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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1191

Rynosuke Akutagawa (ahk-ew-tah-gah-wah) was the leading short-fiction writer of the Taish period (1912-1926). He was born in Tokyo’s Tsukiji foreign settlement. His original surname was Niihara, after his father, Toshiz Niihara, owner of dairy farms serving Tsukiji’s foreign residents, and his given name was Rynosuke, commemorating his birth in the year of the dragon. Because his parents, according to Japanese superstition, were at ill-omened ages when he was born, Akutagawa, to avoid bad luck, was “abandoned” and handed over to his father’s friend and then accepted back into the Niihara family as a “foundling.” His mother, Fuku, blaming herself for the death of her eldest daughter from meningitis eight months after her son was born, became mentally ill, an affliction which Rynosuke later believed he had inherited. After his mother became incapable of caring for him, he was reared by his mother’s elder brother, Michiaki Akutagawa. Two years after his mother’s death, he was formally adopted by Michiaki and took the Akutagawa surname. These complicated events left the impressionable child scarred by shame and distrustful of others.nosuke[Akutagawa, Ryunosuke]}{$S[A]Niihara, Ry{umacr}nosuke[Niihara, Ryunosuke];Akutagawa, Ry{umacr}nosuke}nosuke[Akutagawa, Ryunosuke]}nosuke[Akutagawa, Ryunosuke]}

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In his youth, much of it spent in the care of his unmarried aunt, Fuki, Akutagawa was encouraged in his interests in literature and the arts and avidly read traditional literature, especially illustrated storybooks (kusazshi) of the Ed period (1600-1868) featuring ghost tales. A sickly child prone to convulsions, he nevertheless excelled at school and started writing stories and poems in primary school. In middle school, he was reading widely in Japanese and Chinese literature and among translated European authors. During his years at the Tokyo First High School, where he majored in English literature, his friends thought him kind and considerate, while outsiders considered him aloof. He graduated second in his class in 1913 and entered the English literature department of Tokyo Imperial University. He published translations from English and his first original piece, “Rnen” (old age), in the student magazine Shinshicho (new thought tides). In 1914 a literary periodical published his stories “Hyottoko” (the comic mask) and “Rashmon,” the tale of a twelfth century Kyoto underling who degenerates into a criminal by stealing the clothes off an old woman. As a university student, he became acquainted with the novelist Natsume Sseki and attended Thursday Club meetings at his home. Akutagawa first received wide recognition for the humorous 1916 story “The Nose,” about a Buddhist priest’s preoccupation with the unusual length of his nose.

His student successes caught the eyes of publishers, and established writers such as Sseki praised his talent. In 1916, the year of his graduation from the university, he published more than a dozen stories, including “Imogayu” (“Yam Gruel”), about sadistic tricks played on a lowly samurai. These showed his gift for transforming grotesque anecdotes into well-crafted stories. While living in Kamakura and teaching English at the naval engineering academy at Yokosuka, he fell in love with a childhood friend, sixteen-year-old Tsukamoto Fumi. They were married in 1918, after she finished school. Aunt Fuki moved in with the newlyweds and became a surrogate but domineering mother-in-law.

In 1917 many of Akutagawa’s earlier stories were gathered in two collections. The Osaka Mainichi newspaper hired him in 1918 under an exclusive contract, and he became a full-time writer in 1919. Major stories that appeared in anthologies and newspapers during this period include “Hankechi” (“A Handkerchief”), “Gesaku Zammai” (“A Life Spent at Frivolous Writing”), “Hkynin no Shi” (“The Martyr”), “Kumo no ito” (“The Spider’s Thread”), and “Jigokuhen” (“Hell Screen”). The latter is a macabre story relating a painter’s struggle between the demands of his art and life; it is considered one of Akutagawa’s finest creations. These works confirmed his reputation as a brilliant stylist adept at turning scenes of degradation and bitter comedy into well-wrought stories.

In 1920 the newspaper sent him to China as a correspondent. Between bouts with illness he was intrigued by China’s exotic past. Four months later, back home, his health rapidly deteriorating, he churned out China reports to please his employer. “Nakin no Kirisuto” (“Christ in Nanking”), “Tu Tze-chun,” “Shzanzu” (“The Painting of an Autumn Mountain”), and the famous “Yabu no naka” (“In a Grove”), comparing and contrasting how a young samurai couple and a bandit differently explain the “truth” about a case of rape and murder, are important works from the early 1920’s. Akutagawa and his family escaped the great 1923 Kant earthquake, but from then on insomnia, stomach pains, and other ailments continuously plagued him. Henceforth, thinly veiled autobiographical topics and contemporary themes were featured in his writings as he began eschewing historical and phantasmagoric storytelling in favor of probing his own inner thoughts and emotions.

Socialist ideas attracted him in the early 1920’s at a time when proletarian literature was in vogue, and in stories featuring the character Horikawa Yasukichi, he flirted with leftist themes. He did not believe in the then-popular “I-novel” (watakushi shsetsu), but he admired the realistic writings of Naoya Shiga, whom he tried to emulate in his self-revealing late works. Through bouts of declining health he engaged in a literary debate with Jun’ichir Tanizaki over the role of plot structure and lyricism in the writing of fiction. In his last two years, in spite of personal setbacks involving relatives’ illnesses and financial difficulties and his own depression and ailments, his creative powers were reinvigorated. In addition to several stories, he produced the novella Kappa, a satire of human foibles seen through the underground world of the mythological elfin kappa sprites.

“Haguruma” (“Cogwheel”), a posthumous short story concerning the author’s own mental breakdown, horrifically described what was happening to Akutagawa in his last year. Hallucinations and paranoia plagued him, and sleeping potions and opium provided little relief. The suicide of his brother-in-law in January, 1927, and the mental breakdown of a friend four months later may have driven him over the edge. During the night of July 24, 1927, he committed suicide by taking a lethal overdose of medicine; he was thirty-five years old. Akutagawa’s tragic death deeply affected Taish writers and symbolized the anxiety of the times.

His legacy of about a hundred fine stories is wide in scope, ranging from early works that blend historical scenes from the past with modern psychological insights to later “confessional” writings that reveal his inner torments. The pre-1922 stories, based on foreign ideas and Chinese and Japanese history originals in classical anthologies, though derivative, are ingenious tales exploring the bittersweet dimensions of the bizarre from a modern perspective. While he often pieced together borrowed story ideas and employed predictably manipulative surprise endings, most of his first fiction is infused with haunting touches, making for pleasurable reading. The later writings cannot be divorced from the tragic dimensions of his physical and mental condition, yet they are important not only as autobiographical revelations but also as literary witness to the struggle between the life of the writer and the demands of art. Akutagawa ended that struggle in suicide. His late writings, pointing toward that perhaps inevitable end, remain as testaments to his tortured genius.

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