his teachings. Its first few pages describe his encounter with a venerable Taoist sage and then his travel to the state of Wei. There are no fights, nor any other kind of sensational incident. All that happens is a brief discussion on human happiness between Confucius, a disciple of his, and the Taoist sage. This is followed by a description of life in the state of Wei, where people are starving while the ruler and his beautiful wife indulge in luxury. The interest generated by these few pages is philosophical and moral to the highest degree, leaving no doubt about Akutagawa's meaning.

Indeed, Akutagawa repeatedly emphasized the didactic use of literature. “In a way, all novels are textbooks in the art of living,” he once said. “Therefore, they can be said to be educational, in a very broad sense of the word.” On another occasion, he called the poet “a microphone created by God.” His reason was that “in this world of men no one proclaims the truth. It is the poet who amplifies people's whispers in an instant.” Akutagawa was most persuasive on this point in his autobiographical story entitled “The Youth of Daidōji Shinsuke”:

Shinsuke learned everything through books. At least, he could not think of anything he did not owe to books in some degree. As a matter of fact, he never tried to improve his knowledge of life by watching people in the street. Rather, he tried to read about men's lives in order to watch people in the street. A roundabout way to learn about life, you may say. But for him real-life people were merely passersby. In order to know them—to know their loves, hatreds, and vanities—he had no means other than to read books.

Shinsuke may have had a rather more withdrawn personality than the average person. A more extroverted person may learn more directly from actual life. Yet Shinsuke was also a man with a greater thirst for knowledge than the average person. He was not satisfied with a superficial knowledge of men; he had to know love, hatred, vanity, and all the other emotions hidden in their hearts. Good books present the facts of life at a level deeper than everyday events. A person like Shinsuke, who seeks hidden truths about men, goes to books rather than to actual life.

Literature, however, is far more than a mere supplier of knowledge. The point is made unobtrusively by Akutagawa a little later in the same story. Here, beauty rather than truth is the issue:

“From books to reality” was an unchanging truth for Shinsuke. In his past life, he had not been without some women he found himself in love with. Yet none of them showed him what feminine beauty was. At least, none showed him anything more than what he had read about feminine beauty. Thanks to Gautier and Balzac and Tolstoy, he noticed the beauty of a woman's ear glowing translucent in the sunlight, or of her eyelash casting a shadow on her cheek. He could still remember her beauty because of that. If he had not read these books, he might have seen nothing in a woman but a female animal.

In this instance, books taught Shinsuke how to look at life. Life might be ugly, but it could be beautiful if looked at in a certain way. The woman might not be beautiful, but her partner could see in her an image of his favorite heroine in Gautier, Balzac, or Tolstoy. Literature might reveal hidden truths that were better left hidden. But it might also reveal beauty such as an ordinary person would never see in his lifetime. A literary work could depict people as more beautiful or noble than the reader had ever thought they were. In this way, it could give him support and encouragement in fighting the battle of life itself.

From his earliest youth, Akutagawa seems to have considered art a guiding light. As a young man of twenty-four who had not yet established himself as a writer, he wrote to a friend of his: “At some moments I find myself in the presence of a current that flows through life and art. The next moment, I lose sight of it again. And the instant I lose sight of it, I am overcome by the immense darkness and solitude that loom around me.” This is the same current that Bakin, the novelist-hero of “Absorbed in Letters,” eventually discovers “flowing like the Milky Way in the sky”—a sight that drives away all the unhappy thoughts from his troubled mind. Yoshihide, the artist-hero of “The Hell Screen,” is so swept up by that current he forgets that the model being burnt to death before his eyes is his beloved daughter. The Akutagawa-like narrator of “Cogwheel,” depressed, nervous, and on the brink of insanity, reads Voyage Through the Dark Night and gains peace of mind for a while.

Another revealing testimonial to the power of art is given by Akutagawa in an essay that records his experiences in the ruins of Tokyo immediately after the great earthquake of 1923. He was walking among the debris of fire-ravaged buildings with a heavy heart, when suddenly he heard the voice of a youngster in a nearby moat. He was singing “My Old Kentucky Home.” “I felt strangely moved,” Akutagawa later recalled. “I felt something within me that wanted to join in with the youngster. No doubt he was simply enjoying himself singing a song. Yet the song, in a trice, overcame the spirit of negation that had gripped my mind for some time.” Akutagawa went on to reflect on the uses of art. He concluded: “What I saw was something that even the flaming fire could not destroy.” That “something” was the power of art, a strange power that could overcome the darkest of negative spirits. Even a simple song by Stephen Foster could do that; great masterpieces of literature should be able to do the same or more.

At this point art approaches close to religion—that is, if the purpose of religion is to overcome the spirit of negation. Akutagawa—at least the young Akutagawa—thought so. For instance, he wrote in a letter to a friend in 1914: “There is no need to force oneself to seek faith in God. One is compelled to debate whether or not there is a God because one thinks of faith only in terms of faith in God. I have my faith—a faith in art. I cannot believe that the exaltation I gain through this faith of mine is inferior to the exaltation gained through other faiths.”

Could art really be a religion, in the sense Akutagawa thought it could? The available precedents were not very hopeful. There was the case of Bashō, who tried to unite art and religion, but failed because religion required him to be passive before the Supreme Being while art wanted him to be an active creator. Akutagawa, who was the first to point out that dichotomy in Bashō, came down firmly on the side of art. “Goethe once said he was possessed by a daemon while he was writing poetry,” he wrote. “Wasn't Bashō too much under the influence of a poetic daemon to become a religious recluse? Wasn't the poet within Bashō more powerful than the religious recluse within him?” Akutagawa's answer was, of course, in the affirmative. For him, Bashō exemplified the sad fate of a poet who wrote poetry in the belief that it brought him closer to religion, but who finally came to the realization that he was wrong. How, then, did Akutagawa try to resolve a dilemma that had defeated Bashō?

Akutagawa's proposed solution was the opposite of Bashō's. While Bashō tried to bring poetry close to religion by writing a passive kind of poetry, Akutagawa attempted to humanize religion and thereby bring it closer to art. Increasingly interested in Christianity in his later years, he wrote essays describing the Holy Scriptures as literature. Jesus, he thought, was more human than divine. “Christianity,” he once wrote, “is a poetic religion rich in ironies, a religion that Jesus himself could not practice. He laughingly threw away his life, even, for the sake of his genius. No wonder Wilde discovered in him the first of the romantics.” “Christ became an early-day journalist,” he wrote in another instance. “He also became an early-day Bohemian. His genius marched on in leaps and bounds, overriding the social codes of his time. On occasions, he grew hysterical with disciples who did not understand him.” He added:

Jesus would ask his disciples, “What am I?” It is not difficult to answer that question. He was both a journalist and a subject for journalism; or, to put it another way, he was the author of short stories called “The Parables” as well as the hero of fictional biographies called the New Testament. A number of other Christs, it appears, had similar characteristics.

By “other Christs” Akutagawa meant Goethe, Tolstoy, Ibsen, and all other “journalists” who were possessed by a “daemon,” and who kept on writing about themselves as they searched for something nobler than human bestiality. For Akutagawa, the Holy Ghost that fathered Jesus was merely another name for that “daemon,” which also moved Jesus to teach, preach, and be crucified. In that sense, Jesus was a writer like the others. “In the final analysis, Christianity is a work of art, a didactic literature created by Jesus,” Akutagawa concluded. “The works of Tolstoy's last years come closest to this ancient work of didactic literature [the Bible], though they lack the romantic color he (Jesus) added.” Here, Akutagawa was implying not only that the Bible is literature if Tolstoy's Resurrection is literature, but also that Resurrection is a religious classic if the Bible is a religious classic.

Thus Akutagawa attained a unification of literature and religion by making the former include the latter. Religion, in his way of thinking, was a type of literature, a romantic type. This was, of course, far more than a literary judgment, and should not be judged on literary grounds. The only question one can legitimately ask in a biographical context is whether Akutagawa did actually derive from literature the religious consolation he apparently demanded from it.

Ostensibly, the answer must be in the negative. Admittedly, the young Akutagawa seems to have found in art the kind of exaltation that a religion might give. Thus the writer Bakin attains “mysterious joy” and “ecstatic, moving exaltation” by means of art, and the painter Yoshihide shows the “splendor of ecstatic joy” on his face as he works at creating a masterpiece. Yoshihide eventually commits suicide, but this is depicted as a triumph because he leaves behind him a masterpiece that is immortal. And yet, Akutagawa seems to grow less and less confident in the saving power of art as he grew older. The suicide of Tok the poet is described in Kappa as being far less glorious than Yoshihide's: there are obvious indications that poetry failed to function as a redeemer for Tok. The neurotic narrator of “Cogwheel” does get solace from reading Voyage Through the Dark Night, but it is a temporary solace. And, of course, Akutagawa himself committed suicide. Does this not indicate that his religion of art had failed him? Could he not have lived on if he had become a Christian, for example?

From Akutagawa's point of view, his suicide indicates neither that art had failed him nor that religion could have saved him. To him, it appeared that even Jesus had died a suicidal death. And as Jesus had died because he would not compromise his ideals, so did Akutagawa. He had a lofty ideal of man in his youth, and he kept on refusing to abandon it, even when he grew older and came to discover bestiality at the source of human life. He chose to keep believing that man was considerably nobler than a beast. Unfortunately, his health rapidly deteriorated in his later years, threatening to reduce or even incapacitate his intellectual power. He could have lived on, had he been ready to accept a less intellectual life for himself. He could have stopped being a writer, if he found himself unable to write. He could have lived on in retirement, as a good-for-nothing, or even as a mental patient. But he was too proud; he could not and would not compromise his idea of human nobility. Likewise, he could have lived on as a Christian. But, in his view, becoming a Christian would have meant surrendering his humanity to God; it would have meant recognizing an existence higher than man. His religion, which was art, dictated that man be his own master in death as in life. His suicide, in this context, was therefore a vindication of art; it was comparable to the suicide of Yoshihide in “The Hell Screen.” Yoshihide the man died, but his hell screen, a proof that man is not a mere beast, remained. And so it is with Akutagawa: he killed himself, but his works remain as the record of his struggles to prove human nobility.


  1. Kappa is an aquatic monster that appears in Japanese folklore. It looks like a large frog, with a saucerlike receptacle growing on its head. “Weird” is the adjective Akutagawa uses most often to describe this creature in Kappa.

  2. Saikaku was a writer of haikai, a popular form of linked verse, before he began writing prose fiction. As a haikai writer he shocked his contemporaries by the use of quaint, unconventional words, so much so that he was nicknamed “Dutchman.” His use of unconventional words in his fiction was just as striking.

  3. Ni Yün-lin (1301–74), also known as Ni Tsan, was a leading painter in the late Yüan period and was especially skilled in landscape painting. He also wrote many volumes of poetry.

  4. In a ninth-century Japanese tale called A Tale of a Bamboo-Cutter, the beautiful heroine gives a test to each of her wooers. She asks one suitor to bring her a seashell that does not exist in reality.

  5. Ages Ago is a collection of more than 1,200 tales compiled in the early twelfth century. Unlike most of the literary works that preceded it, the collection was intended to appeal to a large segment of the contemporary Japanese populace. Accordingly, it did not shy away from presenting vulgar or even bawdy aspects of life in a direct, unsophisticated manner.

  6. The haiku was written by Bashō in the summer of 1689, when he visited a rural temple at the beginning of his long journey to the far north. Enshrined in the temple was a mountain priest noted as a tireless traveler through the wilderness. Unlike other holy statues, that of the priest normally wore wooden shoes.

  7. In The Garden of Epicurus Anatole France remarked that words in a book were magic fingers that played on the harp strings of the reader's brain, and that the sounds thus evoked depended on the quality of the strings within each individual reader. Mount Lu is a famous mountain located near the Yangtze River. Because of its scenic beauty and its close associations with Buddhism, it provided fitting material for poetry and the arts through the centuries.

  8. Yanagihara is the name of a district in Tokyo. It is written with two characters meaning “willow” and “field,” respectively.

Beongcheon Yu (essay date 1976)

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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 without worrying about it, you must go on. Ignore the crowd—the best way of keeping your integrity.” Through the arrangement of one of Soseki's disciples, the story was reprinted in the May issue of the influential New Fiction, making Akutagawa's first success all the more secure.

Set in ancient Japan, the story portrays a Buddhist priest of great renown and piety who suffers, not knowing what to do with his six-inch long nose. Although outwardly indifferent, he is much mortified, feeling that his concern about such a mundane matter does not become his priestly dignity. (He can never be a Cyrano de Bergerac who knows how to capitalize on his grotesque nose.) While searching for precedents in scripture, he subjects himself to all sorts of cures, such as boiling and stamping, and finally succeeds in shrinking his nose, but his success merely redoubles his embarrassment and shame as he now attracts even more attention. Then, much to his relief, sheer chance restores it to its original size. “Now, no one will laugh at me any more,” he mutters to himself as he enjoys the breeze of an early autumn morning.

“The Nose” is based mainly on an episode about the famous long-nosed priest, found in the Konjaku and Ujishui,2 two ancient collections of stories and tales; in psychological treatment it was inspired by Gogol's story of the same title. Yet Akutagawa's story retains nothing of the crudely simple narration and earthy humor of the original anecdote; nor does it echo the bizarre twist and sardonic laughter of the Russian writer. Sober and serious, as Soseki said, the tone is ironic, and this sense of irony derives from the author's angle of vision, the uncertainty of being human in a fickle world. The story revolves around the very attitude of the author who neither condemns nor condones. Using the human nose as a focal point Akutagawa pits his protagonist against the world and shows that neither side wins or loses completely. While his clear-eyed intelligence does not miss the slightest shade of psychological tension, his subtle comic sense contemplates human frailty with serene pity.

Already apparent in “The Nose” are three motifs: the manipulation of the absurd; the uncertainty of being human; and the morbidity of obsession. Each of these motifs is carried further in Akutagawa's later stories. The first motif is evident in “Lice” (1916), which concerns solemn-faced samurai warring over lice, and “The Dragon” (1919), in which the credulous masses gather to witness the ascent of a dragon. The second motif appears in “The Wine Worm” (1916) and “The Dream of Lusheng” (1917), both of which suggest the futility of attempting to change what one is born with, and the third in “Yam Gruel” (1916), which exposes the extremity of a human obsession fearful of its own realization.

Uniquely Akutagawa, “The Nose” refuses classification with any of the three literary schools that dominated the contemporary literary scene: naturalism, aestheticism, and idealism. Like “Rashomon,” it was written in an effort to get over a recent disappointment in love, and Akutagawa meant to be pleasant and remote from reality. Fresh in conception, dexterous in execution, and cumulative in effect, the story both puzzled and delighted the reading public.


Although “The Nose” made Akutagawa famous virtually overnight, he was too ambitious an artist to merely indulge in his first success. His literary activities during the next few years fully indicate his ability to turn his sudden fame into something more solid and permanent. The period 1916–1919 marked in many ways perhaps the happiest years of his life, resulting in three collections of short stories, Rashomon,Tobacco and the Devil, and The Puppeteer.

The thirty-odd stories collected in these volumes are typical of Akutagawa, rich in variety and impressive in scope. In addition to conventional short stories, there are dramas, satires, fairy-tales, prose poems, and sketches—set in Japan, China, India, and imaginary lands. The Japanese stories, for instance, range from remote antiquity to the contemporary world, from the early Japanese Christian to the Edo period. Depending on his subject matter his narrative form is varied—dramatic, epistolary, allegorical, and objective—as is his style—pseudo-classical, early Christian, Chinese, and modern. Fantastic in imagery, tender in sentiment, biting in ridicule, and startling in direction, these pieces are all experimental, demonstrating the author's determination to explore and exploit different genres. Some are perhaps precious but none amateurish. Whether precocious or mature, they all attest to a high degree of literary intelligence at work.

Contemporary critics, sympathetic or hostile, quickly noted Akutagawa's intelligence and craftsmanship. One critic, designating the essence of Akutagawa's art as a combination of intelligence and humor, stressed his pose as a detached outsider observing the kaleidoscope of life. While regretting that Akutagawa's analytical power sometimes failed to go beyond common sense, the critic nonetheless lavished praise on the author's artistic integrity and his unerring sense of language. All in all, Akutagawa seemed to him to be the kind of writer who would proceed from emphasis on form to concern with content. Another critic found one of Akutagawa's central themes to be the sense of fear that inevitably follows our fulfilled expectations; he pointed out the author's capacity for perfect form, contemplation, and aesthetic distance, all of which combined to make his art unique in contemporary literature. A third critic suggested that Akutagawa's primary virtue was the purity of his aesthetic contemplation, apparent in the best of his stories, and that these stories were often almost too pure to excite the general reader long spoiled by impure works—works immature in aesthetic contemplation. Probably for this very reason his works appeared to lack in raw strength, what the critic called the throbbings of life. Despite their varied observations the critics concurred on one point: perfect form compensates for insufficient content.3 Whatever the validity of such a verdict, it was the view generally shared by Akutagawa's contemporaries since they were prompt to label him a neo-intellectualist, neo-classicist, neo-mannerist, and the like.

Akutagawa rejected such labels designed only for the convenience of reviewers and critics because they were all too neat and simple to characterize what he was trying to do. He took every opportunity to clarify his intent: to go his own way as best he could—the only sure way of growing. In reply to the question, “Why do you write?” he said he wrote neither for money nor for the public but because something vague and chaotic within himself demanded a certain form which was at once clear and precise. Declaring that art is, first of all, expression, he challenged the general critical assumption that a writer starts with content and then frames it in some sort of form, as though there were two separate and separable processes. The common critical clichés, “stylistic obsession,” “too deft” or “too dexterous,” were meaningless to Akutagawa. Form, he said in effect, does not wrap content in a neat package; form lies in content, and vice versa. To one who cannot understand this basic truth, art will forever remain another world. Art begins and ends in deliberate expression. Write with your soul or with your life—all these gilded sermons had better be addressed to high school students. All creative activities, even those of a genius, are conscious; he is perfectly aware of what effect his single touch, his single stroke will create; if not, then he is no better than an automaton.

In Akutagawa's view, then, it would be a mistake to assume the primacy of either form or content. In the same reflections on art he in fact warned that stressing form would be equally harmful, and that in practice it might be even more harmful than stressing content, a warning apparently against a typical Japanese tendency toward the decorative or a refined preciousness. The point here is Akutagawa's passion for perfection, the quality which struck the three critics referred to above. The artist, in Akutagawa's view, must strive to perfect his work; otherwise his devotion to art amounts to nothing. For moral exaltation the reader might as well turn to sermons, but for aesthetic pleasure he must go to a work of art. And to secure this pleasure the artist must pursue his dream of perfection. It was in this vein that Akutagawa also wrote: “There is in the kingdom of art no room for the unperfected”; “A work of art, when perfected, becomes timeless”; and “In the religion of art self-reliance is the only key to salvation.”

“One who has a correct view of art does not necessarily create a better work. Such a reflection makes me sad. Am I the only one in this? I pray this is not the case”—so Akutagawa wrote in “Art, etc.” The truth is that Akutagawa not only had a “correct” view of art but also wrote “better” works because of it. In reference to Poe's “Philosophy of Composition” he observed that the American poet wrote his poems and stories just as a brick layer would go about his job.4 Then turning to his own manner of writing. Akutagawa said in the preface to Tobacco and the Devil:

To speak of my feelings while I am at work, it seems like growing rather than making something. Every phenomenon, human and otherwise, follows its own unique course of development in that it happens in the way it must. So as I write I proceed from point to point, from moment to moment. If I miss one step, then I am stuck. I can not go even one step further. If I force myself, something is bound to go wrong. I must always be alert. No matter how alert, it often happens that I miss it. That is my trouble.

This, according to Akutagawa, explains why a work of art in progress sometimes refuses to follow the artist's own plan, however well calculated, “just as the world may have gone out of God's hands, much as he tried to adhere to his original plans of creation.” Thus, despite his insistence on conscious intelligence, Akutagawa recognized that the artist was fallible, but this human frailty was no excuse for not striving for perfection.


Although it is obvious that in theory and practice Akutagawa put a high premium on literary intelligence, the matter apparently was not so obvious to many of his contemporary critics who, taking the term intelligence differently, charged that with Akutagawa intelligence often degenerated into book learning and antiquarianism. The implication of their charge was that his art is all imitation, devoid of a sense of life. For example, the narrative substance of “The Nose” derived entirely from either the Konjaku or Ujishui, and for psychological analysis it followed Gogol's piece of the same title. The same is true of other stories like “Rashomon,” which again relied heavily on the Konjaku, and “The Dragon,” which in turn was based on the Ujishui. Likewise, both “The Wine Worm” and “The Dream of Lusheng” drew from well-known Chinese materials, and “Lice” admittedly had an oral source. Clearly, it was assumed, Akutagawa's art was bookish, and his originality, if any, was only in form, not in content. To these critics who took the terms originality and imitation in a narrow sense, Akutagawa's presumed lack of originality indicated the fatal paucity of his inner life which his art was used to camouflage.

According to Yoshida Seiichi's investigations,5 at least sixty-two of Akutagawa's stories reveal a varying degree of indebtedness to known literary sources, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Western. His Western sources in particular show a wide range—the Bible, Caxton, Swift, Defoe, Goethe, Poe, Bierce, Browning, Butler, Gogol, and Dostoevsky, as well as Flaubert, Régnier, Mérimée, Loti, Strindberg, France, Synge, and others. Although Akutagawa's habit of borrowing—from mere inspiration to outright plagiarism—becomes less conspicuous as he proceeds, the proportion of borrowings to his total output of some 150 stories is very high indeed, even if one grants that such borrowing is not uncommon among writers and that reading, as a form of experience, is a very important part of any writer's life. If the practice reflected Akutagawa's omnivorous reading, it was also what made his admirer Hori Tatsuo say of him: “He finally ended without any original masterpiece. In all of his masterpieces, in every single one of them, linger the shadows of previous centuries.”6

The question of imitation and originality could hardly have disturbed earlier Eastern and Western critics who usually showed an enviable degree of permissiveness toward such practices, over-stressing neither originality as a cardinal virtue nor imitation as a deadly sin. Even in the present century, at least in the West, we have since Joyce and Eliot, learned to accept imitation as a common phenomenon. Yet, to the modern Japanese the question still has a special significance because of their oft-alleged racial propensity to imitation, and also because of the peculiar influence of naturalists and humanists who insisted on the primacy of life over art, an attitude central to the shishosetsu tradition.

Akutagawa sharply disagreed with his critics on the question and affirmed the validity of literary imitation. “I am not at all ashamed to imitate the geniuses of all ages and to appropriate their crafty methods and devices.” The preface to Tobacco and the Devil also indicates that he was fully aware of the implications of his critics' charge. It is true, writes Akutagawa, that he frequently draws from old materials with which his early education familiarized him. But it is not true that he read them with an eye to extracting possible materials for his stories. Although he does not consider such a manner of reading a serious vice, the fact is that while reading he often comes upon some interesting materials he can use later. Discovery of such materials does not insure stories since materials are just materials. As Akutagawa points out, he cannot write unless he becomes one with his material as his mind penetrates into it. And when such a union will occur, he himself cannot predict. But when it happens he knows it because his vision suddenly clears up.

From this it is apparent that Akutagawa takes reading as a major source of his literary inspirations. Especially revealing is what he has to say about the creative process, the process from reading to creation, when he describes how a story grows out of his union with a given source. “Spiderthread” (1918) may serve as an example of his personal method. The story is brief enough to be quoted in full:


One day in Paradise, Buddha was alone strolling around the Lotus Pond. The flowers were now in their pearly white bloom with an exquisite fragrance radiating from their golden crowns. It was morning in Paradise.

Soon Buddha paused by the edge of the pond and peered down through the lotus leaves overgrowing the water. Deep beneath the Lotus Pond lay the pit of Hell, and through the crystal-clear water the River Styx and the Mountain of Needles appeared vividly.

There at the bottom of Hell he noticed a man named Kantada writhing among his fellow sinners. Although he was a notorious robber who had committed arsons, murders, and other sins, he had done one good deed in his lifetime. Once while passing through a dense forest he came upon a tiny spider crawling along the path. Raising his foot, he was about to crush it, when he checked himself: “No, it isn't right. Tiny as it is, it must also have its life. It would be cruel of me to kill it for no good reason.” So he let the creature go unharmed.

While observing Hell beneath, Buddha recalled Kantada's charitable deed to the spider and decided to rescue him out of Hell as a reward. It so happened that Buddha noticed a spider of Paradise weaving its beautiful silvery web over the sapphire-colored lotus leaves near-by. Taking this spiderthread gently, he lowered it through an opening amid the pearl-white lotus flowers all the way down to the shadowy bottom of Hell.


In the Lake of Blood at the pit of Hell, Kantada was bobbing up and down with the other sinners. Whichever way he looked, all was dark—except for the occasional glimmer of sharp steel from the Mountain of Needles—a scene which was ghastly beyond description. Moreover, all was as still as the grave but for the faint sighs and groans rising every now and then from those wretched sinners, utterly exhausted with every known kind of infernal torture, indeed too exhausted even to cry out. The notorious robber Kantada was no exception. Choked with blood in this Lake of Blood, he was struggling in desperation like a dying frog.

Then, he happened to glance up at the sky above the Lake of Blood, and he saw the silvery spiderthread coming down from the far, faraway sky, glimmering as stealthily as if it feared the watchful eyes of the sinners. At the sight of this thread Kantada clapped his hands for joy. If he could only cling to it and climb up as far as he could, it seemed that he would surely get out of Hell. And if things were to go well, he might be able to get into Paradise. Then, he wouldn't have to be hauled up the Mountain of Needles or be cast down into the Lake of Blood.

Trembling with hope, Kantada at once grasped the thread in both hands and began to pull himself up with all his strength. Having been a great robber, he was thoroughly at home in this sort of thing.

However, Paradise rises tens of thousands of miles above Hell, too long a way for him to make it for all his eagerness. Having climbed up for a while, Kantada became so weary that he couldn't pull himself an inch farther. With nothing else to do now, he took his breath, hanging onto the thread and peering below.

His strenuous climb had been rewarded. The Lake of Blood, which he had left behind a while ago, was no longer visible in the darkness. The dreadful Mountain of Needles was only faintly glimmering way below. At this rate of ascent he might easily escape from Hell. Lacing both hands around the thread, Kantada exclaimed: “I've done it!” and laughed aloud for the first time in many years. Then suddenly he noticed right below him a myriad number of sinners climbing up and up the same thread close on his heels, diligently like a procession of ants. Kantada was stunned, his mouth agape and his eyes rolling like a dumbfounded idiot. How could this slender thread, already strained to the breaking point under his own weight, possibly sustain the crushing weight of so many? And what if the thread snaps off now? Then, he himself, after all his strenuous ascent, would be hurled back headlong into his former gloom in Hell. That would be even more frightening. While he was thus paralyzed with this prospect, hundreds and thousands of sinners kept climbing up, in a single file, along the silvery thread—after swarming out of the dismal Lake of Blood. Something had to be done at once. Otherwise, it would snap off halfway, hurling him back down to the pit of Hell.

“You damn'd sinners,” Kantada shouted aloud. “This thread is mine, mine alone. Who said you could climb up? Get down, all of you get down.”

At that very moment the thread snapped. All was over with Kantada. Down he plunged, whirling like a top, deep into the gloomy pit of Hell.

All that was left behind now was the faint gleam of the spiderthread hanging midair in the moonless and starless space.


Having seen all this through to the point at which Kantada sank to the bottom of the Lake of Blood, Buddha turned away from the edge of the Lotus Pond, and with a saddened look resumed his stroll. He must have pitied the shameless Kantada who, for his very lack of charity, was cast down to his former abode in Hell.

But those lotus flowers in Paradise seemed not at all affected by what had just happened in the world below. The pearly white flowers keep waving their calyxes around the feet of Buddha, still with their golden crowns radiating an exquisite fragrance. In Paradise it is now nearly midday.

Although even a sinner, through a small deed of charity in the past, deserves a chance to be saved, it is selfishness again that ruins him as well as others. In thesis and spirit the story is a Buddhist parable; in language and tone it is a fairy tale. As Akutagawa admitted, it required the greater care because of its brevity. Even though his lucid, elegant style suffers in translation, Akutagawa's essentially cinematic method is apparent. Masamune Hakucho missed the point when, comparing the story with Gulliver's Travels, he said: “Never venturing beyond common sense, it merely accepts the well-defined world of order. Granted it is meant to be a fairy tale, the author's mind too seems to indulge in the world of fairy tale.”7 Whatever this well-defined world of order, our real concern is with the source Akutagawa used for this story. For this nine out of ten readers would turn to some Buddhist source; and all ten would be surprised that it was adapted from a simple episodic parable—a thoroughly Christian one at that—in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, which Akutagawa had recently read. The episode appears in “An Onion,” the third chapter of Book VII, where Grushenka engages in conversation with Alyosha. The story, which Grushenka learned from her cook when she was a child, is as follows:

Once upon a time there was a peasant woman, and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; “she once pulled up an onion in her garden,” he said, “and gave it to a beggar woman.” And God answered: “You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.” The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. “Come,” said he, “catch hold and I'll pull you out.” And he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. “I'm to be pulled out, not you. It's my onion, not yours.” As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.

[Constance Garnett's translation]

So completely recast, “Spiderthread” as it stands leaves almost no trace of the original. By juxtaposing both versions we may sufficiently understand what Akutagawa meant by his union with the materials. Of course, he is not always so successful as in this instance. But with such a felicitous adaptation few would raise the question of imitation and originality.


Related closely to the question of imitation is Akutagawa's dependence on history, an early interest of his. It is his use of history as a fictional frame that led his critics to confound his intelligence with his learning and antiquarianism, and dub him a writer of historical fiction. Some forty stories, over a quarter of his total output, and all of his best pieces in the first half of his writing career fall under the category of what may loosely be called historical fiction. Akutagawa himself, in reference to “The Nose,” warned against such simplistic labeling, and he was right. Today we would certainly hesitate to regard this and other stories in the same vein as historical tales.

“Rashomon” (1915), one of his earliest attempts in this genre, may help to clarify the matter. (Incidentally, the film version is actually a combination of this piece and “In a Grove” [1921].) Akutagawa's source for “Rashomon” is found again in the Konjaku collection. The original is a brief, simple and straightforward episode:8 A certain rustic, having arrived in the capital to begin a career of robbery, makes his way to the great gate of Rashomon to spend the night. In this shelter he chances upon an old shrivelled woman prowling among unclaimed corpses, plucking hair for the wig market. He strips the hag and her victim and runs off. The point of the episode is the sense of fright and horror both the man and the old woman experience in their brief encounter.

Akutagawa, following his source, sets his story in the Heian period, and his narrative method here, as in “Spiderthread,” is cinematic. The deserted gate of Rashomon looms in an evening storm, a symbol of the capital long deteriorating under a series of natural calamities. A man appears, a former servant who has recently been dismissed. Although armed, he is undecided whether to choose robbery or starvation. Among the scattered corpses beneath the gate he comes upon an old ape-like woman busily plucking a dead woman's hair.9 Curious and frightened at first, he becomes indignant and demands an explanation. She tells him that she gathers hair in order to survive, and that her victim, a rapacious vendor, deserves no better treatment. As indignation gives way to desperate courage, he snatches her clothes, and leaving the old woman naked among the corpses, disappears into the darkness.

Correcting the general view that egoism is the story's central theme, one critic said: “It neither affirms nor asserts egoism. Rather in order to negate it, the author, in extreme terms, scorns and satirizes its hideousness.”10 Another critic, in the light of what he called the logic of starvation, suggested that the story expressed the anarchist position that became prevalent soon after 1910.11 Neither critic seems really convincing, however, because both mistake the part for the whole. More likely Akutagawa tried to strike at something deeper and more basic than human egoism or the logic of starvation. And this “something” is the self that harbors those irresistible impulses of life, ultimately transcending the notions of good and evil. The theme of the story, then, is the uncertainty of the human ego which often finds itself at the mercy of those impulses whenever life asserts its primacy. The nameless characters are no better than those corpses—all completely overshadowed by the towering gate. The real protagonist is the great gate itself, which stands for the human soul impregnated with uncertain and unpredictable elements, and the atmosphere hovering over its massive structure makes “Rashomon” a powerful piece of writing. (Akutagawa felt so confident as to use it as the title story of his first collection.) More fittingly than “The Nose,” “Rashomon” marks the start of his career over which it cast its long, dark shadow.

Literary historians generally agree that Mori Ogai is the founder of historical fiction in modern Japanese literature (meaning he was the first to modernize the genre), and that his legacy was further developed by Kikuchi Kan and Akutagawa. In scope, however, Akutagawa goes far beyond Kikuchi and Ogai. While the majority of Ogai's historical novels are set in Japan, in the Tokugawa period (1600–1868), Akutagawa's tales exhibit a wider range from antiquity to the modern era, and are set in Japan, Korea, China, India and 19th century Russia. His Japanese stories in particular cover virtually all the major periods, from the mythological, Heian, early Christian, and Tokugawa down to the enlightened Meiji. At one time or another Akutagawa, if we take the narrator of his autobiographical story “Cogwheels” literally, even conceived of something like an epic novel consisting of some thirty pieces arranged chronologically, from the Nara down to the Meiji period, with the people of each period as its own characteristic protagonist.

The historical novel, such as would serve to express an author's paradoxical view of life, was peculiar to the period following 1910, and the use of history for creative purposes was common to the tradition of Ogai, Kikuchi, and Akutagawa. Although Ogai's historical novels successfully created an ideal image of the feudal world of samurai, he strove to portray the past faithfully—as faithfully as contemporary realists would claim to describe their own period. To this end Ogai approached historical materials with scientific accuracy and objectivity, so that the “nature” inherent in them might unfold itself, and this refusal to alter the “nature” in history, philosophical in intention though it was, often resulted in mere documentation. By concentrating on moments of crucial significance he pursued history for its own sake, not as a backdrop for his fiction. It is this emphasis on the “nature” in history that separated Ogai from his successors in the field.

Both Kikuchi and Akutagawa were alike in turning to history as a fictional frame. Defining his kind of historical fiction Kikuchi remarked:

In historical records there is many an incident—described in a matter-of-fact manner—which, once projected into our own subjective mind, would gain a sudden illumination as an episode of human life. In other words, if, aided by our refined modern sensibility, we retrace the past our forebears lived with little awareness, we often come across those gems of life which they let pass without notice.12

And what Kikuchi aimed to provide in his historical novels was a fresh interpretation of the past in the light of modern sensibility. To a large extent this seems to apply to Akutagawa too. Many of his historical tales are short, and present historical figures in new perspective often at the expense of historical convention and accuracy.

While agreeing in the main with Kikuchi's definition, Akutagawa took the term historical fiction less broadly. Although he accepted as a rule that there is no historical novel without some measure of fidelity to the general mores of a particular era, he also suggested the possibility of the kind of novel which would thematically focus on only certain unique aspects of it, say, its moral aspect. For example the Heian concept of sexual relationship differs considerably from the modern. According to Akutagawa, a writer should present this older concept in a detached manner as if he were a contemporary eyewitness and let the story produce its effect through the resulting contrast. To this category belong some of the historical novels of Mérimée and France. In Akutagawa's view there were yet no Japanese works comparable to them. Instead, there were only those that presented a glimpse of humanity common both to the ancient and to the modern. He hoped to see some young talent explore something different.

As for his own practice, Akutagawa explained the role of “a by-gone era” in his stories as a sort of fictional frame—as an equivalent of “once upon a time” or “long, long ago” of the fairy tale, and what he had to say about the matter is important to an understanding of his art.

Let us suppose that I, seizing on a certain theme, set out to write a story. In order to give the theme great artistic power I must have an uncommon incident. Considering the uncommonness of such an incident I cannot possibly set it in modern Japan. If I do, it may only appear unnatural to the reader, and thus destroy my theme. The best way to avoid such a waste, then, would be … to set it in the past (rarely in the future) or somewhere outside Japan—even ancient Japan. In most of my stories I was driven by the need to avoid unnaturalness. Consequently I looked for settings in by-gone eras because, unlike the fairy tale, novelistic conventions prohibit the use of ‘once upon a time’ or ‘long, long ago.’ Once this choice of a suitable period is made, I take the next step, that is, I introduce various contemporary social conditions to make my setting appear natural. This point, that in no sense do I aim at an exact and detailed recreation of a bygone era, I think, separates mine from the so-called historical novel.

His turning to by-gone eras, added Akutagawa, does not mean that he cherishes nostalgic longings for them. He is perfectly happy to have been born in modern Japan. True, our universal interest in things exotic may have to do with his selection of uncommon incidents, and likewise the very beauty of a by-gone era may conceivably affect his selection. While these exotic and aesthetic factors may find their way into the picture, Akutagawa emphasized that it is still the role of “long, long ago” that the past plays in his stories.

There is a group of stories executed more or less in the spirit of epic or legend, such as “The Robbers” (1917), “Heresy” (1918), “St. Christopher” (1919), “Susano-ono-mikoto” and “The Aged Susano-ono-mikoto” (both 1920). Set in the Heian, the late Heian, the early Christian, and the mythological eras respectively, these stories each conjure up those by-gone days with their peculiar atmospheres of savage flight and splendor, primitive faith and valor. The first, inspired by both the Konjaku and Mérimée's Carmen, the third, based on the Caxton version, and the last two, fashioned after the Kojiki, the earliest Japanese chronicle,—all have specific thematic concerns. The second story, for instance, depicts the confrontation between the native way of life and the Christian God. In the group as a whole, however, Akutagawa's thematic interest is somehow overshadowed by his exotic and aesthetic interest in the periods in which the stories are set.

There is another group of historical stories dealing with early Japanese Christians, some fifteen in all, written at various times throughout Akutagawa's career. In these Japanese Christian stories, as they might be called, theme and frame are hardly distinguishable. The subject itself was new, being one of the discoveries of the Taisho period to which contemporary scholars and artists turned with increasing fascination. Akutagawa was no exception, and he returned frequently to the newly-found materials. He was irresistibly drawn to them, no doubt, for what he called exotic and aesthetic reasons, but we cannot dismiss these Japanese Christian stories merely as the product of his alleged dilettantism. Pieces like “Tobacco and the Devil” (1916), “The Wandering Jew” (1917), and “Lucifer” (1918) couldn't possibly have been written without his antiquarian learning. Yet these and other pieces, such as “Ogata Ryosai's Memorandum” (1916), “The Martyr” (1918), and “Juliano Kichisuke” (1919), reveal something deeper and more personal than mere exoticism and aestheticism.13

“Ogata Ryosai's Memorandum” treats in a form of official report a village doctor's awe at the miraculous revival of a dead peasant girl by a Jesuit missionary. “Juliano Kichisuke” relates the life of a servant—the “holy idiot” whom Akutagawa loved best of all Japanese Christian martyrs—whose love for his mistress assumes the quality of religious devotion. And “The Martyr” traces the strange career of a girl who passes as a boy and is accused of fathering a child until her true identity is revealed in an attempt to rescue the child from a burning house.14 Although few of these attain the level of his best stories, they are nevertheless significant for their themes, a variety of religious passion. Originated in the period that marked the first Japanese contact with Christianity, these materials may have served Akutagawa as he tried to reach out towards the West. Perhaps more than that, these early Japanese Christians, to him, embodied the will to transcend their frail human selves and conquer death. Their age, the 16th and 17th centuries, reminded him of the Middle Ages in Europe, a period of religious faith, miracle, and martyrdom. Akutagawa turned to this period not so much for a fictional frame as for its pervasive spiritual intensity. Or rather that was what he found in the early Japanese Christian materials.

Akutagawa's own account, quoted earlier, that he first seizes on a theme and then seeks a suitable setting for it, suggests two valuable points: the extent to which intelligence is allowed to play in his creative process, and the manner in which a theme gains clarity and intensity through its proper setting. From his declared procedure of coming upon potential materials, rather than seeking them out in old books, and since almost all of his historical stories draw from written sources, it would seem that his theme, far from being abstract, is already embedded in a germinal story or episode, and as he further develops the germinal piece the theme emerges in sharper focus.

There is still another group of stories portraying historical personages, in some of which the author's theme tends to override his other considerations. In “Saigo Takamori” (1917), for instance, he is particularly concerned to detach this recent national militaristic hero from the historical context. An elderly skeptic confounds a young historian with his thesis that Saigo, contrary to history, did not fall in the last battle of the Seinan Rebellion. The old man's sophistry in juggling actuality and probability is so persuasive that the young scholar becomes almost convinced of Saigo's survival. But the tour de force of the story reveals itself in the sophist's final statement:

“I am quite satisfied to be a disciple of Pyrrho. We can never be sure about anything, even about ourselves—much less about Saigo Takamori's survival or death. Therefore, when I write a history I don't pretend to write a history free of lies. I would be perfectly content to write a history which would seem only probable and beautiful. As a young man I thought of becoming a novelist. Had I become one, I would have been writing such stories. That might have suited me better than being a historian. At any rate, I am quite satisfied to be a sceptic.”

The sophist was perhaps not meant to express the author's view of history as such; even so, it suggests something of his attitude. History is regarded not simply as what happened but more broadly as what might have happened. It is certainly the artist's view of history in that it is still fluid rather than established. In this Akutagawa stands a world apart from Ogai.

What has been said amounts to this: Akutagawa uses history only as a fictional frame and is thus more concerned with its utility than its actuality. Because he uses history only to serve his artistic purposes, those who criticize his tales on the basis of historical distortion or inaccuracy go wrong. For example in his portrait of Oishiuchi Kuranosuke, the leader of the celebrated forty-seven samurai (1917),15 Akutagawa shows no interest whatever in tracing the hero's career from the time he and his men begin plotting up to their final act of vendetta. Rather he concentrates on Oishiuchi in the aftermath of the event—at the moment he is basking in serene satisfaction while waiting for the order of harakiri that is sure to come. But his serenity is suddenly upset as he learns that his group set an unsavory pattern for vendetta-mongers, whereas others are branded as cowards or renegades for their failure to do the same. With the deeds of his group being praised for the wrong reasons, he begins to suspect that not all of his motives were pure and honorable; he even questions whether or not his feigned debaucheries resulted from selfish motives on his part. The story gives only a partial portrait of Oishiuchi, to be sure; hence the title “One Day of Oishiuchi Kuranosuke.” What emerges from the series of dramatized reflections is not a shining exemplar of feudal loyalty, but an honest man with common frailties capable of self-doubt, a man of flesh and blood made all the more appealing to the modern reader. By disregarding much of the historical detail and developing the psychological conflict, Akutagawa rescues his protagonist from the myth which has long apotheosized his heroic vendetta.

In “Kesa and Morito” (1918) Akutagawa is even less concerned with actual history. Here through two dramatic monologues, we get a glimpse of the interior of the ancient lovers' minds. Awaiting the appointed time to kill Kesa's husband, Morito reflects: “I despise her. I fear her. I hate her. And yet—and yet, all this may be because I love her.” On the other hand, Kesa, deciding to die in her husband's place, confesses: “I am going to die, but not for my husband. I am going to die for my own sake—yes, for having my pride hurt and my body defiled. Oh, my life has been unworthy, and so, too, will be my death.” Although, according to Akutagawa, the original episode in The Rise and Fall of the Minamoto and Taira Clans indicates that the lovers' relationship was a sordid sexual affair, tradition has turned Kesa into a heroine who chose death for the sake of her honor.16 When a reader protested his iconoclastic rendering, Akutagawa, referring specifically to the original version, replied that it is a sheer bourgeois myth to idolize this wretched, fallen woman as if she were some sort of superhuman paragon of chastity. In stories like these Akutagawa attempted to liberate man from all-powerful myth, and he often ran counter to tradition. When he penetrates the complex interior of humanity, history simply provides the initial frame, thus making the label “historical fiction” meaningless.

This is especially true with “In a Grove” (1921). Here again Akutagawa turns to the Konjaku for a usable episode but to Browning's The Ring and the Book for a suitable narrative mode, and he exploits his imagination to the fullest extent. (It has also been suggested that the central situation of a ravished wife came from his talk with a fellow writer.)

The story opens rather matter-of-factly with official testimonies by four witnesses: a woodcutter who chanced upon the dead body of a young samurai on a wooded hillside; a traveling priest who saw him on the road with his wife accompanying him on horseback; a constable who apprehended the murder suspect, a notorious robber; and an old woman who, identifying the slain samurai as her daughter's husband, added that the young couple was bound for their home in the country.

After these factual testimonies, the story turns sharply to another series of three mutually conflicting accounts of what really happened in the grove. As the robber defiantly admits, he did indeed slay the samurai in a duel which the ravished wife demanded with the winner to take her as his own. This version is at once contradicted by the woman's tearful confession at a temple, that she killed her husband for having witnessed her shame and then tried in vain to kill herself. But even this version turns out to be totally unreliable when the murdered husband, through a medium, reveals that his wife urged the robber to kill him, and when the robber refused he decided to take his own life.

Proceeding from the four testimonies to the three conflicting accounts of what happened, the story relentlessly develops an emotional vortex: lust, love, hate, suspicion, jealousy, anger, contempt, and resignation. It finally suggests that, as a victim of these elemental passions, man must wander hopelessly in his world of uncertainty, forever blind to the ultimate truth. The innocuous grove becomes a symbol of life itself which is dark with human ambiguities. (It is to Kurosawa's credit that in his film he made full use of certain affinities between this story and “Rashomon.”17 The setting is ancient, but the theme is modern, and from their peculiar combination the story draws its savage intensity.


There is finally a group of stories portraying famous artists as heroes. If the so-called artist stories together constitute a unique genre in modern literature, they also occupy a special place in Akutagawa's art. Being intensely conscious of his trade, he wrote more than a dozen stories about art and the artist, and most of them understandably in the early years of his career. Besides those unguardedly autobiographical reminiscences of his literary adolescence, such as “On the Seashore” (1925) and “Those Days” (1918), there are allegories satirizing critics and writers such as “Mensura Zoili” (1916) and “The Strange Island” (1923); there are also stories about works of art, such as “Noroma Puppets” (1916), “The Marshland” (1919), and “An Autumn Mountain” (1920). Some of the stories such as “Withered Fields” (1918), “The Ball” (1919), and “The Solitary Snipe” (1920), dealing with the death of Basho, the casual appearance of Pierre Loti, and the encounter of Tolstoy and Turgenev, respectively, are simple episodes. Others come to grips directly with artists at their moment of creation and here the author's theme triumphs over his historical frame.

Perhaps most typical of this series is “Creative Frenzy” (1917), a portrait of Takizawa Bakin, a great Edo novelist working on his masterpiece, The Romance of Eight Dogs. Based on Bakin's own diaries and written somewhat in the manner of “One Day of Oishiuchi Kuranosuke,” this story was most popular among Akutagawa's friends and he himself took no little pride in it, saying that he “borrowed Bakin to write what was on his own mind.”

Bakin as he appears in the story is over sixty, though with his prominent cheekbones, sturdily-set jaws, and somewhat large mouth, all suggesting his enormous vitality, he seems more like a man in his prime. Akutagawa describes in detail a typical day of Bakin's life at its peak, from his morning visit to the public bath to his lonely midnight work. Out of the massive accumulation of details gradually emerge Akutagawa's manifold themes: the conflict between the artist and his readers who are enthusiastic but remain unappreciative of his intentions; the relationship of the artist and his critics who, accusing him of imitating old masters, always lump his works with those of mediocre writers; the unsatisfactory association of the artist with his greedy, unscrupulous publishers who tempt him to prostitute his artistic integrity; the ironic relation of the artist and young aspirants who, resenting his refusal to read their manuscripts, repay him with insults and slanders; the trouble between the artist and censors who pose as the guardians of public morality and detect nothing but eroticism in his characters; and finally the sympathy between the artist and his colleagues who share his devotion to artistic pursuit.

Such a list of themes might create the impression that Akutagawa's story is merely an artist's manifesto, certainly interesting but a bit too obvious. All of these themes, no doubt, had personal implications for Akutagawa, then fresh from the first round of his literary struggle. Many contemporary readers and critics did in fact take the story as a personal manifesto. But what helps lift the story above documentary status is the author's ability to dramatize his themes with concrete daily events and thereby create a cumulative effect. As we are led into the story we perceive with increasing clarity that it extends over three concentric circles: in the outer stand the general public which remains alien to Bakin; in the middle his family and a few fellow artists who care for him and his ideals; and in the inner, Bakin himself, alone as every artist must be when he faces his work. He is oblivious to everything else, his public, his family, and even the shared pledge with his painter-friend Watanabe Kazan that they will go on fighting unto death. Once in this magic circle he is free of his usual frustrations and doubts. Akutagawa describes it thus:

When he finally lowered his brush to paper, some faint light was glimmering in his mind. And as he wrote ten, twenty lines, and more, the light grew larger and larger. What this was, Bakin knew from experience and kept at his writing with the greater care. Divine inspiration was in no way different from fire. Once kindled, it may go out quickly unless one knows how to feed it.

“Don't be impatient! And think deeply—as deeply as you can,” Bakin kept whispering to himself, trying to restrain his brush which tended to run ahead in eagerness. What had earlier seemed to be but shattered stars, was now flowing through his mind more swiftly than a river, gaining force every moment urging him forward, whether he liked it or not.

No longer did he hear the chirping of crickets outside; nor did he have to strain his eyes in the dim light of the round paper lamp. His brush, by its own momentum, began gliding on paper without a pause. He kept on desperately as though in a mortal struggle with some supernatural power.

The stream within, like the Milky Way across the sky, came flowing from some unknown, inexhaustible source. He feared that his strength could no longer bear its torrential force. Gripping his brush firmly, he said to himself time and again: “Keep on writing to the utmost limits. If what you are writing you do not write now, you may never be able to write again.”

The misty stream of light would not ebb. It swept over him, drowning everything in its dizzy rush until at last he became its helpless captive, oblivious to all, as his brush carried him along the course of the flood.

At that moment he was a sovereign whose vision transcended thoughts of gain and loss, love and hate, and whose mind remained indifferent to clamors of fame and slander. With all vanished, he was alone, experiencing only a sense of marvelous joy, a sublime ecstasy.

To this Akutagawa adds: “How could anyone alien to this heightened feeling possibly appreciate the inmost ecstasy of creative frenzy or fathom the writer's supreme spirit? In this very moment life, cleansed of its dregs, begins to shine before the eyes of the artist, with the brilliance of a new gem.” This addition, though perhaps unnecessary, reaffirms Akutagawa's profound conviction that artistic creation is indeed a supreme human act bordering on divine mystery and that this sense of ecstasy is the highest reward any artist can hope to win.

The greatest of all of Akutagawa's artist stories, and in fact the greatest of all of his stories written during his early period is “The Hell Screen” (1918). Again drawing from old materials, this time from two different sources—one of a painter rejoicing as his house burns down and the other of a painter working on a screen depicting hell (neither episode runs to more than a dozen lines),18 this novella portrays a tragic artist who sacrifices everything to complete his masterpiece. Incomparably better than in his Bakin story, Akutagawa here succeeds in creating an ideal artist driven by his daemon and obsessed with his dream of perfection, because here at last Akutagawa found the material that matched his gift, and both author and material achieved a rare union. It is this piece, “The Hell Screen,” that elicited Masamune Hakucho's praise: “the very best of Akutagawa's stories” and “a masterpiece which gains special brilliance in post-Meiji Japanese literature.”19

Yoshihide, or Monkey Yoshihide as he was nicknamed, is eccentric—greedy, indolent, impetuous, shameless, and above all arrogant. Odious as he is, he is a supreme artist, the greatest painter of his time. His other saving personal virtue is his passionate love for his only daughter, who is his exact opposite in every way—sweet, innocent, and obedient. Moreover, she has a quick turn of mind such as is apparent in her saving a mischievous pet monkey called Yoshihide from an impending punishment by her witty reference to the creature's nickname. After this incident the girl and the monkey become fast friends. One day the patron lord commands the artist to paint a scene of Hell on a screen. For several months he locks himself up in his studio, working on the project. As he becomes engrossed with the subject, all sorts of wild, fantastic rumors begin to spread concerning his nightmare-ridden sleep, his binding an apprentice in chains for sketches, and many other bizarre actions. Finally one day Yoshihide presents himself before the lord and reports that the picture has been completed except for the central scene featuring a magnificent carriage falling in midair. As he further explains:

“In the carriage an exquisite court lady, in the midst of raging flames, writhes in agony, with her black hair flowing loose. Choked with the burning smoke, she turns her face up toward the roof of the carriage, with her brows tightly drawn. Perhaps her hands that grip the ripped-off screen are trying to ward off the rain of flames. And a score of ominous-looking birds flutter around the carriage, clacking their beaks. Ah, such a court lady in a flaming vehicle, I cannot paint.”

With this Yoshihide makes the extraordinary request that such a carriage be burned before his very eyes, and if possible—with a young lady in it. In apparent madness that matches Yoshihide's, the lord grants the request. The appointed night arrives and everyone is invited to a deserted palace for the occasion. With the stage thus set, a carriage is drawn into the courtyard, and in it is a young lady bound in chains, exactly as Yoshihide requested. As the carriage is set afire the torches reveal that the lady is Yoshihide's daughter. The artist, horrified by the terror and death agony of his beloved daughter, is dumb-founded and cannot move to save her. Then, as the pet monkey leaps into the flames to join its mistress, an awesome change occurs in Yoshihide.

In front of the pillar of fire Yoshihide, who was suffering infernal tortures a moment ago, stands rooted. But what a marvelous transformation! His wrinkled face now radiates a kind of blissful ecstasy as he stands, with his arms folded, oblivious to the presence of the Grand Lord. No longer does his vision reflect the image of his daughter's death agony. He seems supremely delighted with the beautiful color of the flames and the form of the woman writhing within.

It is a marked contrast to the lord's own transformation. He is now a completely changed person, pale and livid with foam gathering at his mouth, gripping his robed knees with both hands, panting like a thirsty animal. Not long after, Yoshihide completes the masterpiece which has caused so much sorrow and horror. And on the night following its completion the artist hangs himself.

All this is narrated by an eyewitness of the whole drama. Being a retainer in service of the lord, the narrator is always deferential and obsequious, consciously and unconsciously interpreting everything in favor of his master, as when he tends to gloss over the relationship between the lord and Yoshihide's daughter:

The most prevalent rumor was that the Lord was motivated by his spurned love. But most probably he meant to punish the perversity of Yoshihide, who was so anxious to paint the Hell Screen even at the sacrifice of a court carriage and a human life. As a matter of fact, this was what I heard from his own lips.

Toward Yoshihide, on the other hand, he is uncharitable and supercilious. Because of his social prejudice and lack of perception, the narrator never understands what he observes, which only intensifies the abysmal gap between the artist and worldly authorities. To this narrative point of view the story owes much of its ambiguity, depth, complexity, and vitality.20 Consider also the role of the pet monkey: as its nickname suggests, the creature represents Yoshihide the father. Its leap into the flames symbolizes in Yoshihide the separation of father and artist. Yoshihide the artist can now transcend his own personal tragedy, if only momentarily. The separation insures his triumph, whereas the lord suffers a complete defeat. Once within this circle of divine madness the artist, far beyond the boundary of secular power, stands alone on the lofty summit of art where he is immune and invulnerable. As a portrait of his ideal artist “The Hell Screen” marks the moment of Akutagawa's artistic triumph.

The singular intensity that pervades the novella derives from the complete identity between the author and his hero-artist. This hero's passion for artistic perfection which becomes sheer madness is also Akutagawa's. The story evokes horror and illustrates what Akutagawa meant by the beauty of savage, naked brutality, the terms with which he attempted to define the artistic essence of the Konjaku.21 It was only natural that he set the story in the same Heian period that produced the Konjaku. It was to his credit that in that period he discovered not only the spirit of tenderness and elegance—as many usually do, but at the same time the undercurrent of savage brutality, the quality we seldom associate with the period.

In the context of the story Yoshihide's suicide would seem to be the only logical and satisfactory solution, because it suggests the paradoxical nature of the artist who, driven by his own daemon, must transcend himself. It is this paradox inherent in his creative activities that endows his art with a sense of tragic grandeur. There is, however, something more to Yoshihide's suicide than this; because of Akutagawa's unmistakable identity with his hero, we are tempted, as Akutagawa himself was in his last days, to see Yoshihide's suicide in the light of his own. While, as Miyamoto Kenji pointed out, Akutagawa the artist has his hero experience an artistic triumph, Akutagawa the man cannot leave him forever in that sublime ecstasy; and his own later suicide, like his hero's, is what results inevitably from the very conflict within himself between the artist and the man.22 In this sense Akutagawa was never an artist for art's sake, a writer content to remain in his enchanted circle.


  1. For his translations of France, Yeats, Gautier, and Voltaire, see Zenshu, VIII, pp. 200–70, and for those left unfinished, see Zenshu, XV, pp. 134–44.

  2. The full titles of these collections are Konjaku Monogatari and Ujishui Monogatari. The former, compiled in the 11th century, contains over a thousand tales in three sections, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese. The latter, a smaller collection of the Kamakura period, includes slightly less than two hundred tales. For the Konjaku and its relationship with the Ujishui, see S. W. Jones's introductory essay to Long Ago: Thirty-Seven Tales from the Konjaku Monogatari Collection (Cambridge, Mass., 1959), and also D. E. Mills's to A Collection of Tales from Uji: A Study and Translation of Uji Shūi Monogatari (Cambridge, 1970).

  3. See the essays by Eguchi Kiyoshi, Tanaka Jun, and Ishizaka Yohei, all collected in Annai, pp. 55–69.

  4. Akutagawa's interest in Poe is borne out by the notes for his two lectures, “Poe as a Short Story Writer” and “One Aspect of Poe” (Zenshu, XIX, pp. 82–92), and by some of his stories, such as “The Case of a Modern Murder” (1918). See also Toyoda Minoru, “Akutagawa Ryunosuke and Edgar Allan Poe,” Bungaku Kenkyu (January 1934).

  5. See his appended essay to Akutagawa Ryunosuke, pp. 279–86.

  6. Quoted in Yoshida, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, p. 279.

  7. “Akutagawa Ryunosuke,” Annai, pp. 177–78.

  8. This tale and another, Akutagawa's partial source, do not appear in Jones's Long Ago. For the original tales used for “Rashomon,” “The Nose,” and “The Hell Screen,” see Yuseido's annotated edition, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, ed. Yoshida Seiichi (Tokyo, 1963).

  9. For an accurate description of corpses Akutagawa is said to have visited the Medical School (Yoshida, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, p. 64), and this visit is mentioned in “Cadavers,” the ninth chapter of “The Life of a Fool.”

  10. Wada Shigejiro, Akutagawa Ryunosuke (Osaka, 1956), p. 39.

  11. Iwakami Junichi, quoted in Yoshida, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, p. 63.

  12. Quoted in Yoshida, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, p. 291. See also Inakaki Tatsuro, “Akutagawa Ryunosuke as a Historical Novelist,” Kenkyu (A), pp. 155–71. Ogai's view of history is conveniently found in Chikuma Shobo edition, Mori Ogai: Collected Stories (Tokyo, 1953).

  13. Cf. Shibukawa Gyo: “His exoticism finally ended in no more than an intellectual curiosity” (“Exoticism and Akutagawa,” Kenkyu [A], p. 253). For a study of this period of Japanese history, see C. R. Boxer, The Christian Century in Japan 1549–1650 (Berkeley, 1951).

  14. In the postscript to this story Akutagawa cited a fictitious source which caused a great sensation among contemporary historians and collectors. See Yoshida, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, pp. 123–26.

  15. The dramatic treatment of this celebrated vendetta is discussed in Shioya Sakae, Chûshingura: An Exposition, 2nd ed. (Tokyo, 1956).

  16. The movie Gate of Hell is based on Kikuchi Kan's version. In this connection it is interesting to read Lafcadio Hearn's in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (Boston & New York, 1894), II, pp. 577–78.

  17. For the filmscript, see Kurosawa Akira and Hashimoto Shinobu, Rashomon, Film Book Series (New York, 1969).

  18. The original version in the Ujishui reads:

    Once upon a time there was a man called Ryōshu [Yoshihide], a painter of Buddhist subjects. A fire having broken out next door to his house, he ran out into the highway because the wind was blowing in his way. There was in his house a Buddha which someone had ordered. Also his clothes, his garments, his wife and children, etc. were in the house unthought of. Heedless of that, he made it his business simply to run out; and as he stood on the opposite side and looked the fire had already passed on to his house; and he gazed till the smoke and flames were thick, whereupon people came to condole saying: “What a pity.” But he disturbed himself not. Though people wondered at him, he looked at the burning of his house, nodding and sometimes laughing, “Oh, what a gain I have made,” he said. “Oh how badly I painted it for years!”

    Then those who had come to condole him said: “What is this? What a pity it is that you should thus stand here. Are you possessed?” “Why should I be possessed?” said he scornfully laughing and continuing to stand there. “I had for years painted the Holy Fudō's flames badly. As I now look, I have understood that it is thus that fire burns. Ah, this is indeed a gain. Supposing I live having brought this art to perfection, I can have a hundred houses, if only I paint Buddha well” (Basil Hall Chamberlain's translation, quoted in W. H. H. Norman, Hell Screen and Other Stories, Tokyo, 1948, p. 8).

    The other episode, from the Kokin chobunshu, features another painter called Hirotaka, and only its opening passage is relevant to Akutagawa's story: “Hirotaka, in his screen painting of hell, presented a demon from the tower piercing a man with his halberd; and seeing the scene so vivid and real, he said to himself: ‘Perhaps my days are numbered.’ Indeed not long after he passed away.”

  19. “Akutagawa Ryunosuke,” Annai, p. 180.

  20. Ishimitsu Shigeru, however, believes that the presence of this ambiguous narrator actually weakens the total effect of the story. See his study of “The Solitary Hell” and “The Hell Screen,” Kenkyu (A), p. 270. In response to Kojima Masajiro's similar objection, Akutagawa wrote: “There is, I believe, something to be said for ‘the explanatory element in the story.’ My narration progresses as two lines of explanation intertwine. While the one takes the positive line to which belong many of your examples, the other proceeds negatively, continuously rejecting (actually affirming) the love relationship between the lord and Yoshihide's daughter. Inasmuch as both lines accentuate each other in building up the narration, neither can be taken out of the story” (Letter of June 18, 1918. Zenshu, XVI, pp. 257).

  21. In a letter of November 20, 1918 Akutagawa also mentions his increasing fascination with the “civilized brutality” of the Chinese, a quality so abundant in such pornographic works as Chin P'ien Mei (Zenshu, XVI, pp. 273).

  22. “Literature of Defeat,” Kenkyu (B), pp. 148–49.

Noriko Mizuta Lippit (essay date 1980)

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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 form to present situations which led to the height of the author's or protagonist's perception and to a moment of profound realization in his daily-life experiences. Precisely for this reason, however, precisely because they used the short-story form to explore openly the self and life, centering on the protagonist-author's self-search and self-expression, the form of their short stories was no different from that of the novel, except in length. For writers pursuing self-growth, the novel is definitely a more suitable form, and even Kajii, who was devoted to the genre of the short story, turned to the novel just before his untimely death.

Akutagawa, on the other hand, approached the short story in a manner completely different from the I-novelists. First of all, the short story for him was a modern form of storytelling and had to center around the story element (the lack of which characterizes the work of the I-novelists). Second, the stories had to present a self-sufficient world of their own. The art of the short-story writer, therefore, had to concentrate on creating in the works a perfectly autonomous “architectural structure,” to borrow Tanizaki's phrase (which, ironically, he used in his debate with Akutagawa).

The most characteristic feature of Akutagawa's short stories is the fact that they are based almost exclusively on other stories: classical tales, foreign tales, the works of other writers, and so forth. In other words, Akutagawa's short stories do not usually deal with human reality directly, but with materials which have already been fictionalized in tales or stories. On the rare occasions when he dealt with situations in his own experience, they were almost invariably limited to those in his childhood. He did deal with historical situations, learning much from Mori Ogai, but even there his interest was not in dealing with the actual human experience, but in the use of stories which had already been told in history.

The borrowing of old stories or the use of someone else's stories, immediately and on a superficial level, frees the writer from having to confront the epistemological question of how to know, grasp and present reality, a question which has been vital to modern fiction. The reality in Akutagawa's works is one or two steps removed from the reality of the author and the reader, and the reality in his twice-told tales is replaced by the “story,” temporarily solving the problem of the relation between reality and art. Moreover, the story element, which he made central, helps to create the structure of the works and to make them self-contained. Their perfection can be evaluated in terms of the narrative structure, that is, by the art of storytelling and the extent to which the story presents a world complete in itself.

The borrowing of old stories also exempts the author from confronting directly the question of self-expression in his works. He is a storyteller, one whose business is to mediate between the readers and the story. Not only does the story give shape and boundaries to the world of his works, but it also defines the author's identity in relation to his works as a storyteller, both inside and outside the works. Akutagawa was amazingly unconcerned with the question of the relationship between the author and the work. He often appears openly as a narrator in his works (as in “Rashomon”), and the author as narrator is surprisingly free from self-consciousness in his intrusion into the world of the story.

Thus, the use of existing stories, particularly old stories, whose credibility the author did not have to defend, enabled Akutagawa to circumvent dealing directly in his works with the two vital problems of modern fiction, reality and self, and to avoid the deadlock which the I-novelists reached in dealing with these problems. In Akutagawa's short stories, the question of reality and fiction and that of their relation to the search for the self in literature are temporarily suspended because of the dominance of the story itself. In that world of story, the questions of reality and the self are converted into technical or aesthetic problems of narration.

This does not mean that Akutagawa lacked concern with the problems of reality and self or that he tried to avoid dealing with them. By borrowing stories and taking the reader away from the immediate reality, Akutagawa sought to present symbolic situations relevant to all human reality. A self-avowed literary cosmopolitan, Akutagawa was confident of the universal validity of his works, confident that his works transcended the particular time and place in which they were set. Most of Akutagawa's works deal with complex psychological situations that exist in human relations, and they often reveal his fundamental skepticism about human life and belief in the relativity of human relations. In other words, Akutagawa's borrowing of the stories was a device for dealing with the modern human situation and psychology. The borrowed story provided the distance of time and space which helped give universality to the situation with which he was dealing. In this sense, the story provided only a convenient framework.

Moreover, Akutagawa's consistent use of old stories, stories twice or thrice told, reveals his belief in or reliance on archetypal literary themes and patterns of human life. Often in his stories, the narrator evades the responsibility even for being the witness or providing firsthand information on the story. By relying on the archetypal patterns of his stories, Akutagawa was able to expand his imagination to present his own story. In fact, his short stories are characterized by the exceptional integration of storytelling with the presentation of modern psychological reality.

In depending on earlier literary works, Akutagawa was certainly not alone among Japanese authors; such dependence has been one of the major techniques of Japanese (and Chinese) literature. Japanese fiction in particular, including the monogatari, setsuwa and short fiction of Saikaku and Ueda Akinari, has relied extensively on the use of earlier works as source materials. In utilizing earlier works, therefore, Akutagawa was only revitalizing a deep-rooted tradition of Japanese fiction, and in doing so, he countered the dominant trend of his time which treated the short story as a form of direct self-search and self-expression or as the presentation of a slice of life, a form without a story. In the Western short story too, the development of the modern genre involved liberal borrowing from earlier stories as, for example, in the case of Edgar Allan Poe, often regarded as the father of the modern short-story genre.

Furthermore, Akutagawa was far from indifferent to the question of self-expression or the author's ego. Indeed, he admired and envied Shiga Naoya and Goethe, both of whom openly exposed their internal lives as the materials for their literature and the subject of their literary pursuit. Considering himself a poet, Akutagawa was strongly inclined toward the pursuit of self-exultation and self-transcendence. His persistent concern with egotism, particularly the egotism of the artist, was reflected in various ways in his works, but most often in the recurring theme of conflict between the decadent pursuit of art and beauty and the humanistic acceptance of the self as part of humanity. “Jigokuhen” (“The Hell Screen,” 1918) is the most brilliant dramatization of the conflict. By assuming the role of a storyteller, therefore, Akutagawa was only wearing a mask which would hide the author's ego in the archetypal drama contained in the stories. In fact, it can be said that the development of modern fiction is the history of the authors' search for the appropriate masks in which to confess.

Mishima Yukio, who is the proper successor to Akutagawa in this respect, reveals plainly the mechanism of the confession of a mask. Unlike Mishima, however, Akutagawa was never successful in dramatizing the self in different personae; not only was the short-story form decidedly unsuitable for it, but also the narrative structure in which the narrator assumed the role of storyteller imposed inherent limitations on such dramatization.

The plot controversy between Akutagawa and Tanizaki, which took place in the last year of Akutagawa's life, sheds considerable light on these issues. In this dispute, Akutagawa, almost negating his entire literary achievement, advocated the writing of stories without a story and the expression of the author's “poetic spirit” as the purpose of literary expression rather than the creation of an autonomous world of fiction with architectural beauty. The dispute took place at a point when Akutagawa's confidence as a storyteller was deeply shaken and he had come to doubt whether storytelling was an adequate form to provide the mask for the search for the self and the meaning of life. … Although it would be too simple to take his last work, “Aru ahō no isshō” (“A Fool's Life,” 1927), as a straight confessional, autobiographical work, the change of his literary stance and form of expression, the open and direct dealing with himself at the time of his mental crisis, only impresses us the more with his earlier effort to hide his vulnerable self under the mask of a storyteller.

Such critics as Saeki Shōichi have pointed out that Akutagawa's failure as a storyteller in his later years was due mainly to his failure to clarify the relation between the narrator and the author himself. Such modern writers as Henry James, Mauriac and Jean-Paul Sartre have long cast doubt on the ontological legitimacy of the author assuming the role of narrator, and in contemporary fiction, the narrator has become nothing but a fictional character. Akutagawa's turning to the story without a story, therefore, was only the result of his doubt about having the author assume the role of narrator and of his recognition of the problems which became acutely felt in the modernist era. Akutagawa was thus anticipating, in his later years, the direction which modern fiction itself would take.

In this sense, Akutagawa's early works present a happy union of storytelling and the presentation of the psychological or inner reality of human beings, a union between the architectural beauty of a self-sufficient, artificial world of art and the human condition. In other words, Akutagawa found in his stories, his twice-told tales which borrowed from earlier works, a means of overcoming the dichotomy between art and life, a dichotomy which was the major literary and aesthetic concern of the fin-de-siècle writers.

Akutagawa was an indefatigable experimenter in his expression and in his effort to develop the poetics of the short story. Each story, therefore, reveals not only his unending search for new materials, but also his awareness of the problems of narration. One of the genres he successfully developed was stories for young adults, the most representative of which is the famous “Kumonoito” (“The Thread of the Spider's Web,” 1915). He wrote about eleven such stories, all during the middle period of his writing career (1918–1924), a period in which he was especially concerned with the relations between art and life.

The Taisho period (1912–1926) was a time when stories for children were seriously pursued as a new genre. Such writers as Ogawa Mimei and Suzuki Miekichi turned completely to children's literature and led the movement to raise the genre to the level of art. Other writers, including Uno Koji, Kubota Mantaro and Sato Haruo, were also devoted to the genre. Akutagawa wrote the stories for young adults under the influence of Suzuki Miekichi, who was one of the pupils of Sōseki. Akutagawa's dowa (Tales for Children), like most of his other works, were based on a wide range of old and legendary stories, including Buddhist, classical Chinese and Japanese tales, and Western fairy tales. Since they were ostensibly written for young adults, however, they enabled Akutagawa to express more openly his own ethical views and attitude toward life, and his lyrical appraisal of innocence and purity.

“Toshishun,” which was published in 1920 in Akai Tori (The Red Bird), a journal of children's literature edited by Suzuki Miekichi, is not only one of the masterpieces of children's literature but also occupies a significant place in Akutagawa's literature. The work is an adaptation of a tale, or ch'uan-ch'i, of T'ang China entitled “Tu Tzu-chun,” which falls into a major category of supernatural tales in the ch'uan-ch'i genre. Although Akutagawa followed the basic plot and story of “Tu Tzu-chun,” essentially retelling the story to young adults, by changing several key elements in the story he converted the Chinese tale into a quest-story of his own.

The original Chinese story is about a young man, Tu Tzu-chun, who dissipated his inheritance. A good-for-nothing wastrel who neglected all his duties, he is deserted by his relatives and friends when he loses his money. At this point he meets at the city gate an old man who gives him money to restore his former life of dissipation. When he again wastes his money within a few years, the same old man appears and gives him a still larger amount of money. He intends to do something good with the money, but the minute he receives it he resumes his decadent life. When he receives money for the third time, Tu Tzu-chun is determined to use it to promote public welfare, and after attending to his worldly affairs in this way, to place himself at the old man's disposal. After spending a year helping orphans and widows and contributing to the social good in other ways, he goes on the appointed day to see the old man at the appointed place. The old man takes him to his mansion on a mountain which penetrates deeply into the clouds. In the mansion there is a cauldron for making holy medicine. The old man, returning in his Taoist's clothing, tells Tu Tzu-chun not to utter a single word at the trials he is about to experience, for whatever he experiences will not be real.

Subsequently, Tu Tzu-chun is tortured by soldiers, attacked by ferocious animals, and tortured by monsters and ogres who boil him and cut up his limbs. Through all this, Tu Tzu-chun utters not a single word. Next his wife is brought before him and cut up inch by inch. Tzu-chun survives this too without saying anything. After this, Tzu-chun is killed and sent to hell. Having gone through the torture of hell, he is sent back to this world as a daughter of a family in Sung-chun. She is a mute woman who suffers pain and illness silently. A man marries her, and they have a son. Angered by his wife's remaining silent even when she sees their son, the husband bangs the son's head against a stone, cracking it. When she sees this, she feels love in her heart and utters, “A!” in spite of herself.

Tu Tzu-chun finds himself once more at the cauldron beside the old man. The old man is grieving and tells him that he failed to become immortal. He tells Tzu-chun that he was successful in repressing such human feelings as joy, anger, sorrow, fear and desire, but not love. He then sends Tzu-chun back to the world. Tzu-chun is ashamed of his failure to assist his benefactor and once more tries to seek him out to offer his services, but he can never find him again.

In the original Chinese tale, the life of man, searching vainly for unattainable immortality, is portrayed as absurd. The tale is filled with obvious Taoist ethical teachings. Tu Tzu-chun is not selected by the old man for the test because he is a Taoist interested in becoming an immortal, nor is he selected because he requested it. He goes through the test simply because he is “told” to do so. In the story, he is asked to find the old man deep in the mountains, and when he arrives, he is asked by the old man to sit down and neither to move nor to utter a single word. In other words, when he was put to the test, he knew nothing about the nature of the test and was therefore following the Taoist principle of purposelessness, or the Buddhist principle of mindlessness. The test was a direct experiment on human nature, and only human will, not intention, would help one succeed in it. In addition, Tzu-chun was selected because he had been a spend-thrift, a parallel of the prodigal son whose return was especially blessed because he had sinned.

The nature of the old man's test, therefore, can be understood as an ironic statement on the vulnerability of the human will, which is so closely connected to human relations with others. Success in the test—or rather, the attainment of immortality—lies in the elimination of all the human attachments which detain man so powerfully on the mortal level. The achievement of immortality, therefore, requires the filtration of all human sediments, enabling the protagonist to reach the realm of “non-man” and the ultimate “silence.”

Tu Tzu-chun's being mute in the test is a second mask laid over the first, which is created by his conversion into a woman. Being a mother, he experiences the maternal human nature of love for his/her child. Being mute, however, he/she experiences an initial non-attachment to worldly matters. She grows up

With incomparable beauty, but mute. Her family treated her as a born mute. There were indecent relatives who intimidated her in many ways, but she made no response.

In other words, being mute is a mask which protects her from responding to human experiences. Unfortunately, the mask is ripped asunder at the moment when she sees her child dashed to his death.

Although Akutagawa's “Toshishun” appears to follow “Tu Tzu-chun” quite faithfully, it differs from its source story in two fundamental respects. The first difference is in Toshishun's motive for leaving the human world; the second is in the attitude of the sennin (old man) toward Toshishun's attempt to become an immortal sennin himself.

In the original story, Tu Tzu-chun becomes ashamed of his wasteful life, and when he is made rich for the third time, he spends money for public welfare. Toshishun, to the contrary, never becomes ashamed of his life of luxury; nor does he spend any of the money he receives for the social benefit. Moreover, Akutagawa describes in detail the gorgeousness of Toshishun's life and the decadent beauty in which he indulges himself. This does not exist in the original. When the pensive Toshishun is asked by the old man whether it is the luxurious life itself that he has become tired of, he answers positively no and refuses to live a life of poverty. It is not a distaste for luxury that made him dissatisfied with life, but the fact that he had “given up on man.” He then asks the sennin to make him his pupil and to train him to be a sennin of high virtue, to enable him to transcend human life. Tu Tzu-chun, on the other hand, wishes to place himself at the Taoist's disposal, to assist him in making an elixir, in order to return the favor the Taoist did for him. Moreover, this takes place after Tzu-chun has established himself as a virtuous and respectable social existence, restoring his respect as a human being. Although both Tzu-chun and Toshishun were disillusioned by people who were nice to them when they were rich and deserted them when they were poor, Tzu-chun's return of the favor is fundamentally different from Toshishun's despair over humanity as far as the motive for leaving the human world is concerned.

From the start, Akutagawa's “Toshishun” presents the languid, melancholy air of a decadent life, and Toshishun is portrayed as a man who, disillusioned with the pursuit of beauty and luxury, searches for the meaning of life. Akutagawa's opening narration conveys this sense immediately:

It was a spring day; nightfall was approaching. At the west gate of Lo Yang, the capital of T'ang, a young man was gazing vacantly up at the sky.

Then he describes a busy street of this gorgeous, prosperous city, contrasting it with the lonely, pensive Toshishun who stands leaning against the gate, looking vacantly at the sky. When the old man appears before Toshishun, he asks him what he is thinking. Toshishun just answers him, “Me? I was thinking about what I should do, since I do not even have a place to sleep tonight.” In the original, the old man hears Tzu-chun's complaint about his cold-hearted friends and relatives, and offers him money.

Akutagawa's Toshishun is, indeed, a decadent hero, who, turning his back on morality, has stoically pursued a life of beauty and luxury and become disillusioned by his pursuit. He is presented as a quester-hero, who, having seen and been disgusted with everything about men and life, desires to transcend human life, to be above human beings. He is not a naive Tzu-chun who is simply weak at the temptation of luxury and a lazy life and has just learned a lesson about the selfishness of people. Through his experiences, Tzu-chun turns into a morally and socially respectable man, even an honorable man who does not forget to show his gratitude by returning the favor done him. What Toshishun learns is disillusionment with human life.

Akutagawa wrote two other works which contain the story of a man who was made rich instantly by meeting a wizard. The first of these, “The Sennin” (1914), also takes place in China. One of his earliest works, it is a story about a street magician who endures poverty and rigorous training for the moment of glory when his skill in his art will reach its height and the audience will throw him money in excitement. At the end of the story, the protagonist, his performance over, is walking on the deserted street, his magic tools on his shoulder, wet in the evening drizzle. He meets an old man to whom he tells his life's sufferings and hardships, and the old man, who is a wizard, makes him rich instantly. In another story of the same title written in 1922, an honest idiot who wishes to become an immortal works without pay for a greedy doctor who promises to make him one at the end of a long period of service. Although the doctor has no power to make him an immortal, the doctor's wife suggests at the end of the promised years of service that he try flying, and the idiot flies away as an immortal. It is evident, therefore, that the theme of “Toshishun” was one with which Akutagawa was consistently concerned.

Akutagawa was obsessed with the theme of the “condensed life,” a life comprised of moments of intense feeling. His often-quoted saying that life is not worth a line of Baudelaire's poetry indicates not only his ideal of art for art's sake, but also his desire for a short but brilliant life. “Fireworks in a dark sky” was how he envisioned his own life. Indeed, many of Akutagawa's protagonists risk the destruction of their social and moral integrity for the sake of brilliant, intense moments of experience. One of Akutagawa's masterpieces for young adults, “Torokko” (“The Truck,” 1922), describes a boy who pursued the excitement of coasting downhill in a truck (a coal-car on rails). He offers to help miners push the truck up the hill for the thrill of coming down. After the pursuit of excitement, he finds out that he has come too far away from home to return in the daylight. The story ends with a brilliant description of the boy running back home in fear, barefooted in the twilight, and of his outburst of crying when he finally reaches home.

Akutagawa's Toshishun pursues a life of luxury and beauty at the risk of his social and moral destruction, and his gorgeous, decadent life is not the result of his weakness as in the case of Tu Tzu-chun. He has no intention of living the long and dull life of a morally upright, socially respectable philanthropist. When he becomes disillusioned with the life he envisioned, he desires to leave human life, to go beyond human experience. His request to the sennin to make him a sennin too, therefore, is a quest for an above-human existence, not an effort to return the wizard's favor. The ordeal he goes through—the same maintenance of silence in the face of physical and mental agony—is clearly a trial through which a quester-hero must pass to attain his ideal. The tortures which Toshishun has to bear are much more simple than those to which Tu Tzu-chun is subjected. The wife does not appear at all, and he is not reincarnated as a woman. Although both heroes break their oaths because of concern for loved ones, in Toshishun's case it is the torturing of his parents in hell that he finally cannot bear and that causes him to break his silence.

The ending of “Toshishun” is also fundamentally different from that of the original. Both stories are about the failure to attain immortality, the transcendence of human life, because of human love. Although both Tzu-chun and Toshishun fail in the face of human love, however, Toshishun's happiness with his failure contrasts sharply with Tzu-chun's shame. Above all, the sennin in Akutagawa's “Toshishun” tells Toshishun that if he had not said anything when his parents were in agony, he would have killed Toshishun instantly. The Taoist monk in “Tu Tzu-chun,” on the other hand, laments over Tzu-chun's failure and sends him back to the world. Tzu-chun tries again to transcend human existence, while Toshishun is reborn as a new human being with a new vision of life. He decides to live truthfully as a human being, and the sennin assists him in doing so by giving him a house with a plot of land for farming.

“If you had remained silent, I was determined to take your life instantly. I imagine you no longer wish to be a sennin. You have already become disgusted with the life of a rich man. Then what do you think you would like to be from now on?”

“Whatever I become, I intend to live an honest life, a humane life.” In Toshishun's voice there was a tone of cheerfulness which hitherto was absent.

“Do not forget your word. Then I will not see you again from today.” Tekkanshi [the sennin] began walking away while saying this, but he suddenly stopped and turned to Toshishun, adding cheerfully,

“Oh, fortunately I just remembered that I have a house at the southern foot of Taizan [Taishan]. I will give you the house together with the plot of land next to it for farming. Go and live there. Just now peach flowers must be in bloom all around the house.”

Toshishun attains his desire to be human, and his quest for a meaningful life ends with his regaining trust in humanity. Here immortality is the negation of humanity, and Toshishun learns the value of being human through his effort to become immortal. The sennin, representing the point of view of the story, maintains that it is not worthwhile to attain immortality by negating humanity.

The dichotomy between immortality and humanity is the central theme of both the Chinese and Japanese stories. The Taoist monk in “Tu Tzu-chun” tells Tzu-chun that he successfully conquered all human feelings except love. Tzu-chun's failure is that of a common Chinese pursuing immortality. His trial is not a heroic quest because the tale lacks the grandeur to portray him as a hero. Indeed, it emphasizes Tzu-chun's awareness of a sense of shame when he is thrice financed by the old man, but only to add to his personality the element of human dignity, a virtue perhaps, but one of common mortals. His failure shows the existence of an unbridgeable gap between the realm of mortals and the realm of immortals. The harder human beings try to attain the unattached immortal realm, the more they realize their unbreakable ties to their human surroundings. This is why the Taoist monk finally sighs:

“Alas, how hard it is to find the talent with the potential to become immortal! I can make my medicine once again, but you will have to go back to the human world. I wish you well.”

Both the Taoist monk and Tu Tzu-chun consider the pursuit of immortality to be positive, and there is no moral statement in “Tu Tzu-chun” with regard to humanity. But Akutagawa, by contrast, tells us that it is not human to conquer love, and that we should be human.

Akutagawa's “Toshishun” thus is a story of a quest for the meaning of life, a quest which leads to humanity itself. Humanity is weighed against immortality and art, or the decadent life which pursues art for art's sake. Toshishun's attempt to attain immortality was doomed from the start, for the sennin would not have granted it in any event, even if he had remained silent until the end. Therefore he did not fail the trial, but passed it. His quest was actually for humanity, and his attempt at immortality was a necessary part of his quest.

It is worth noting here that in a Ming version of “Tu Tzu-chun” which appears in Hsing shih heng yen (Lasting Words to Awaken the World), collected by Feng Meng-lung in 1627, Tzu-chun does finally attain immortality with his wife in the most glamorous manner, even after failing the test. The change may be attributable to the storytelling tradition in which the storyteller always attempts to satisfy his audience, mainly unsophisticated merchants and commoners, with a happy ending. Indeed Tzu-chun's attainment of immortality in the Ming version appears more ludicrous than instructive. The Taoist monk, instead of retaining his identity as a symbol of higher transcendence, becomes Lao Tzu, the Taoist god commonly known to lay followers of the Taoist religion. Consequently, the story is degraded to a mere instance of Taoist didacticism, advising people to give away their belongings to achieve immortality. Compared to the T'ang tale, the Ming version lacks tragic intensity.

In contrast to the original “Tu Tzu-chun,” Akutagawa's “Toshishun” has a clear message for the reader: To learn the value of being human is the meaning of life; to be human means to be true to one's feelings and to accept the life of emotions. The humble recognition of joy and sorrow, and submission to love as the substance of human life is what saved Toshishun from the life of decadence and inhuman immortality. The sennin in the story is a moral teacher. Among art, immortality and life (humanity), humanity receives the highest value. When he wrote “Toshishun,” Akutagawa had just finished writing “The Hell Screen,” whose central theme is the conflict between art and life. The painter in the story sacrifices love and human life for the sake of art. The work of art which was produced through this negation of humanity, however, stands as a brilliantly true work of art. Akutagawa condemns the artist as a human being, but never dismisses the value of his art, which demands perfection and purity in the sacrifice of human emotion. In “The Hell Screen,” therefore, the dichotomy between art and life is left unsolved. In “Toshishun,” the conflicts presented are among the selfish pursuit of beauty (art), the transcendence of life (immortality), and humanity (life). Akutagawa clearly states that the aspiration for humanity is more valuable than the other two.

Akutagawa was torn between art and life throughout his life. Unlike Tanizaki, who chose to live in a way that would serve his art, and Shiga Naoya, who used art to attain a higher realization of life, Akutagawa despaired of life in human society from his early years and wished to live the condensed life of a line of poetry, while remaining aware of and torn by the sacrifice of humanity such a life would demand.

In one of his later works, “Shūzan zu” (“The Autumn Mountain,” 1921), Akutagawa even considers art to be an illusion; a masterpiece of art is certainly the product of man's imagination dreaming of the ideal, perfect beauty, but the actual work may not exist at all. The conflict between art and life presented in the case of “The Hell Screen” no longer exists here. Art is meaningful not because of itself but because man aspires for it. The question of realism Akutagawa raised in “The Hell Screen,” the question of the artist's need to see reality in order to paint it, is also dismissed here. The significance of art is reduced to the point of denying art, for art without visible work is no longer art. “Toshishun” reflects Akutagawa's turning toward life, moving away from his belief in art for art's sake.

The central theme of “Toshishun” is indeed a theme in Akutagawa's own life as an artist. In the place of realism and confession, Akutagawa used an old tale to dramatize his own search. He thus converted the classical Chinese tale into a short story which contained his own quest and his own clear message. By confining the work clearly within the framework of the ancient tale and directing it to young adults, Akutagawa was able to avoid being didactic despite the existence of a moral. In “Toshishun,” Akutagawa successfully combined brilliant storytelling with the presentation of a symbolic situation in which the quest of modern man can be dramatized. In his search for a method to dramatize his quest for reality and self, Akutagawa revived the tradition of storytelling in fiction, a tradition which had been lost in the era of modern realism and naturalism.

Donald Keene (essay date 1984)

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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 improbable. About seven months after Akutagawa was born his mother went insane, and she remained in this condition until her death in 1902. In the autobiographical stories written toward the end of his life Akutagawa often referred to his mother. “Tenkibo” (“Death Register,” 1926), the most revealing account, opens in this fashion:

My mother was a madwoman. I never once experienced anything resembling maternal affection from her. She would always be sitting by herself in the family house in Shiba, her hair twisted around a comb, puffing away at a long-stemmed pipe. Her face and body were both very small. Her face—I can't explain this—was always an ashen color, with no suggestion of living vitality. …

My mother never looked after me in any way. I remember that once when I went upstairs to her room with my foster mother to say a word of greeting, if nothing else, she suddenly hit my head with her pipe. But most of the time my mother was an extremely well-behaved lunatic.2

Akutagawa was adopted by his mother's brother after she went insane, and that is why he took her maiden name. The aunt who became his foster mother and a maiden aunt who lived with her treated the child with affection, and the atmosphere of his adopted home was cultured, quite unlike that of his real father; but Akutagawa's references to his mother in his most personal works reveal how deeply he was affected by his loss, and how constrained he felt whenever he recalled the circumstances of his adoption. The fear of insanity, which at the time was believed to be directly attributable to heredity, constantly haunted him; he alluded to his insane mother in a suicide note.

As a child Akutagawa excelled in his studies and became an avid reader, at first of Japanese and Chinese classics, such as Bakin's Biographies of Eight Dogs and Shui Hu Chuan (Water Margin) in Bakin's adaptation; later of such middle-Meiji writers as Ozaki Kōyō and Kōda Rohan; and eventually of near contemporaries like Izumi Kyōka, Natsume Sōseki, and Mori Ōgai. His tastes in European literature, formed while in high school, included the works of Maupassant, Anatole France, Strindberg, and Dostoevski. Elements in his stories have been traced to all these readings.

In 1913 Akutagawa entered the English Literature Department at Tokyo Imperial University and soon afterward began to publish in the third series of Shinshichō (New Thought Tides), a university literary magazine, beginning with his translation (from an English version) of France's “Balthasar.” He himself later referred slightingly to his still immature style, but it was in fact more distinguished than that employed by most translators at the time. His first original story, “Rōnen” (“Old Age,” 1914), which also appeared in Shinshichō, already suggested the crisp, precise style of his major works.3

An unhappy love affair in 1914–1915 led Akutagawa to neglect his university studies in favor of unrelated readings, in the effort to find distraction from his woes. He later described the genesis of his first two successful stories in these terms:

The stories I wrote at the time, in my study which [with its clutter of books] was like a symbol of my mind, were “Rashōmon” and “The Nose.” As the result of a love affair that had dragged on unhappily for six months, I felt depressed whenever I was alone so, by way of reaction, I wanted to write stories that would be as remote as possible from my circumstances at the time and as cheerful as possible. That is how I happened to write these two stories, borrowing my materials from Konjaku Monogatari. I only published one, “Rashōmon”; the other, “The Nose,” I broke off half-way through and did not finish for some time.4

If “Rashōmon” really seemed like a “cheerful” story to Akutagawa, it is not hard to imagine the depths of his depression! It is noteworthy, in any case, that Akutagawa at this time did not use his writings to express even indirectly his personal circumstances. Unlike the case of many modern Japanese writers, it is possible to discuss these works without reference to Akutagawa's life.

“Rashōmon” appeared in the November 1915 issue of Teikoku Bungaku (Imperial Literature), another Tokyo Imperial University literary magazine. Akutagawa's friends were merciless in their criticism; one even wrote him a letter, urging Akutagawa to give up writing altogether.5 Such criticism induced him to make various alterations in the manuscript, mainly deletions in the interest of concision,6 but it is extraordinary that Akutagawa's closest friends should have been so insensitive to what became one of his most popular and admired stories.

The description of the Rashōmon gate in Konjaku Monogatari, the twelfth-century collection of tales from which Akutagawa had derived his basic material, is extremely brief, only a dozen or so lines; he augmented it from other sources. The setting of “Rashōmon” is Kyoto in the twelfth century, when the great buildings of the capital were sometimes broken up for firewood, and desperate men turned to banditry or even murder in order to stay alive in a time of disorder and violence. Akutagawa's “Rashōmon” opens as a man (described as an “underling”) takes shelter from a rainstorm at the great gate at the southern entrance to the capital. The man has reluctantly reached the conclusion that he may have to become a bandit, but as yet has committed no crime. He climbs to the upper story of the gate and finds there an old woman squatting amid corpses, victims of an epidemic. The old woman is pulling out one by one the hairs from the head of a corpse lying before her. She intends to make a wig she can sell. This horrifying sight destroys the man's last compunctions. He rips the filthy rags the old woman is wearing from her body and rushes off to sell them, a criminal now like the others. The old woman stares as he disappears into the distance.

The story is given its effectiveness by the vividness of Akutagawa's evocation of the age, as much as by the details he found in Konjaku Monogatari. He borrowed also from the descriptions in Hōjōki (An Account of My Hut) of the famine and other disasters of the time, but it is apparent on examination that his story owed comparatively little to such borrowings; the psychology of the man and the overtones of the story owe more to Akutagawa's readings in European literature.7 Akutagawa some years later explained why he had set such works as “Rashōmon,” which are essentially modern in outlook, in the distant Japanese past:

Supposing I have thought of some particular theme and decide to write a story about it. In order to express this theme as artistically and strikingly as possible, I must include unusual incidents. The more unusual the incidents, the harder it will be to describe them convincingly as events of present-day Japan. If an author nevertheless insists on making a modern story out of such events, it generally seems unnatural to readers, and the result is that his carefully chosen theme drops by the wayside. A short story, unlike a fairy tale, has certain requirements peculiar to the genre; the author simply cannot write “once upon a time” and let the background go at that. In practice this means that something akin to restrictions of period are established, and it becomes necessary therefore to introduce social conditions of the time, at least to the degree of satisfying the requirement that the story seem natural and plausible. Stories of this kind can be distinguished from “historical novels” in that they in no sense aim at a re-creation of the past. I might mention in this connection that—as the reader will easily guess from the above—I feel no great yearning for the past even when I write about distant times. I am far luckier to have been born in present-day Japan than in the Heian or Edo periods.8

Most of Akutagawa's popular stories were set in the past. His favorite historical periods were the twelfth century, when Kyoto was wasted by disasters; the late sixteenth century, when Christian influence was at its height in Nagasaki; and the beginning of the Meiji era, when European culture was uncritically adopted, especially in Tokyo, the new capital. Akutagawa was always at pains to create an impression of verisimilitude by supplying details—often harsh or cruel—drawn directly from accounts in such works as Konjaku Monogatari. Sometimes his fondness for unusual effects (suggested by the passage quoted above) induced him to indulge in sensationalism. When this method was successful, as in “Rashōmon” and a dozen other stories, Akutagawa created unforgettable vignettes of the past, as filtered through the mind of a modern Japanese who knew Western literature well. Sometimes he tried too hard. One of his longest stories, “Chūtō” (“The Bandits,” 1917), is set in the same period as “Rashōmon,” and opens with the description of a sultry summer day in Kyoto:

The tracks of an ox-cart that had passed by not long before wound off into the distance. A small snake, run over by the cart, for a time had twitched its tail, the flesh of its gaping wound turning green, but now it lay motionless, not a scale stirring, its greasy belly exposed. If there was one spot of moisture visible on this dusty street, under the burning sky, it was the raw-smelling, putrescent liquid oozing from the snake's wound.9

The snake, a symbol of the city of Kyoto, mortally wounded and festering, recurs again and again in the story, together with another symbolic figure, a sick woman, apparently a victim of the epidemic, who lies more dead than alive in a wretched hut, her body marked by toothmarks from ravenous hounds. Some children find the snake lying in the dust, and a mischievous little boy slings it into the sick woman's hut. “The greenish, greasy belly slapped against the woman's cheek, and the tail, wet with putrescent liquid, slid over her face.”10

The reader is sooner or later numbed by the reiteration of such details, and the rest of the story is on the same level. Akutagawa's evaluation of this story was given in a letter written in March 1917:

“The Bandits” is terrible. It's like a cheap picture book. There's one scene in which somebody tries to force a pregnant woman to swallow an aborticide. People will wonder if I can be serious. And there are lots of other idiotic implausibilities. The characterization is utterly inconsistent. When I was sick in bed with a fever the grain of the wood of the ceiling looked like marble, but now it merely looks like wood. That's the difference between before and after writing “The Bandits.” It's my worst work.11

Akutagawa's inability to make something more impressive of his longest story suggests his limitations as a writer, and clearly demonstrates that a mere accumulation of the kind of details that made “Rashōmon” memorable was not enough to make a work succeed.

Not all of Akutagawa's early stories are in this ghastly vein. His first popular success, in fact, was scored with “Hana” (“The Nose,” 1916), an amusing story of a priest whose nose is five or six inches long, and of his efforts to shorten the nose. He eventually finds a painful but effective method, only to discover that people, who previously had sympathized with him for the misfortune of having such an extraordinary nose, were now laughing at him for his vanity. Depressed by this unexpected result, he becomes disagreeable toward all around him, especially the priest who helped shorten the nose. One night he feels a swelling in his nose, and the next morning it is once again its former length. The priest is relieved, sure that nobody will laugh at him now.

“The Nose” was also derived from Konjaku Monogatari, and there may have been influence from Gogol's story “The Nose” (1835). But the composition as a whole owes much to Akutagawa's ability to combine the grotesque and the humorous without being too obvious. Natsume Sōseki read the work in Shinshichō and was so impressed that he wrote Akutagawa a letter expressing his admiration. The story was subsequently reprinted in the major literary review Shinshōsetsu (New Fiction), marking the beginning of Akutagawa's fame.

Praise from Sōseki was undoubtedly more welcome than from any other source. Sōseki, the commanding figure in the literary world, had gathered around him a circle of disciples, some of whom later became well-known writers and critics. Akutagawa had admired Sōseki ever since he was a middle-school student, and early in December 1915 he and his friend, the novelist Kume Masao (1891–1952), finally mustered the courage to attend one of Sōseki's regular Thursday afternoon sessions with his disciples. From then on Akutagawa went fairly often, though he confessed that he was so hypnotized by Sōseki's presence that he was almost incapable of relaxing and enjoying the experience.12 Sōseki's letter, written in February 1916, praised the novelty of the materials, the skill of his terse style, and Akutagawa's ability to be humorous without forcing. He urged Akutagawa to write more stories in the same vein, cautioning him that he must not worry even if “The Nose” failed at first to attract much attention. Sōseki predicted that if Akutagawa could write twenty or thirty such stories he would establish an absolutely unique reputation. He urged Akutagawa to follow his own path without taking into account the possible reactions of the mass of readers.13

Akutagawa was grief-stricken when Sōseki died in December 1916, just a year after Akutagawa's first visit, and in later years he sometimes returned to the study where Sōseki had received him, in order to renew old memories.14 Critics have claimed to detect resemblances between Sōseki's late works and those stories by Akutagawa that deal with the problem of egoism.15 In “Karenoshō” (“Withered Fields,” 1918), for example, Akutagawa described Bashō's disciples gathered around the bedside of their dying master in these terms:

Even as they were watching over the last moments of their teacher, each was absorbed with thoughts of possible repercussions of the master's death on other schools, the advantages and disadvantages to his own pupils, and similar calculations of self-interest that were not directly related to their master, now in his last moments. … The disciples were grieving not for their teacher but for themselves, for having lost their teacher.16

Such analyses of self-interest had preoccupied Sōseki, but egoism as a theme need not have been learned from Sōseki: no writer has gone beyond La Rochefoucauld in detecting the base considerations that influence people even when they seem to be acting in the most disinterested or noble manner. Clearly Akutagawa had his own personal interest in the problem of egoism, but it may have been because of Sōseki that he continued to emphasize it as a theme of his writings.

Typical of this interest is one of Akutagawa's most celebrated stories, the brief “Kumo no Ito” (“The Spider's Thread,” 1918), about the robber Kandata who, after his death, has sunk to the deepest recess of hell for his many crimes. The all-merciful Buddha, hoping to save even such a man, recalls that Kandata once spared the life of a spider that had crossed his path. He causes the spider to spin a single thread that extends far down into hell. Kandata, in the Sea of Blood, notices the thread and starts to climb it; but even as he is making his way up the immense distance separating hell from heaven, he sees that other sinners are behind him, climbing the same thread. Fearful lest the thread break under their weight, Kandata orders the others to let go of his thread. At that moment the thread breaks, plunging all, including Kandata, back into hell. But for his egoism not only he but the others would have been saved.

Akutagawa was more conspicuously influenced by Mori Ōgai. The style of his early works is so indebted to Ōgai's that one critic believed it would be more accurate to speak of imitation, rather than of influence.17 This critic, the novelist Nakamura Shin'ichirō, went on to state:

Akutagawa Ryūnosuke's special virtue as a new writer lay, more than in anything else, in his dry, intellectual manner of dealing with his subjects. The strongest influence Mori Ōgai exerted on Akutagawa, in fact, was embedded in the very foundations of Akutagawa's creative formation as an author. It may be detected, for example, in the way he preserved his distance from his subjects. If this analysis is correct, it means that Ōgai handed over to Akutagawa the key for unlocking the secrets of modern literature, and that Ōgai created Akutagawa. In that case, this event brought about an important advance in the stages of the Japanese absorption of Western literature.18

Letters from Akutagawa to his friends written as early as 1913 plainly reveal with what special interest he read Ōgai's historical fiction.19 The attitudes the two men adopted with respect to historical materials were, however, fundamentally quite dissimilar. Ōgai's historical fiction, even at its freest, never ignored historical fact, but Akutagawa used the past mainly as the springboard for elaborations and inventions, and he was attracted to distant times and places because of the possibilities they afforded to treat the unusual, the supernatural, or the miraculous. His art has been compared to that of the waka poets of the past who, borrowing some theme familiar from earlier poetry, imparted to it their distinctive, modern sensibility.20

The success of “The Nose” encouraged Akutagawa to write other historical works with comic overtones. The most popular was “Imogayu” (“Yam Gruel,” 1916), the first work he wrote after his graduation from Tokyo Imperial University. Like so many other early stories, “Yam Gruel” had its origins in Konjaku Monogatari (Stories of Times Now Long Ago), but Akutagawa's ironic attitude toward his materials owed little to this source.21 This is the story of Goi, a scruffy, minor official who normally eats mainly the leavings from the banquets of his superiors. Goi's dream is to eat his fill of yam gruel, a dish that was probably more appetizing than it sounds. Another official, a rough and powerful man, promises to provide Goi with all the yam gruel he can eat. The two men travel a great distance to the other man's estate where, as promised, an immense quantity of yam gruel is prepared for Goi's delectation. But the sight of so much yam gruel quite takes away Goi's appetite; as so often in Akutagawa's stories, the realization of a dream brings not satisfaction but disillusionment.

Akutagawa was obviously not interested in presenting a convincing portrayal of life among the petty officials of the late Heian period. Goi is a not unfamiliar figure in contemporary society, and his disillusion is described in the literary works of every country; no doubt it was this universality that so appealed to Akutagawa in the theme. Sōseki wrote Akutagawa his impressions of “Yam Gruel” not long after it appeared. He found the plot “too labored,” and the style overingenious. But he praised Akutagawa's techniques, saying they were second to no writer's.22 Akutagawa's mastery of the short story won him an exceptionally large following for so young a writer, but he was most often admired for his faults: the overingenuity that Sōseki criticized, his seeming inability to resist adding a surprise ending where none was needed.

Another, more crucial weakness was Akutagawa's lack of originality. He was likened, even by admiring critics, to a mosaicist, piecing together fresh masterpieces out of the materials gleaned from many books. Sometimes the list of “sources” for a single story, as uncovered by diligent scholars, is so extensive that one can only marvel that any author could fuse together so many disparate elements. Even the miniscule “The Spider's Thread” was apparently derived from two entirely distinct sources, a section of the Buddhist canon as described in an American work, The History of the Devil and the Idea of Evil from Earliest Times to the Present Day by Paul Carus, and an anecdote related in The Brothers Karamazov.23 The longer “Hōkyōjin no Shi” (“Death of a Martyr,” 1918) apparently was indebted to Jocelyn by Lamartine, Le crime de Sylvestre Bonnard by Anatole France, Vengeance by Henri de Régnier, Mori Ōgai's translation of Improvisatoren by Hans Christian Andersen, Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz, Friederich Hebbel's play Judith, and various Japanese works.24 It may be hard to believe that all these influences are present in a story only ten pages long in most editions, but there is no question that Akutagawa relied more on books than on his imagination or his personal experiences when writing the short stories of this period. Later in his career a seeming inability to invent materials forced him to draw on even the most trivial incidents of his life. One critic went so far as to suggest that despair over his lack of imaginative resources may have been an important cause of Akutagawa's suicide.25

Too much should not be made, however, of Akutagawa's reliance on foreign sources. Even when a scholar has identified to his own satisfaction the origins of some section of an Akutagawa story, there is generally no question of direct imitation. Shimada Kinji, for example, believed that the climactic scene in Akutagawa's story “Jigokuhen” (“Hell Screen,” 1918)—the burning alive of a beautiful woman in a court carriage—was inspired by the novel by D. S. Merezhkovski, The Forerunner, the Romance of Leonardo da Vinci. Shimada's arguments are persuasive, but even if a Japanese translation of Merezhkovski's novel inspired Akutagawa, his central theme—that the artist must personally experience what he describes, though this may entail the most terrible sacrifices—was surely Akutagawa's conviction anyway. The apparent identification of the author with Yoshihide, the painter in “Hell Screen,” gives this story a moving quality absent from most other works of this period, however skillfully constructed or stylistically distinguished.26

“Gesaku Zammai” (“A Life Spent at Frivolous Writing,” 1917) is also an account of the trials an artist suffers. The aged novelist Bakin is the central figure, and the action takes place in 1831, mainly at a public bath in Edo. Akutagawa derived his information about the personal life of Takizawa Bakin (1767–1848) from the selections from Bakin's diaries published in 1911. He conveyed very well Bakin's feelings after a lifetime devoted to writing gesaku fiction, but he was totally uninterested in suggesting more than the psychological aspects of the material found in the diaries. He even disregarded the startling fact that Bakin so detested going to the public bath that he never went more than five or six times a year.27 Akutagawa, it will be recalled, read Bakin's works with great admiration as a boy, and that may be why he chose him as a convenient figure to whom he could ascribe his own views on literature and his own attitudes toward his admirers, detractors, and publishers. In a letter written in 1922 Akutagawa wrote,

I have read your kind words about “A Life Spent at Frivolous Writing.” I would be glad if you interpreted my Bakin as merely a figure I have borrowed to express my own feelings. … I believe that such an experiment is justifiable, but if people think it is wrong to distort historical facts, I think I can defend myself. I might mention also that at present I do not consider the writing of tanka and haiku to be an unworthy occupation for a man.28

The last remark refers to a passage in the story where Bakin explains why he does not write poetry.

He did not suppose he was incapable of composing waka or hokku; he felt quite confident that he was sufficiently informed on matters of poetic technique. However, he had long since felt a kind of contempt for forms of arts that were too short to permit him to pour himself entirely into them. No matter how skillfully a waka or a hokku might be composed, it could not express more than a few lines of one of his novels, whether a disclosure of human emotions or a description of nature. Such art, as far as he was concerned, was second-class.29

It might be mentioned in passing that Akutagawa wrote not only waka and hokku but even the archaic sedōka, as well as modern poetry. These compositions have been much praised, and Akutagawa was proud of his poetry, but he was essentially a prose writer, and that may be why he attributed such comments to Bakin.

At one point in “A Life Spent at Frivolous Writing” Bakin overhears a customer at the bathhouse abuse his writings:

In the first place, Bakin uses only the tip of his brush, as if he had nothing whatsoever behind it. Even if he has, it's probably nothing more than the kind of pedantry you might expect from a country schoolmaster expounding on the Four Books and the Five Classics. He still hasn't learned a thing about what's going on in the world today. The proof of it is that he's never once written about anything except what happened a long time ago.30

This was precisely the kind of criticism to which Akutagawa himself had been exposed, especially from the Naturalists, but like Bakin in the story, he was not easily swayed by such criticism; his distance from his materials in fact gives Akutagawa's early stories their unchanging appeal.

Another of Bakin's tormentors, his publisher, visits Bakin after he has returned home from the bath. The man talks familiarly about the various writers he publishes, comparing Bakin unfavorably to Shunsui, who writes much faster, or to Tanehiko, whose works have more appeal. Bakin, unable to bear the man's impertinent chatter, retorts, “Shunsui and I are not the same kind of man.” He calls the maid and informs her that the publisher is leaving.

A last visitor, a welcome one, is the painter Watanabe Kazan. Bakin expresses his envy of painters because they need not worry about the censors, a source of fear for writers of the day, but he is confident that long after the censors are forgotten his masterpieces will still be read. After Kazan leaves, Bakin turns back to his manuscript, which looks more and more like a disaster, and his little grandson enters the room. A surge of love for the child restores Bakin's courage to face the manuscript again. His brush begins to write almost of its own, and he feels the joy and pride of the artist. If “Hell Screen” reveals the agonies the artist must suffer, “A Life Spent at Frivolous Writing” suggests the reward of artistic devotion.

Another important group of historical stories is set in Nagasaki during the period of greatest Christian influence, at the end of the sixteenth century. “Death of a Martyr” is written in a style closely modeled on that of a version of The Tale of the Heike published at that time by the Jesuit Mission Press. Akutagawa attempted to convey with this style the compelling innocence of the legends of the saints. The young Lorenzo, who has mysteriously appeared at the Church of Santa Lucia in Nagasaki, revealing nothing of his past, is accepted as a monk and leads a life of conspicuous sanctity. One day, however, a girl of the town, also a Christian believer, declares that Lorenzo is her lover. He denies this, but when the girl reveals she is pregnant, no one believes his gentle protestations. Lorenzo is ordered to leave the church and takes shelter in a wretched hovel nearby, scorned and detested by all. Some months later a fire breaks out in the house where the unmarried girl and her baby live. In the confusion she forgets the baby. Another priest, a man of unusual strength, braves the flames, intending to rescue the baby, but the blazing heat forces him back. Suddenly Lorenzo appears and, dashing into the flaming house, retrieves the baby. The contrite girl now reveals she has lied—Lorenzo is not the father of her child. But her confession comes too late. Lorenzo is dying, badly burned. As people gather around him, marveling at his fortitude and self-sacrifice, his tattered garment falls apart, revealing a woman's breasts. All cry out in astonishment at this unanswerable proof that Lorenzo was unjustly accused and punished, and they kneel before the dying woman. With a smile on her lips she breathes her last, confident in her salvation.

The reverence with which Akutagawa treated Christian materials contrasts with the cynicism he often displayed toward Japanese heroes and paragons of samurai behavior. He found something especially appealing in beliefs that transcended the realm of ordinary human virtue, about which he had grave doubts, and envied people of the Middle Ages whose religion enabled them to make sense of the seemingly irreconcilable elements in ordinary daily life. Egoism could be transcended through divine grace, but not by a careful observance of any code of etiquette.

In “Hankechi” (“The Handkerchief,” 1916), a story with a contemporary setting, a woman relates in casual tones and with a smile on her lips the death of her son. The son's old professor, listening to the story, is amazed by her composure. His fan accidentally drops to the floor and, as he retrieves it, he notices that despite her smile the woman has been clenching the handkerchief on her lap, so convulsively that she seems to be weeping with her whole body. The professor, who is convinced that bushidō, “the way of the warrior,” is not only the proper spiritual guide for Japan in a day when the old morality had deteriorated but is also closely akin to the spirit of Christianity, is profoundly impressed by this splendid example of samurai fortitude. He looks forward to telling his wife, an American woman who understands and loves Japan, about this example of the bushidō of a Japanese woman. The experience has filled him with happiness and renewed his faith. A few hours later, however, when he returns to the book by Strindberg he was reading when his visitor arrived, his eyes fall on a passage where Strindberg states that an actress who tears her handkerchief even as she is smilingly telling of some personal tragedy is an affected and bad performer. The professor puts down the book, his happiness shattered by this unpleasant denial of the stoical action that had so impressed him.31 Akutagawa's cynicism was here directed at the high-minded professor whose ideals are so easily challenged. In the story “Shōgun” (“The General,” 1922) he satirically dealt with the normally sacrosanct person of General Nogi, another incarnation of bushidō. But Akutagawa's treatment of Christianity was respectful, a presage perhaps of his absorption during his last years with the person of Christ.

Akutagawa's third variety of historical fiction treated the Japan of the early Meiji era. These stories are colored by a nostalgia for what seemed to be a remote age, though it was only forty or fifty years before. During the 1870s and 1880s fashionable Japanese ladies and gentlemen built themselves homes modeled on Victorian domestic architecture, dressed in Western-style clothes, chatted knowingly about European fashions, and prided themselves on their associations with titled foreigners. In Akutagawa's day, however, the Japanese lived in Japanese-style homes with perhaps one foreign room, tended to wear kimonos, and had very few social contacts with Europeans. The extreme adulation of the West of the early Meiji era had come to seem picturesque, and Akutagawa described it with almost the same sense of distance as in his accounts of sixteenth-century Nagasaki. “Kaika no Satsujin” (“A Murder During the Age of Enlightenment,” 1918) was the first of his stories set in this period. It is absurdly overplotted, reminiscent of the early Izumi Kyōka, and cannot be taken seriously as a work of literature.

“Butōkai” (“The Ball,” 1919) is more successful. Akiko, who has just turned seventeen this year of 1886, is taken by her father to a ball at the Rokumeikan. She has learned some French, knows ballroom dancing, and wears her elegant Western gown with assurance. A young French naval officer asks permission to dance with her. When she has tired they sit outside talking. He remarks that the ball at the Rokumeikan is exactly like one in Paris, or anywhere else. As they talk, they see fireworks, a part of the evening's entertainment. The young Frenchman, watching the sky-rockets cascade, compares their brief moment of brilliance to human life itself. In the concluding section of the story a young novelist meets Akiko, now Mrs. H, in the autumn of 1918, and she tells him about that night at the Rokumeikan. He asks if she remembers the name of the French officer. “Indeed I do,” she says, “his name was Julien Viaud.” “Then, he was Loti, the author of Madame Chrysanthème.” “No,” Mrs. H replies, “his name was not Loti. He was called Julien Viaud.”

Akiko is uninterested in the historical fact that Viaud and Loti were the same person. He has lived so long in her memory as Julien Viaud that it is of no significance to her that the Viaud she knew later became the famous novelist Loti. Akutagawa's manner of treating the past was similar; his aim was always poetic truth, rather than historical accuracy. The young French officer's comparison of human life to fireworks also represented one of Akutagawa's convictions. He used the image of fireworks again and again as a simile for human life, especially in his late works, and otherwise expressed his belief that a whole life may be contained in one perfect moment. Elsewhere he stated, “Human life cannot compare with a single line by Baudelaire.”32

Akutagawa's reputation as a writer continued to grow in the 1920s, even though none of the stories published after “Hell Screen” could match its intensity and unmistakable individuality. Editors of magazines fought for the privilege of publishing his stories, especially in the New Year's issue. He worked hard to satisfy their demands, but in March 1921 he took a vacation, traveling to China as a special correspondent of the Ōsaka Mainichi Shimbun. His visit was marred by recurring bouts of illness, but on the whole he enjoyed his four months in China, even if they did not noticeably enrich his works. The deterioration in his health was perhaps the most conspicuous result of the journey.33

When Akutagawa returned to Japan he wrote an account of his travels, but he devoted himself mainly to efforts to recover his health. Despite some improvement, he continued to be plagued by nervous exhaustion and insomnia. He was able nevertheless to write the stories that appeared simultaneously in the New Year's issues of four magazines in 1922. They included “Yabu no Naka” (“Within a Grove”), one of his most striking works, the satirical “The General,” and two stories that Uno Kōji, Akutagawa's close friend, dismissed as failures.

“Within a Grove” demonstrated that Akutagawa retained his skill at handling historical materials. Once again he turned to the Konjaku Monogatari for the basic story, but he gave the materials depth and freshness by arranging them in the form of testimony from various persons concerning an event in which three of them—a samurai, his wife, and a bandit—had directly participated. The accounts differ widely, each person naturally describing his actions in the most favorable manner. It has been suggested that Akutagawa's technique of narrating a single story from several viewpoints was inspired by Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book.34 But even if this work influenced the conception of “Within a Grove,” Akutagawa's contribution can hardly be disputed. The most striking of the seven accounts of the crime is given by the dead samurai who, speaking through the mouth of a medium, relates how he was tricked by the bandit, trussed, then forced to watch as the bandit violated his wife. He accuses the wife of having not merely been a willing victim but of having urged the bandit to kill him. He finally describes how the bandit ran off, appalled by the wife's inhumanity, and how he himself committed suicide with the dagger his wife had dropped, unable to endure the humiliation.

“Within a Grove” was made in 1950 into the prize-winning film Rashōmon, directed by Kurosawa Akira. The film is artistically superior to the original story, partly because it introduces, as a major narrator, a woodcutter who witnessed from his hiding place the events so differently related by the three participants. It would seem that he must be telling the truth, since he was a mere bystander, but even the woodcutter lies when he is asked what happened to the valuable dagger with which the samurai killed himself. The film, produced in Japan while the war crimes trials were still fresh in people's memories, suggested the difficulty of ever establishing from the testimony of witnesses what really had taken place.35

Akutagawa's health continued to deteriorate in 1922. He complained in a letter written to a friend toward the end of the year that he was suffering from nervous exhaustion, stomach cramps, intestinal catarrh, entipyrine poisoning, and heart palpitations. The letter also listed the various ailments from which his wife, two sons, and adopted parents were suffering.36 He managed nevertheless to continue writing. The stories written at this time are in a distinctly different vein from his earlier fiction. “Torokko” (“The Hand Car”) is the deceptively simple story of a boy who helps some railway workmen push a hand car. At first he is exhilarated by the ride, especially when the car coasts downhill, but after they have traveled a considerable distance the two men reveal that they are not making a return trip and they leave the boy. Bewildered, he is assailed by such loneliness and fear that he all but bursts into tears as he makes his way home alone in the gathering darkness. “The Hand Car” is strikingly like Shiga Naoya's short story “Manazuru” (1920), which tells of two small brothers who have gone to a nearby town to buy presents for themselves and are overtaken by darkness on the way home. Both stories are set on the Izu Peninsula,37 and surely it was no coincidence that Akutagawa chose a theme so similar to Shiga's.

There can be no question of Akutagawa's profound interest in Shiga's writings; at times he despaired of ever equaling Shiga. He wrote a friend in 1917, “Ever since reading Reconciliation I have felt disgusted with writing fiction.”38 In his journal he mentioned how easy it was to become the willing captive of Shiga's distinctive manner;39 and in the late work “Haguruma” (“Cogwheels,” 1927) this is how he described his feelings when reading Shiga's A Dark Night's Passing: “The hero's spiritual conflict was heartrending for me at every moment. I felt what an idiot I was, compared to the hero, and before I knew it I was weeping. At the same time, the tears brought some peace.”40

Akutagawa and Shiga did not know each other well. According to Shiga, they met barely seven times during the seven years of their acquaintance.41 Shiga noted that Akutagawa was a faithful reader of his works, but confessed that he himself had not read much of Akutagawa's. He objected to certain of Akutagawa's stylistic techniques, such as his withholding from the readers information known to the author, as in “Death of a Martyr,” where Akutagawa kept the sex of Lorenzo a secret until the very end.42 Shiga seems to have been unaffected by his readings in Akutagawa's works, but Akutagawa, even though he despaired of emulating Shiga, learned much.

The stories that immediately followed “The Hand Car” included two set in the past, the Heian period and the early Meiji era, but these were Akutagawa's last mining in familiar veins. “The Hand Car,” on the other hand, was the forerunner, especially in its quiet, undramatic manner, of a series of autobiographical stories, which were no doubt influenced by Shiga's success with his “I novels.” In these stories Akutagawa called himself Yasukichi, and he related mainly his experiences as an English instructor at the Naval Engineering College in Yokosuka from 1916 to 1919. “Yasukichi no Techō kara” (“From Yasukichi's Notebooks,” 1923) is typical of the series, an almost plotless work that is awkwardly constructed and generally uninteresting. Why, we may wonder, should a master of the short story have produced such a dreary work? Probably his poor health had taken its toll: Akutagawa seems to have been too exhausted to attempt to work with more imaginative materials, and writing about himself may have been the one way out of what was otherwise a hopeless impasse.43

Akutagawa was only too aware, however, of his failure to rival Shiga in achieving the maximum with the barest of means. His pages on Shiga in “Bungeiteki na, amari ni Bungeiteki na” (“Literary, Excessively Literary,” 1927) expressed his profound admiration, especially for the fineness of touch in Shiga's realism; in this respect, Akutagawa stated, Shiga was superior even to Tolstoy. “Moreover,” he continued, “he has infused this realism with a poetic spirit that is derived from oriental tradition. Surely there can be no disputing that it is in this respect that his epigonen most conspicuously fail to attain his heights. His is a special quality which we—at any rate, I—find it most difficult to match.”44 Akutagawa seems in this passage to be identifying himself as an “epigone” of Shiga; but he recognized that Shiga's Confucian, aristocratic self-awareness was quite unlike the individualism that he himself had imbibed from Western authors. Unlike Shiga, moreover, Akutagawa had no sense of an incorruptible integrity that he felt obliged to preserve and assert; he lacked any such confidence in himself or his writings.45

Akutagawa nevertheless found himself being drawn closer to the kind of stories for which Shiga was celebrated, the evocations of seemingly inconsequential personal experiences, related in such a manner as to leave a lasting, poignant impression. The brief “Mikan” (“Tangerines,” 1919) describes an incident aboard a train. A girl of twelve or thirteen enters the compartment where the narrator is seated, just as the train is about to pull out. She irritates him by her unattractive, countrified features, her stupidity in not realizing that she cannot ride in a second-class compartment with a third-class ticket, and especially by her insistence on opening the train window, even though black smoke from the engine fills the compartment when the train enters a tunnel. The girl seems the incarnation of the trivial, vulgar matters he has been reading about in the newspaper he carries. Suddenly the train emerges from the tunnel. At a level crossing three little boys, dressed in shabby clothes that seem a part of the gloomy atmosphere of the place and the weather, are waiting for the train, and when they see the girl they call to her. Leaning out of the window, she throws them some tangerines, spots of warm color in the dreary landscape. The narrator becomes aware at that instant that the girl is going to the city as a servant, and that she had brought the tangerines with her to express her thanks to her little brothers for seeing her off. The story concludes, “I felt then I could forget for a while my unspeakable fatigue and ennui, and the inexplicable, vulgar, boring nature of life itself.”

For years Akutagawa had been urged by critics to discard his literary pretensions and to bare his naked self. His intimate friend Kume Masao had put forth the doctrine that “the true path of the art of prose is the watakushi shōsetsu [‘I novel’],”46 but Akutagawa professed in several essays his disagreement. He did not dispute that an “I novel” could be a masterpiece, but insisted that not all masterpieces of Japanese prose fell into this category. Probably, in any case, Akutagawa did not feel much confidence in his Yasukichi stories. Only in the “I novels” written during the last two years of his life did he achieve real distinction with his autobiographical fiction. Even then he was still reluctant to espouse the “I novel” in the manner of Kume Masao.

Akutagawa's dispute in 1927 with Tanizaki Jun'ichirō, surely one of the least heated and least focused of literary disputes, arose from Akutagawa's stated doubts about the aesthetic value of plot in a work of fiction, and his subsequent attempts to justify stories that lack a clear-cut plot or structure. “Literary, Excessively Literary” opens:

I do not consider that a work of fiction without a recognizable plot is the finest variety; consequently, I do not urge others to write nothing but plotless stories. I might mention that most of my own stories have plots. A picture cannot be composed without a dessin. In precisely the same way, a work of fiction stands or fails on its plot. … To put it more exactly, without a plot there can be no work of fiction.47

With this concession Akutagawa tried to disarm critics like Tanizaki who believed that a plot was essential to any story; but his emphasis was, rather, on what follows: “There are also works of fiction that are close to poems in prose. … I do not consider such works to be the highest form of fiction, but in terms of ‘purity,’ they are the ‘purest’ examples of fiction, if only because they lack conventional interest.”48 He cited Shiga Naoya as the outstanding Japanese exponent of this kind of poetic fiction. Clearly he hoped that his own autobiographical works, especially of the last years, would achieve the poetic intensity of Shiga's even though they lacked the thematic interest of his early successes.

The Yasukichi stories are occasionally moving, but they do not possess the unique overtones of Shiga's works. Akutagawa could not follow in Shiga's footsteps, but the neurotic “I novels” of his last period are almost unbearably affecting. Even the brief “Kyō” (“Ill Omens,” 1926), scarcely a page in length, is unforgettable because of Akutagawa's incredibly evocative descriptions of three apparitions that have filled him with dread.49

Shiga was Akutagawa's chief “rival” once Akutagawa had lost the magical touch of his early stories, but he had to take cognizance also of another, quite dissimilar group of “rivals,” the writers of proletarian fiction who first emerged into prominence in 1921 with the publication of their magazine Tane Maku Hito (The Sower). The details of the proletarian literature movement are discussed elsewhere; suffice it to say here that it acquired such authority in a short period of time that Akutagawa felt obliged to respond to its announced principles. In January 1923 he published the essay “Puroretaria Bungei no Kahi” (“Pros and Cons of Proletarian Literature”). The tone, as the opening sentences indicate, was conciliatory: “Literature is not so unrelated to politics as many people suppose. It might more properly be said that the special characteristic of literature is that it can be related even to politics. Proletarian literature, which has finally got underway only recently, has been much too slow in making its appearance.”50

Akutagawa cited the examples of Victor Hugo and Rai Sanyō as authors who were more likely to be remembered for their political convictions than for their poetic skill. Of course, he continued, advocates of art for art's sake will always look down on literature that is remembered for its political content, and he himself respected such views; nevertheless, he felt it was preferable to share the griefs and joys of the common people, rather than stand aloof and take pride in the filigree perfection of one's style.

Having thus established his willingness to praise proletarian literature, Akutagawa stated his objections:

The one thing I hope is that spiritual freedom, whether of the proletariat or the bourgeoisie, will not perish. This means that one must see through the egoism not only of one's enemies but of one's friends. … If all members of the proletariat were good, and all bourgeois were evil, this would truly be a simple world. It would certainly be simple, but hasn't the Japanese literary world undergone the baptism of Naturalism?51

Akutagawa followed this typical bit of wry commentary with an expression of his doubts as to whether or not humankind is really progressing. He breaks off this train of thought to declare, “I respect freedom of the spirit more than anything else.” The essay is ineptly written, shifting from facetious remarks to proclamations of ideals with almost no transition, and ending with the egregiously silly statement that he favors perfectionism of any kind, even if it is a perfectionism of massage techniques. But it is obvious from his general tone that he was not in sympathy with proletarian literature. In his late work Kappa (1927) Akutagawa satirized capitalism, established morality, and various other aspects of contemporary society that were also attacked by the proletarian writers. On occasion too he indicated interest in Marxism and contributed manuscripts to left-wing magazines. But he was essentially uninterested in fighting capitalism; he was too aware of his isolation from other writers to join in common action, and too nihilistic to hope for an improvement in people's lots as the result of revolution.52

Akutagawa's last two works of fiction, “Ikkai no Tsuchi” (“A Clod of Earth,” 1923) and “Genkaku Sambō” (“Genkaku's Villa,” 1927), mark a conspicuous departure from earlier stories.53 The first is about Otami, a farmer's wife who has been left a widow with a small son. Her mother-in-law, Osumi, expects that Otami will remarry after an appropriate time, but she refuses to consider another husband. Instead, she works like a man in the fields, all but turning herself into a “clod of earth,” because she wants her son to inherit the land intact. At first Osumi admires her willingness to perform backbreaking labor, but gradually she realizes that as a result she herself is now responsible for the house and for Otami's son, and that she will therefore never be able to relax and enjoy old age. She becomes hostile toward Otami, and even seeks to turn the boy against his mother, though Otami is praised throughout the village as a model daughter-in-law. In the end, to Osumi's joy, Otami dies of typhoid fever. With Otami's savings augmented by contributions from the admiring neighbors, Osumi should at last be able to enjoy old age, but she now feels ashamed of herself, and whispers to the “new Buddha,” “Otami, why did you die?” Apart from the satirical touch at the end and the paradox in most of the story—the model daughter-in-law is detested for precisely the qualities the world admires—little suggests the writer of the historical tales. Akutagawa's sudden interest in the lives of people who work the soil may indicate influence from the proletarian literature movement, though the manner of narration is characteristically his own.

“Genkaku's Villa” is as close as Akutagawa came to writing a Naturalist story. He informed his friend Uno Kōji in 1927 that the material for the story had been provided by the nurse who took care of his brother-in-law in the hospital.54 Composition of the work was painfully slow. It took Akutagawa over two weeks to write the first section, though it is less than a page in printed text. His slowness was occasioned partly by the terrible complications in his family life after another brother-in-law had committed suicide in the wake of burning his own house in order to collect the insurance money. The brother had thrown himself under a train and Akutagawa, who was close to a nervous collapse even before this event and was acutely suffering from hemorrhoids, had to go to fetch the body. He also was saddled with the responsibility of providing for his sister and her children, who were now destitute. But the slowness of the composition was also the result of his determination to write a work of major importance. He was well aware of the oppressive nature of the story; he wrote Murō Saisei, “I am now writing an extremely gloomy work that is draining all my strength. I don't know if I'll be able to finish it.”55

“Genkaku's Villa” is indeed a gloomy story; Uno Kōji believed that it evoked hell more powerfully than stories by Akutagawa like “Hell Screen,” which have hell for their subject matter.56 Yet with one exception all the characters are decent and well meaning. The exception is the nurse, Miss Kōno, a cold and malicious woman who surely was an exceedingly warped version of the nurse who told Akutagawa the story! The events surrounding the death of the painter Genkaku are related objectively, and the foibles of each person in the household are subjected to the author's dispassionate scrutiny. The character who emerges most favorably is Genkaku's mistress, Oyoshi, who arrives with the son she has borne Genkaku and stays to look after the dying man. However, the nurse's cold machinations and the natural malice of Genkaku's grandson (who is about the same age as his illegitimate son) make life daily more unendurable for her in the household. At last Genkaku dies, and there is an elaborate funeral. Jūkichi, his son-in-law, rides in the horse-pulled hearse together with a cousin, a university student, who even as the carriage is lurching along is busy reading an English translation of the Memoirs of Wilhelm Liebknecht, the German socialist leader. At the end of the story Jūkichi and his wife discuss briefly what is likely to happen to Oyoshi, now that Genkaku is dead. The story concludes:

His cousin was silent. He was painting in his imagination the picture of a fishing village on the Kazusa coast. And of Oyoshi and her child who would live in that fishing village. … His expression suddenly grew severe. In the sunlight, which had broken through the clouds not long before, he once again turned to his copy of Liebknecht.

Akutagawa explained the conclusion of the story in a letter sent to Aono Suekichi (1890–1961), a critic closely associated with the proletarian literature movement. He wrote on March 6, 1927:

I felt that at the end I wanted to bring the tragedy that had occurred in Genkaku's house into contact with the outside world. (That is why the entire story, with the exception of the last section, takes place inside the house.) I also thought I would like to hint that the outside world held the promise of a new age. Chekhov, as you know, at the end of The Cherry Orchard sketched in a student of the new generation, only to have him fall from his room upstairs. I am unable to bestow the resigned laughter of a Chekhov on the new generation. But, on the other hand, my feelings of sympathy are not intense enough for me to join in a mutual embrace with the new generation. Liebknecht, as you know, in his Memoirs sighed at times when he recalled his meetings with Marx and Engels. I wanted to cast Liebknecht's mournful shadow over my student. I fear that this effort may have failed.57

Akutagawa's reference to Liebknecht aroused considerable speculation and controversy.58 His conception of the “new generation” (shin jidai) seems vague, and he may have meant nothing more than that he hoped life would be more cheerful for the next generation than it was for the members of Genkaku's unspeakably gloomy household. But his mention of Liebknecht rather than, say, Tolstoy, suggests that he had been affected by the proletarian literature movement. When “Genkaku's Villa” was reviewed by a group of nine critics in the March 1927 issue of the literary magazine Shinchō (New Tides), almost everyone was an advocate of proletarian literature, evidence of the authority that the movement had acquired.59

Most of Akutagawa's remaining stories were openly autobiographical. The chief exception is the novella Kappa, a satire rather in the vein of Anatole France's Penguin Island. The mistakes and hypocrisy of human society are ridiculed by the distorted or exaggerated forms they take in a nonhuman world. The kappa, a kind of water sprite, figures prominently in Japanese folktales. Despite their grotesque appearance—part human, part bird, part reptile—they are sufficiently human to seem plausible when fulfilling the roles of artists, capitalists, students, and so on in Akutagawa's imaginary world. Some passages are amusing, making telling thrusts at current mores, but on the whole Kappa is a depressing work, not only because its humor is so joyless, but because it betrays a lack of resourcefulness that would have been unthinkable in the earlier Akutagawa. When Kappa appeared it was generally discussed as a work of social criticism, but he described in a letter his irritation with people who had pointed out the inadequacy of his social awareness:

Of all the criticism that has appeared about Kappa your article was the only one to move me. I am especially pleased because it came from someone I have never met. Kappa was born out of my degoût with respect to everything, especially myself. All the other criticism of Kappa has elaborated on the “lighthearted wit” and so on, as if deliberately to make me the more miserable.60

Akutagawa followed Kappa with two surrealist film scenarios, Yūwaku (Temptation)61 and Asakusa Kōen (Asakusa Park), both bewildering yet fascinating explorations of the fluidity of associations. Neither scenario seems to have been filmed, perhaps because of the astonishing metamorphoses that Akutagawa's texts require.

The sequence of autobiographical works begins with “Daidōji Shinsuke no Hansei” (“The Early Life of Daidōji Shinsuke,” 1924). The story contains fictitious elements, but was perhaps as close to true autobiography as Akutagawa could come at that time. The sections bear subtitles such as “Cow's Milk,” “Poverty,” “School,” “Books,” and “Friends,” each one designating a formative element in Shinsuke's character. “Cow's Milk,” for example, conveyed his feelings of deprivation:

Shinsuke never once drank his mother's milk. His mother had always been frail, and even immediately after she gave birth to her only child, she never had a drop of milk for him. The family was moreover much too poor for there to be any question of hiring a wet nurse. That is why Shinsuke drank cow's milk from the time he was born. He could not help resenting this fate. He loathed the bottles of milk delivered every morning to the kitchen, and was envious of friends who, whether they were aware of it or not, had never drunk milk except from their mother's breast.62

The section called “Poverty” considerably exaggerates the financial hardships under which Akutagawa grew up, and probably also the resentment he felt for having been forced to endure poverty. He described himself as a product “not of the poverty of the lower classes but of the poverty of the lower middle class, which has to endure hardships for the sake of keeping up appearances.”63

He describes next his school and the useless information with which he had to fill his head. A tyrannical teacher beat him because he read Kunikida Doppo and Tayama Katai, but he continued to receive good marks despite his rebelliousness. The most affecting part of “Daidōji Shinsuke” discusses the books he read. “There was not one single thing which he had not learned from books.” He learned from late nineteenth-century European novels and plays but also from Genroku haikai poetry. He confesses, “During the early part of his life he fell in love with any number of women, but none taught him anything about the beauty of women; at any rate, he was taught nothing about feminine beauty that he had not already learned from books.”64

The last section, on his friends, is mocking. “He always found it rather agreeable to be described as ‘an unpleasant guy.’” He was reluctant to have intimate friends, but those he selected were always the brightest in the class, friends who inspired hatred as well as love. “Daidōji Shinsuke” breaks off with the promise Akutagawa never fulfilled to extend the manuscript to three or four times its present length. Opinions differ about “Daidōji Shinsuke”; no doubt it would seem more impressive if Akutagawa had not written far more powerful works in a confessional vein.

The next autobiographical work, “Tenkibo” (“Death Register,” 1926), is written in the first person. It opens with the haunting description of his insane mother quoted at the beginning of this chapter. It must have cost Akutagawa a great deal of pain to write this shattering episode. It is followed by the almost sunny description of Ohatsu, the elder sister he never knew, whose name was inscribed in the family “death register” before he was born. Akutagawa recalls the touching little anecdotes told about Ohatsu, all she left behind in the world, and he writes with a tenderness rare in his works.

He turns next to his father, the third name in the “death register.” He describes how he was given in adoption to his mother's family, how his father unsuccessfully tried to take back his son, how the boy was reared by his maiden aunt, a woman he loved and hated. This account leads to a description of the death of his father, when Akutagawa felt an intimacy with him for the first time, even though his father's mind was wandering at the very end. His last words were to order Akutagawa to salute a warship with flying pennants, which he saw steaming toward them.65

“Death Register” concludes with the short account of Akutagawa's visit to the family grave. As he stares at the monument under which the remains of his mother, father, and sister lie, he wonders who of the three was the happiest, and recalls a haiku by Bashō's disciple Naitō Jōsō, composed when he visited his master's grave:

kagerō ya
tsuka yori hoka ni
sumu bakari
Shimmering haze—
All I do is go on living
Outside the grave.

Akutagawa, like Jōsō, felt he was merely biding his time until he joined the others in the grave and in the death register.

The remaining autobiographical works were published post-humously after Akutagawa killed himself on July 27, 1927, by taking a lethal dose of sleeping medicine. His suicide came as a profound shock but not as a surprise to his family and friends. He had spoken of suicide often, and he seemed to be at the end of his strength. A photograph taken in June 1927, his last, shows a gaunt face, hollow eyes, a wrinkled forehead, and an expression of despair accentuated by the mouth twisted around a cigarette. In March he published “Shinkirō” (“The Mirage”), the account of an almost pointless experience that is given an unforgettable intensity by the eerie apprehension of death; and in June he published “Mittsu no Mado” (“Three Windows”), in which he described, under the strange allegory of two battleships being repaired at the Yokosuka Dock Yard, how deeply the nervous breakdown of Uno Kōji had upset him, apparently precipitating the decision to commit suicide. This was the last story published during his lifetime.

Among the unpublished materials Akutagawa left behind was the autobiographical “Cogwheels,” perhaps his masterpiece. He portrays himself in a state of acute mental tension, seemingly schizophrenic, finding peculiar significance in certain colors, or in people casually glimpsed in the street. Such experiences induce the hallucination of semitransparent cogwheels that increase in numbers until they all but blot out his vision. Every now and then the outside world impinges on his fantasies. He learns by telephone that his brother-in-law has thrown himself under a train, and must break off the story he has been writing in a hotel room to go and claim the body. Matter-of-fact conversations alternate with terrifying visions, with little attempt made to distinguish between reality and hallucinations. In between bouts of fantasy he reads Shiga Naoya, Strindberg, and Dostoevski. The whole is a nightmare, impossible to summarize, and filled with a terror that mounts until the final cry: “I lack the strength to write any more. Living with such feelings is an indescribable torment. Will no one have the goodness to strangle me in my sleep?” After reading “Cogwheels” we can only marvel that Akutagawa did not kill himself sooner. But it is not only its poignant content that makes “Cogwheels” so memorable a literary work. The style, the choice of details, the counterpoint of reality and fantasy all contribute to the indelible impression the work leaves in the reader's mind.

“Aru Ahō no Isshō” (“The Life of a Certain Idiot”) was written on June 20, 1927, as we know from the prefatory note addressed to Kume Masao, asking him to decide if the manuscript should be published. He noted, “I have not attempted to defend myself in this manuscript—not intentionally, at any rate.” The work is divided into fifty-one short sections. Here is the sixth section, “Sickness.”

The sea wind kept blowing interminably, but he managed nevertheless to open the unabridged English dictionary.

“Talaria. Shoes or sandals that have sprouted wings.

“Tale. A story.

“Talipot. A palm native to the East Indies. The trunk attains a growth of fifty to one hundred feet, and the leaves are used for umbrellas, fans, hats, etc. It blossoms once in seventy years.”

In his imagination he could vividly picture the palm flowers. He felt an itching in his throat he had never previously experienced. Before he knew it, he had spat on the dictionary. He spat?—But that was not spit. Remembering how short his own life was, he once again visualized the palm blossoms, palm blossoms on towering trees on the other side of the distant ocean.66

Other sections describe corpses, unhappy memories of childhood, ennui, the author's dread of society, death. He recalls books he has read, a woman he once loved, quarrels. The last section is entitled “Defeat”:

His hand holding the pen began to shake. That was not all. He began to drool. His head was never clear except after waking from sleep induced by 0.8 veronal. And even when it was clear, this state never lasted longer than half an hour, or an hour at most. He went on living day to day in semidarkness. Or, one might say, the blade of the slender sword with which he had propped himself had been nicked.67

A short collection of cryptic reflections Jippon no Hari (Ten Needles) came next, and then two essays on Christianity, “Saihō no Hito” (“The Man from the West”) and the sequel “Zoku Saihō no Hito.” During Akutagawa's last moments, as he drifted into sleep, he read the Bible, and it seems clear from these late works that in his desperation he had turned to Christianity for solace, attempting to understand the contemporary relevance of the person of Christ. He compared, for example, Christ's peregrinations as a child to the child of a naval officer whose station is constantly shifted, wondering if His “Bohemian” nature did not originate in these early experiences. It is not clear, however, if Christianity represented more to Akutagawa than an intriguing possibility of salvation. In “Cogwheels” he described an old man he used to visit, a wise man who knew why Akutagawa's mother had gone mad, why his father had repeatedly failed in business, and why he himself was being punished. The old man urged Akutagawa to become a Christian.

“Can even someone like me become one?”

“There's nothing difficult about it. All you have to possess is faith in God, in Christ His Son, and in the miracles Christ worked. …”

“I can believe in the devil. …”

“Then, why don't you believe in God? If you believe in shadows, you can't help but believe in light.”

“But there must be some darkness even without light.”68

Akutagawa opened “The Man from the West” with the statement that he loved Christianity for its artistic qualities. He was especially attracted to Catholicism, as might be deduced from his Nagasaki stories. He admitted that his interest in Catholicism had germinated from the seeds of exoticism scattered by the poets Kitahara Hakushū and Kinoshita Mokutarō, who were fascinated by the atmosphere surrounding the days of the Portuguese in Japan. But his interest went deeper than theirs, to the universal qualities of the religion. “The psychology of the martyr had a morbid attraction for me, like the psychology of every other kind of fanatic.” He declared that he was totally uninterested in historical or geographical facts relating to Christianity; he was drawn instead to the dramatis personae, and the many short sections making up “The Man from the West” and its sequel consist of epigrammatic characterizations of Christ and those who surrounded Him. One section begins, “Christ, like all Christs, was a Communist in spirit. Christ's words, if read with a Communist's eyes, would probably turn into the Communist Manifesto.69

It is difficult to evaluate “The Man from the West.” It and its sequel reveal not only careful reading in the New Testament but an acquaintance with the Old Testament and evidence of much pondering over what he had read. Ultimately, however, Akutagawa found insufficient comfort in Christianity.

His last composition, “Aru Kyūyū e okuru Shuki” (“Memorandum Sent to an Old Friend”), was his final testament. It was addressed to Kume Masao and described the circumstances leading up to his suicide. One phrase became famous: bon'yari shita fuan (a vague uneasiness), the direct cause of his death. Akutagawa related that for the previous two years he had thought of nothing but killing himself. He mentioned that he had already expressed in “The Life of a Certain Idiot” almost everything he had to say about himself. “However,” he continued, “I deliberately refrained from describing in that work the social conditions—the feudal age—that had cast a shadow over me. If I had to analyze what made me refrain from mentioning them, it was because even today we human beings are to some extent still in the shadow of the feudal age.” It is not clear what Akutagawa was referring to specifically. Perhaps it was to his family background. He confessed that, since he was living within the social condition (shakaiteki jōken), he could not be sure he understood it perfectly.

The suicide memorandum passed next to the debates he had with himself over the manner and place of suicide, ending with his decision on aesthetic grounds not to hang himself, though he believed it was the least painful way out. He revealed also that a certain woman wished to join him in suicide, but he had decided against this, both out of consideration for his wife and because dying alone would be easier to arrange. After disposing in this manner of the technical aspects of his suicide, he became more discursive:

We human beings are human beasts, and that is why, in animal fashion, we fear death. What is called élan vital is nothing more than another name for brute strength. Like everyone else, I too am a human beast. But, when I note that I have lost all interest in food and sex, I realize that I am gradually losing my animal vitality. I am living in a sick world of nerves that has become as transparent as ice. Last night, when I talked to a certain prostitute about her wages (!), I felt profoundly the pathos of human beings like ourselves who “go on living in the only way they can go on living.” I am sure that if I am allowed, of my own free will, to drift into an eternal sleep, it will bring me peace, if not happiness. But it remains a question when I shall be able to muster the courage to kill myself. In the meantime, in my present state, nature looks more beautiful than ever. You will doubtless laugh at the contradiction of loving nature and planning at the same time to kill myself. But the beauty of nature is apparent to me only because it is reflected in my eyes during my last hours. I have seen, loved, and understood more than most men. That thought brings some satisfaction, even amid the agonies I have repeatedly endured. Please do not publish this letter for some years after my death. It is quite possible that my suicide may appear like a death from natural causes.70

The letter concludes with a postscript mentioning that he had been reading the life of Empedocles, who wanted to become a god. Akutagawa himself no longer had any such desire, but he remembered how, twenty years before, Kume and he, sitting under a bo tree,71 had talked about Empedocles. Akutagawa's last words were, “In those days I wanted to make myself into a god.”

This was not Akutagawa's only suicide note. In the spring of 1927 he had left one for his friend, the painter Oana Ryūichi, attributing the cause of his unhappiness to the affair he had with a certain married woman when he was twenty-nine. He also expressed regret that he had for so long acted like a filial son toward his adopted parents, who never allowed him to do anything he wanted. Now, he says, he will commit the self-indulgent act of a lifetime by killing himself. The letter concluded, “But I see that I am, after all, the son of a lunatic. At present I feel disgust toward the whole world, myself most of all.”72

Perhaps remembering this previous farewell message, Akutagawa feared that he might not have the courage to kill himself, even after writing Kume. But he prepared the fatal dose and drank it. When his wife found him the next morning it was too late.

Akutagawa disclaimed any desire to become a god, but he became one anyway. His life was interpreted as the archetypal fate of the artist, and his suicide deeply shocked not only those who were personally acquainted, but even people outside the literary world, who knew him solely by reputation. The suicide of Arishima Takeo in 1923 had also created a sensation, and many people recalled this event after Akutagawa's death, but it was explicable in the conventional terms of a love-suicide, in the manner of Chikamatsu's plays; Akutagawa's death was interpreted instead as a symbolic act, an expression of profound anxiety over the state of the times, or of personal inability to resolve the conflicting attractions of Japanese tradition and the wave of the future, represented by proletarian literature.73

Akutagawa's suicide naturally affected writers most powerfully: the sudden shift to the left of Kataoka Teppei has been directly attributed to the suicide, and for Yokomitsu Riichi it was the turning point of his whole life.74 Even Shiga Naoya, whom Akutagawa revered above all contemporaries, seems to have been stunned into silence for years. And many lesser writers began to doubt the value of literature itself, if a man so favored with talent and fame by the gods, who was close to being a god himself, had spurned literature in favor of death. But Akutagawa's writings continued to find new readers, and he came to be a god in a special sense: the Akutagawa Prize, founded in 1935 to honor his memory by his friend Kikuchi Kan, the editor of the magazine Bungei Shunjū, became the most sought-after accolade for every young writer, the recognition of a god.

Akutagawa's stories were translated into European languages even during the long arid period from the early 1920s to the mid-1950s, when hardly any modern Japanese literature was translated, and his name was known abroad. His early stories do not always stand up to repeated readings, but their effectiveness, even in translation, is undeniable. The works of the middle period, as yet little translated, are often hardly more than sketches brought to life by a single haunting touch, an unforgettable observation, or a devastating association. But it is the autobiographical works of the late years that are probably Akutagawa's most enduring testament, though they lack the brilliance of the earlier works. No one can read them without recognizing in Akutagawa a quality at once peculiarly modern and peculiarly tragic. In his last works he surrendered the skills that were his birthright and gained with his death a lonely immortality.


  1. Ōoka Shōhei, “Kaisetsu,” for Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, in Nihon no Bungaku series, p. 516.

  2. Akutagawa Ryūnosuke Zenshū (henceforth abbreviated ARZ), III, p. 305.

  3. Sekiguchi Yasuyoshi, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke no Bungaku, p. 33.

  4. ARZ, VI, pp. 310–11.

  5. Ibid., p. 311.

  6. See Sekiguchi, Akutagawa, pp. 40–41, for examples of the revisions.

  7. Kobori Keiichirō traced the background of “Rashōmon” to a story by the obscure French writer Frédéric Boutet, which appeared in a translation by Mori Ōgai in the October 1913 issue of Mita Bungaku. See Kobori, “Akutagawa Ryūnosuke no Shuppatsu,” pp. 60–65. However, Akutagawa turned to the Japanese classics for details of the period.

  8. Chōkōdō Zakki, in ARZ, IV, p. 149.

  9. ARZ, I, p. 136.

  10. Ibid., I, p. 143.

  11. Ibid., VII, p. 131.

  12. Ibid., VI, p. 312.

  13. Sekiguchi, Akutagawa, p. 59.

  14. See ARZ, IV, pp. 330–31.

  15. See Ōoka, “Kaisetsu,” p. 518, and Sekiguchi, Akutagawa, p. 112; but Nakamura Shin'ichirō, in Akutagawa Ryūnosuke no Sekai, p. 73, declared, “Akutagawa Ryūnosuke received almost no literary influence from Natsume Sōseki.”

  16. ARZ, I, p. 315.

  17. Nakamura, Akutagawa no Sekai, p. 69.

  18. Ibid., p. 71.

  19. See ARZ, VII, p. 32; also, Naruse Masakatsu, “Akutagawa to Ōgai,” p. 48.

  20. Kobori, “Akutagawa no Shuppatsu,” p. 55.

  21. See Uno Kōji, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, p. 79, where he points out resemblances between “Imogayu” and Gogol's The Overcoat. Of course, the basic source of “Imogayu” is to be found in Konjaku Monogatari, but Akutagawa's story is not merely a modernization of the early story but a new interpretation, enriched by his readings in Western literature, and fully assimilated into his own personal style. See also pp. 81, 269.

  22. Sekiguchi, Akutagawa, p. 74.

  23. Shimada Kinji, “Akutagawa Ryūnosuke to Roshiya Shōsetsu,” pp. 278–79, gives the account of the story.

  24. See Miyoshi Yukio, “Hōkyōjin no Shi,” p. 208, in Inagaki and Itō, Hihyō to Kenkyū.

  25. Ōshima Maki, “Akutagawa Ryūnosuke no Sōsaku to Anatōru Furansu,” p. 256.

  26. Ōoka Shōhei, however, denied the resemblance between Yoshihide and Akutagawa, stating that Akutagawa never sacrificed his real life for his art in the manner of Yoshihide. Ōoka, “Kaisetsu,” p. 525.

  27. Hasegawa Izumi, Kindai Meisaku Kanshō, p. 213.

  28. ARZ, VII, pp. 344–45.

  29. Ibid., I, p. 220.

  30. Ibid., I, p. 222.

  31. Nitobe Inazō (1862–1933), the model for the professor, wrote in English a book called Bushido, the Soul of Japan. “Hankechi” has not often been mentioned as one of Akutagawa's best works, but Mishima Yukio stated, without elaborating on his opinion, that it was “the ultimate” in short stories. (“Akutagawa Ryūnosuke ni tsuite,” p. 64). Elsewhere (in “‘Hankechi,’ ‘Nankin no Kirisuto’ hoka,” p. 162), Mishima wrote that it was Akutagawa's most fully realized conte. He compared the beauty of Akutagawa's manière to the brilliance of certain moments in Nō, but regretted the ending, which he thought had been tacked on by Akutagawa in his usual spirit of irreverence toward acts of heroism or noble gestures. The incident related in “Hankechi” was apparently conveyed to Akutagawa by his friend Kume Masao.

  32. See Nakamura, Akutagawa no Sekai, pp. 16–19.

  33. Hasegawa, Kindai, p. 227.

  34. Ibid., p. 230.

  35. See ibid., pp. 236–41, for a comparison between the story and the film. Possible sources are discussed by Asai Kiyoshi in “Yabu no Naka,” p. 63. The woodcutter appears briefly at the opening of the original story and may be the person who draws from the wound the sword the samurai has used to kill himself.

  36. ARZ, VII, p. 377. It may have been at this time that Akutagawa began taking veronal, which he used when committing suicide.

  37. Akutagawa apparently was given the materials for his story by a writer from Izu. See Miyoshi Yukio, “Sakuhin Kaisetsu,” p. 252.

  38. ARZ, VII, p. 157. Reconciliation is Wakai in the original.

  39. Ibid., IV, p. 137.

  40. Ibid., VI, p. 26. A Dark Night's Passing is An'ya Kōro in the original.

  41. Shiga Naoya, II, p. 301.

  42. Ibid., p. 305.

  43. See Tsuge Teruhiko, “Dōjidai e no Sembō,” p. 120.

  44. ARZ, V, p. 135.

  45. Tsuge, “Dōjidai,” p. 120.

  46. See “Watakushi Shōsetsu Shōken,” in ARZ, V, p. 61.

  47. ARZ, V, p. 130.

  48. Ibid.

  49. Ibid., IV, p. 384.

  50. Ibid., V, p. 23.

  51. Ibid.

  52. Sekiguchi Yasuyoshi, “Kappa kara Saihō no Hito e,” p. 114. Miyamoto Kenji, later secretary of the Japanese Communist party, in 1929 published a sympathetic appraisal of Akutagawa's writings in the essay “Haiboku no Bungaku” (The Literature of Defeat), though his conclusion was that “We must at all times possess the fierce enthusiasm to criticize thoroughly Akutagawa's writings. Have we not examined the defeatist course of his writings in order to make ourselves the stronger? We must go forward, stepping over the literature of defeat and the soil of class consciousness.” See Kindai Bungaku Hyōron Taikei, VI, p. 243.

  53. Uno, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, p. 252, writes that when he first read Ikkai no Tsuchi he could not believe it was by Akutagawa.

  54. ARZ, VIII, p. 84. See also Uno, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, pp. 308–09.

  55. ARZ, VIII, p. 77.

  56. Uno, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, p. 319.

  57. ARZ, VIII, pp. 88–89.

  58. See Ebii Hidetsugu, “Genkaku Sambō,” pp. 81–83.

  59. See Akutagawa Ryūnosuke Annai, pp. 94–97, for selections from the discussion.

  60. Letter to Yoshida Yasushi in ARZ, VIII, p. 90. In other letters Akutagawa compared Kappa to Gulliver's Travels and Reinecke Fuchs (ARZ, VIII, pp. 84–85), and expressed surprise at the speed with which he had been able to write what for him was an unusually long manuscript. An especially revealing letter, sent on Feb. 27 to the novelist Takii Kōsaku, stated that of the three works he had been writing concurrently, “Genkaku Sambō” had cost him the greatest effort. Kappa was the easiest to write and “Shinkirō” was the one in which he felt greatest confidence. He repeated the gist of these remarks in a letter sent on March 28 to Saitō Mokichi, which otherwise is devoted mainly to complaints about extreme exhaustion. (See also pp. 88–89.)

  61. Translated by Arthur Waley as San Sebastian, and included in his collection The Real Tripitaka and Other Pieces.

  62. ARZ, III, p. 230.

  63. Ibid., pp. 233–34.

  64. Ibid., p. 237.

  65. Ibid., p. 308.

  66. Ibid., IV, p. 54.

  67. Ibid., p. 66.

  68. Ibid., p. 31.

  69. Ibid., V, p. 211.

  70. Ibid., VIII, p. 116.

  71. The tree mentioned, bodaiju, is the Japanese name for the bo tree, under which Shakyamuni Buddha gained enlightenment. It is also the name for the linden. Possibly Akutagawa and Kume actually sat under a linden rather than a bo tree, but the latter, suggesting a sudden revelation of the truth, goes better with Akutagawa's story.

  72. ARZ, VIII, pp. 117–18.

  73. See the statements by Hirotsu Kazuo, made in 1929, as quoted in Miyoshi Yukio, Nihon Bungaku no Kindai to Han-Kindai, p. 207.

  74. Ibid., p. 206. Kataoka and Yokomitsu were both prominent in the New Sensationalist movement, but their paths diverged after this time.

Florence Goyet (essay date 1991)

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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, by adding tanpen, “brief”, to the word shôsetsu, “novel”.

By the second quarter of the XXth century, however, the new word, tanpen shôsetsu, is widely used, and Akutagawa was recognized, from the beginning of his very successful career, as a master of the short story genre. He still is, as we are reminded by the “Akutagawa prize”, that most famous of Japan literary prizes, awarded each year to enable an author to dedicate his full time to the writing of short stories. Does this mean that when Akutagawa writes “short stories”, he is creating something very close to the Western stories, and renouncing, in a way, his native tradition? Our very first contact with his texts provides an easy answer: full of Japanese local colour, his stories differ widely from those of Maupassant or any of the European Naturalists. But if we address ourselves, beyond the themes and motives, to the structure of the stories, our answer might be more ambiguous. On the one hand, a very large number of his stories are built, in fact, in the same way as Western Naturalist short stories. On the other hand, a whole series of texts seem to have little in common with the “story” as Europe or America then knew it. Non-narrative, they do not tell a regular tale with a beginning, a middle and an end, and they renounce the very way short stories in the West are usually made. Rather they relate to the very old and profoundly Japanese genre of the zuihitsu, the following the brush essay. Such a parallel, however, should not distract us from another connection, this time to the widespread “stream of consciousness”. Akutagawa is standing at a crossroads. They could be thought of as the diverging paths of Western and Eastern traditions. But they could as well be conceived as the diverging paths of the genre itself, short stories divided between narrative and non-narrative texts.


Akutagawa sometimes claimed the influence of Maupassant on his stories. This might seem strange at first sight, many of them being set in ancient Japan or using Japan or China Classical texts. If we address ourselves to the structure of these texts, though, rather than to their themes and settings, many of them are analogous to European Naturalist stories of the end of the XIXth century. Characteristic is the regular appearance of two features: antithetic structure and paroxystic characterization, visible even in stories based on the very Japanese themes taken from the Classical Konjaku monogatari.

Let us first take an obviously “Western-like” short story, “Mikan,” (“The Tangerines”)1. As one of a relatively smaller series of texts in which Akutagawa sets his stories in modern life, it is closer to the nouvelles of Western Naturalists like Maupassant. At the same time it is very typical of Akutagawa's narrative stories. The narrator, getting on a commuter train to return to Tôkyô, is in a mood as gloomy as the light of this snowy winter day. While he is waiting for the train to depart, a young girl suddenly rushes into his car. She has the disgusting appearance of a peasant girl, and he resents her coarse features and clothes. He resents even more her desperately trying to open the window, and doing so precisely when the train enters a tunnel. Coughing, half choked, he is to scold her rudely, when she reaches for some tangerines she had in her blouse and throws them to a few little boys along the track. To the narrator, things become suddenly very obvious: the girl is evidently going to Tôkyô to a “place”, the boys are her brothers come to see her off; and suddenly, he feels more warmly disposed toward the monotonous life he is part of: her greeting to the little brothers has enlightened his day.

Behind the Western themes (the train, the suburbs, etc.), what is very clear here is the way Akutagawa structures his narratives. The story is a neat little scene, which deftly takes us through a well-made scenario and leaves us with a feeling of fulfillment. Five pages are enough for us to enter a narrative world, grasp what is at stake, see vividly the terrible boredom and share the irritation of the narrator, and be content with a resolution that leaves nothing unanswered. How Akutagawa was able, as the Naturalist story does, to present such a nicely rounded little narrative, is in fact relatively simple to understand.

The first feature is the antithetic structure of the story. It takes us smoothly from a sharply defined starting point to a resolution that is its exact opposite. Thus it creates a strong antithesis perceptible at once by the reader, who will need nothing more to feel that the tale is perfected. The first words show the narrator buried in the melancholy feeling of the hideous monotony of life, while the last ones explicitly state that, having seen the young girl greet her loyal brothers, he comes to an undefinable feeling of serenity. His mood has changed and a small miracle has taken place:

Watashi wa kono toki ajimete, iiyô no nai hirô to kentai to o, sôshite mata fukakai na, katô na, taikutsu na jinsei o wazukani wasureru koto ga dekita no de aru.

For the first time I could forget a little my inducible fatigue and ennui, and also life's absurdity, vulgarity and monotony.

The words used here: hirô, “fatigue”; kentai, “ennui”; fukakai na, katô na, taikutsu na jinsei, “absurdity, vulgarity, monotony of life”, are the same used in the beginning of the text to state his prodigious boredom with modern life. Between these, the whole course of the narrative can be comprised and mentally organized by the reader. In this case, the symmetry is deliberately made easy to grasp. The throwing of the tangerines is what the German criticism on the Novelle used to call after Tieck the Wendepunkt, the turning-point, and which it tried to establish as the main characteristic of the genre. The tension between the filthy darkness and the tangerines is in fact central to the next. The warm hue of the tangerines confronts the darkness of night and of the train's smoke. The tangerines will finally substitute for the missing sun: their colour is that of the sun and they fall on the boys “from heaven”, fertilizing the world and eventually the narrator's own mind.

The second remarkable point is the paroxystic treatment of the materials. To put up sharp contrasts and use them in a structure that will give the short story its fulfilling effect, to leave the reader content with the show that has taken place in front of him, and give the text its organical closure, Akutagawa imparts to everyone of the features he uses a tremendous intensity. What we see here is not “any” gloom, or “any” peasant girl. The girl is shown as profoundly, perfectly disgusting; the smoke, the dirt, the melancholy aspect of the place, are such that they could not be worse. The gloom is painstakingly characterized in the beginning of the short story as a sort of metaphysical absence of light. This text, as is often the case in Akutagawa's works, is verging on allegory; it will explicitly state that all the narrator sees is a “symbol” (shôchô):

Kono tonneru no naka no kisha to, kono inakamono no komusume to, sôshite mata kono heibon na kiji ni uzumatte iru yükan to—kore ga shôchô de nakute nande arô. Fukakai na, katô na, taikutsu na jinsei no shôchô de nakute nan de arô.

This train in a tunnel, this peasant girl, and then this evening paper full of commonplace events—if these were not symbols, what were they? The symbols of life's absurdity, vulgarity and monotony.

This story verges on allegory without ceasing to be, at the same time, a very successful narration. This, to my feeling, is due to the fact that a narrative story will use paroxystic states anyway: characters defined by very few qualities, but possessing them in the supreme degree.

Such a structure can be seen in short stories by Akutagawa where the subject is drastically different, much more “Japanese”. The “historic” tales are composed on the same lines, and rely on the same treatment of narrative material to give that neat, satisfying effect. In “Hana,” (“The Nose,”) a high rank monk is shown obsessed by the desire to make his nose smaller. The antithesis will confront the never ending efforts he makes to reduce his nose length, and the melancholy effect of his finally succeeding: years of paroxystically described care of his nose reveal their essential vanity; profoundly relieved, he welcomes his five inch nose when it suddenly grows back again. In “Kareno shô,” (“The Withering Moors,”) the characters are the disciples of Bashô, assisting the haikai master on his deathbed. The Japanese revere them in proportion of the veneration they have for their master. The story will show for each of them, with many details, that his reaction to the death of his master is the exact opposite of what one would expect. It is interesting that the “turning-point” here does not confront the beginning and the end of the story, but takes place within each of the portraits of the disciples, drawing a sharp contrast between the expected attitude and the actual one. Not a feature of the surface level2, it is nevertheless a powerful organizing principle for the whole of the story. As was the case in “Mikan,” as it is in “Hana,” and countless other tales, it will allow the reader to feel the text as a small gem of a story, rounded and perfected.

To be used in an antithesis that can leave us content with the perfection of the story, the basic facts of the story are also “larger than life”: subject to the paroxystic treatment we saw in “Mikan.” In “Hana” the length of the priest's nose—a good five inches …—is the subject of all conversations in the Capital … His obsession pervades everyone of his activities, and his tremendous vanity is emphazised by the contrast with what is expected of a monk. In “Kareno shô,” the devotion of Bashô's disciples to their master, as well as their cold-heartedness at his death bed, are shown as much more powerful than the usual bonds and reactions; Bashô is the master, and they feel totally devoid of the anticipated emotion.

In these short stories, Akutagawa is very near to what could be characterized as the tradition of Western narration. The brief and strongly effective narrative, of which Maupassant, for instance, albeit with very different themes and preoccupations, produced hundreds of examples. They, too, take us deftly from a sharply defined beginning to a resolution, playing in between on sharp contrasts to establish a strong and fulfilling structure. I cannot, of course, demonstrate here that this was true of in the vast majority of short stories at the end of XIXth century,3 but such a structure is clear enough in, for example, the “Normand” tales or the “tales of employees” by Maupassant.


The main point is that among Akutagawa's texts, some diverge dramatically from this mode of story-telling. Master of the neatly manufactured little gem, of the sharply drawn narrative, Akutagawa is also the writer of a number of stories of “no shape”, deprived of a clear beginning, middle and end.

Japanese critics tend to feel that when Akutagawa wrote such texts, he returned to a more indigenous tradition. They even sometimes hint that his choosing to make well-rounded short stories, of the kind I myself linked with the Naturalist short story, is in fact a renouncement of the more “Japanese” genre so well illustrated by Shiga Naoya at that time4: Akutagawa would have avoided a genre where Shiga Naoya had so excelled that his own writings could look poor. This comment at least underlines the difference between the two series of texts, and hints to the importance, for the “non-narrative” stories, of Japanese traditions.

As a matter of fact, a number of these texts, especially toward the end of Akutagawa's life, remind us of a Japanese genre that gets to the heart of the indigenous tradition: the zuihitsu, the following the brush essay5. Such texts as “Aru hô no isshô,” (“The Life of an Idiot,”) “Shuju no kotoba,” (“The Words of a Dwarf,”) or “Geijutsu sono ta” (“Of Art and Other Things,”) show a mere succession of paragraphs, a series of very short descriptions and comments on any topic whatsoever, generally preceded by a title, and not linked in any logical or thematic way. This calls to mind those most famous texts in Japanese literature: Sei Shonagon's Makura no sôshi, (Notes of the pillow), and Urabe Kenko's Tsurezuregusa, (Idle hours). Here, too, the topics are many, follow one another with that same absence of logical link, and reveal that same occasional triviality. As in the “non-narrative” stories of Akutagawa, the focus changes with every separate fragment, and the result, contrary to the “narrative” story, is that each of these fragments is considered in itself, each calls for the reader's exclusive attention, and in a way prevents him from feeling the whole as a whole. Contrary to the classical narrative of Western tradition, the reader will not follow a plot, however complex it may be, through to a resolution untying the knot set up in the beginning. Rather, he will follow the changing mood which goes from the memory of the mad mother to that of a conversation in a cafe, to that of the feelings at one's child's birth in “Aru hô no isshô,” as it went, in Kenko's Tsurezuregusa, from opinions about ladies and wine to points of courtly etiquette or comments on the issues of the day. Akutagawa, of course, especially at the end of his life, did nothing so light-hearted, and “Haguruma,” (“Gears,”) or “Yasukichi no techô kara,” (“Excerpts from the diary of Yasukichi,”) for example, are texts of a desperate pessimism. But the general principle is the same, there is a typical lack of interest in anything like a logical concatenation between the various elements presented to the reader.

The zuihitsu was not forgotten in Akutagawa's time. Midway between a personal diary and a newspaper chronicle, it was still a part of the authors' works: Shimazaki Tôson, for example, at the very end of his life, published daily in a paper his Six feet for a sick man's couch. The narrative's capricious ways, and its triviality, are here emphazised by the very subject of an ill man's pains and interests. Nor did the readers consider it an outdated mode of writing; the text had great success. Akutagawa practiced the genre, too6. Does this mean that when turning to non-narrative texts, Akutagawa is using indigenous traditions to get out of the frame that Western literature offered him? This could be a viable point. The struggle between the opposing concepts of the Eastern and Western worlds was central to Akutagawa's painful last years, and it has been said that his suicide was partly due to his not being able to reconcile them in himself.

But although it might be important not to forget the presence of such genres in Akutagawa's orientations, they must not be isolated. One of the most important features of these texts can be compared to that of the “stream of consciousness”, or related to the modes of the Fantastic tales throughout the world. Closely following the very movement of the man's fantasy, recording his thoughts, his dreads and his sometimes crazy comments, they present themselves as the emanation of an often sick man's brain, obeying no other law than that of its own capricious ways. The one unifying principle in such texts tends to be the very mind it comes from, that of the “dwarf” in “Shuju no kotoba,” or that of the young man Akutagawa in the last, autobiographic, “Aru hô no isshô.” Even when they follow the chronological order of events, as in “Haguruma,” (“The Gears,”) the outcome is dramatically different from that of stories like “Mikan” or “Kareno shô.” The reader witnesses the slow degradation of a mind and the emergence of a crazy world, where we could never be sure that a slipper did not disappear all by itself, where ghosts could very naturally sit in front of you at noon, and gears endlessly mill all that gets into the man's eyes. Nothing in those texts will be resolved at the end: in fact no tension will have been created that could lead to a resolution. Narrative is the absent dimension of such narrations. Similarly, a neat structure is the absent dimension of their elaboration. Their stake is different, much nearer to that of the fantastic tales or, again, of the “stream of consciousness”: to watch one idiosyncratic and often erratic way of perceiving the outer world.

Another indication of the fact that Akutagawa did not simply revert to indigenous traditional tones is the presence in his work of another type of non-narrative text: the “lyrical” story. Moreover, these stories verging on the prose poem genre go back to a very early point in his career, in fact, to his very first compositions (“Oogawa no mizu,” or even the school-time “Shisô.”) The most beautiful one is possibly “Bisei no shin,” (“The Faith of Wei Cheng”)7, in which a man, waiting on a river-bed for a woman who never comes, finally drowns in the rising water. Here again, we see none of the features that characterize the narrative stories. The most striking is that this quite unusual situation (to wait endlessly for a woman in a river-bed without ever trying to escape) is in no way shown as strange or uncommon. Even the waiting is not made to seem extraordinary; the only comments on his impatience are:

yaya machidoi: somewhat impatient

Kewashiku mayu o hisomenagara: sombrely frowning

nan do mo hashi o sora he me o yata: several times he looked at the sky above the bridge

Neither the water nor the landscape is characterized with any particular tension. That is, there is no paroxystic treatment of the elements here. And as a consequence, no antithesis will emerge.

Contrary to the texts that resemble the zuihitsu, though, this one has a strong structure; but it is a structure very close to that of the musical “rondo”, with a refrain:

Onna wa imada ni konai: But the lady still does not come.

This difference is important, because what we get is, in fact, nearer to the effect of music or of poetry. There is nothing here like the well-rounded little narrative we first saw. But nothing either like the texts of “no-shape” which we could parallel with the zuihitsu.

So Akutagawa presents us with two distinct modes of non-narrative tales, a genre which he explored from the very beginning of his career. From the beginning then, he concurrently creates both nicely rounded stories that follow the Western way of telling tales, and others that choose a totally different approach8.

What, finally, are we left with? Beneath Japanese costumes, the narrative tales of Akutagawa offer striking resemblances with the Western tradition of the tale-telling. On the other hand, he sets up “stories” that renounce this same mode of telling neat narratives. He thus finds himself very near to a tradition of his own literature, which very early established genres, like the zuihitsu, which show a totally different approach to narrative, with no clear structure and no logical concatenation. However, by so doing, Akutagawa is not returning to a very narrow notion of his work hidden from the rest of the world. He is not returning to an indigenous tradition as a withdrawal from the open world. On the contrary, he is concurring in what might be said to be the broadest movement of the XXth century, when the very categories of the mind and the essential orientations of its representations were questioned.


  1. Akutagawa Ryûnosuke zenshû, Iwanami shôten, Tôkyô, 1954, v. 3, p. 95–99. Trans. Kojima Takashi, Tuttle Books, 1981, but translations of the excerpts are my own.

  2. Which could explain why this theory was subject to so much criticism, in Germany and elsewhere: looking for it on the surface level, critics often did not find that turning-point, or found too many. But its effect is all the more powerful when, not apparent as a “narrative reversal”, antithesis is an organizing principle on a deeper level.

  3. Which I shall do in my forthcoming book at Presses Universitaires de France. La Nouvelle, series “Ecriture”, based on a survey of more than a thousand stories in France, Italy, Russia, Japan and America.

  4. With very similar themes, Mikan, and The Ashen Moon, by Shiga Naoya, are a very good example of these diverging ways to conceive the “story”.

  5. I know of no work by Japanese critics on that possible link between zuihitsu and non-narrative stories of Akutagawa. But scholars like Pr Kato Shuichi or Pr Tsuji Kunio were interested in the idea.

  6. See Akutagawa zenshû, Iwanami shôten, v. 10.

  7. Akutagawa zenshû, v. 4, p. 44–46.

  8. Clare Hanson dedicated a whole book to this difference between narrative and what she calls “plotless” short stories in the Western tradition. My own work led me to somewhat similar conclusions. I would however be more drastic about the very definition of “non-narrative” texts. A story like The Escape, by Katherine Mansfield, is not non-narrative in that it relates the anecdote of a couple's trip. This is not so important when structure alone is concerned. But it can be shown that what is really at stake behind these problems of structure is the very attitude the short story has toward its subject, the stand it takes to judge the show it presents. In narrative stories the reader is invited to share the author's critical distance on his subject. In non-narrative texts, when they are truly so, it can be shown that the distance is abolished and the reader's stand is very close to the one he takes in the lyrical text. In The Escape the reader is invited by the entire text, and especially by the way the characters are shown, to distance himself critically from the lady, paroxystically selfish and ridiculous.


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