Rynosuke Akutagawa has come to typify the Taish era (1912-1926) in Japanese literature, because of his challenge to the confessional and revealing I-novels that prevailed before World War I and the fact that his suicide seemed to end the era, paving the way for prewar proletarian literature. Akutagawa, perhaps influenced by his wide reading of Western authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, used the short-story genre from the start. I-novelists also wrote short stories, and in fact the Japanese term shsetsu is used for both the novel and the short story, but Akutagawa rejected self-disclosure and stressed the narrative element. He saw the writer as a storyteller, and his own stories are twice removed from reality, for they are eclectic, based on other stories in classical Japanese and Chinese literature and stories by Western authors. Frequently, many elements from other works are carefully brought together in new combinations to create a self-contained structure, as Akutagawa let the story define reality in his work. Using old tales allowed him to define reality in symbolic terms and to apply the insights of modern psychology without dealing with the issue of the self.
Mining older literature was a tradition in Japanese literature, a tradition that had disappeared in the confessional novels that dominated early twentieth century Japanese literature. Akutagawa’s concise polished style emerged precociously in the stories he published while a student of English literature at Tokyo Imperial University.
One of them, “Rashmon,” appeared in November, 1915, in a university literary magazine, Teikoku Bungaku (imperial literature). Akutagawa borrowed from a twelfth century tale and other sources, setting the story in Kyoto during a period of social and economic chaos. The story begins at a dilapidated gate (the Rashmon of the title) during a rainstorm. A man seeking shelter from the storm encounters an old woman who is plucking the hair from corpses to use as wigs which she will sell. He, too, descends into depravity as he steals her clothes to sell. Akutagawa mined literature for details which evoke the decadent spirit of the age, adding psychological elements to give the story a modern relevance. In this syncretism, he did not seek to re-create the past but to use it to symbolize a modern theme of social breakdown and the disappearance of universal values.
Although many of his early stories contain sickening details, not all are morbid. His first popular success, “Hana” (“The Nose”), is a story about a Buddhist priest who has an enormous drooping nose which people pity. Embarrassed, he discovers a difficult treatment that shortens it, only to find that those who had previously taken pity on his plight now openly ridicule him for his vanity.
When the nose swells again to its former size one night, the priest is pleased that no one will laugh at him again. This grotesque but humorous story caught the attention of Sseki, who praised it for its unusual subject and clear style. “The Nose” was reprinted in Shinshsetsu (new fiction), a major literary review, and Akutagawa became a recognized new writer.
“The Spider’s Thread”
Akutagawa enhanced his reputation with nearly one hundred stories between 1916 and 1924. One of his most famous, “Kumo no ito” (“The Spider’s Thread”), explores the theme of self-interest. A robber, Kandata, has been sent to hell for his crimes. Yet the all-compassionate Buddha can save even criminals. Because Kandata had once spared a spider, it spins a thread that drops into hell. Kandata begins to climb up on it, but looking below, he sees other sinners following him....
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