Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, or to follow Western appellative conventions, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, is one of Japan’s literary institutions. His stories are studied by all Japanese schoolchildren, and to wider international culture his authorship of ‘Rashomon’, subsequently made into a film by Akira Kurosawa, ensures him cult status. In the introduction to Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories (2006), Haruki Murakami placed Akutagawa among Japan’s top ten ‘national writers’: ‘he might even squeeze in among the top five,’ wrote the current titan of Japanese letters.

Akutagawa was born into a lower-middle class family in Tokyo in 1892, the youngest of three children. Five months later his mother ‘went insane’, which, according to conventions of the time, meant she was kept hidden upstairs in the family home until her death when the boy was ten. Akutagawa and his older sisters meanwhile went to stay with his two aunts in a household where he was introduced to the arts early. He quickly revealed himself to be a prodigious intellect, writing his first haiku and starting to learn Chinese and English before he was ten. His talent was confirmed when he entered the prestigious Tokyo imperial university. There, in his early twenties, his short stories in student magazines attracted the praise of legendary novelist Natsume Soseki (Murakami’s number one). With this endorsement, Akutagawa had made it. All the rest of his life publishers queued up to print his latest works and newspapers courted him for columns and stories. Tragically that life was very short. He ended it in 1927 with an overdose of the drug Veronal which had been his long-term crutch against insomnia. He was just thirty-five.

Akutagawa’s early fame rested on short stories set in Japan’s medieval and feudal past. Their plots are often adapted from historical templates or factual sources. Stylistically they display a virtuoso detachment perfectlyrendered in Jay Rubin’s 2006 translation for Penguin. It is hard to disagree with Rubin’s comment in his translator’s note on the story ‘Hell Screen’ that, ‘if only one work of his were going to survive, this should be it’.

‘Hell Screen’ is a glittering jewel of a story – perfectly cut, yet seeming to deny the artifice behind it. The plot will not be given away here. Suffice to say it concerns the battle of wills between an obsessive, individualistic artistic genius and his patron, the all-powerful Lord of Horikawa. Like many other early Akutagawa tales, it works as an indictment of the rigid strictures of feudalist society which force the already flawed individual into impossible moral choices.

The theme of ‘Rashomon’ is similar: as Kyoto’s Heian period sinks into decline, a lone servant, just out-of-work and homeless following a lifetime’s attachment to one master, climbs to the top of a city gate in search of somewhere to bed down for the night. In this dark interior he finds a pile of corpses left there by families who could not afford to bury them. As his eyes adjust he sees a repulsive old woman pulling out their hair to sell for wigs. On hearing her excuse that she is destitute and has no other means to survive, he feels ‘a new kind of courage begin to germinate in his heart’. He knocks her down, takes her clothes, and leaves her naked in the pile of corpses: ‘You won’t blame me then for taking your clothes. That’s what I have to do to keep from starving to death.’

The story is simple and devastating as an illustration of the moral relativity imposed by economics and power. Using the feudal past as an exotic frame, Akutagawa held a refracting mirror up to society, revealing its moral failings and injustices, and making the obvious parallels with modern capitalism which would inspire Kurosawa thirty years later. By that time, of course, Akutagawa would be long dead, never to witness the devastation his country inflicted and suffered in World War Two. Yet his journey from early literary stardom to depression and suicide may hold some clues as to why Japan entered that period of its history which was to make the horrors of feudalism look tame by comparison.

‘He barely made it through each day in the gloom, leaning, as it were, upon a chipped and narrow sword.’

In the closing lines of one of his posthumously published works, ‘The Life of a Stupid Man’, Akutagawa laid bare what had happened to him. He did the same at the end of another: ‘Spinning Gears’. Both are heavily autobiographical and self-critical, the latter drenched with the author’s paranoia that he had inherited his mother’s illness and was doomed to ‘go insane’. Murakami describes ‘Spinning Gears’ as ‘a stunning performance … even as I retain some minor misgivings as regards its maturity’. Murakami’s meaning is clear, though the word ‘maturity’ seems questionable. ‘Sanity’ may be a better one, as anyone who has tried it will know that heavily introspective writing takes its toll on emotional health. Certainly it is hard not to feel a certain discomfort on reading it, as though one is coldly imbibing, too late, pages that ought to have been given to a psychologist or anybody who could help the author enjoy his life again. It was probably too late even then, of course. Such was Akutagawa’s intellect that he found it impossible to lead any life other than that of the mind, one which had brought him to the edge of the abyss. The question then must be: why? Why did a writer blessed with the power to lay bare the whole panoply of society come to see his pen as ‘a chipped and narrow sword’ just at the time when his country would be most in need of rational, critical voices to oppose the dash towards a doomed imperialism?

In Murakami’s view it was this prodigious blessing of talent itself which was the curse that led to Akutagawa’s unhappiness and eventual mental decline. As he sees it, the early Akutagawa used the ‘container’ of the folk tale or historical source as a vehicle for his modernist stylistic ambitions. This, Murakami says, could only take him so far:

A fictional world that was not truly his own and that used borrowed containers would eventually reach an impasse and come to stand in his way like a high wall.

Akutagawa was indeed dissatsified, and stopped writing the kind of stories that had made him famous. He almost certainly felt he could go no further with them, that he needed to move elsewhere in search of a voice that was uniquely his own. That he moved in an introspective direction, to an ironically distanced slant on the then-fashionable ‘I-novel’, is not treated as surprising.

In Murakami’s eyes, Akutagawa’s last move represented the subversive filling of another ‘container’: ‘for Akutagawa, who needed “props”, it was probably an unavoidable choice.’ This is an odd statement. It is a dig at genre fiction, no doubt, but if Akutagawa needed the ‘prop’ of a genre, why was it ‘unavoidable’ that he chose the I-novel? Why adopt the genre of relentless self-examination when his earlier propensity had been to write at a lengthy authorial distance? Once again, Murakami suggests an explanation: Akutagawa had been criticised in some quarters for the excessive distance of his subject matter and the detachment of his style in writing about it. Indeed, there is ample evidence in the later work that he genuinely feared and even despised his own intellectual haughtiness and tendency to live at one remove from the society of most of Japan.

In Murakami’s theory the I-novel was the only option he had for dealing with this flaw – in other words, by confessing to it. This is a difficult point. One could argue that it was not so much inevitable as curious that Akutagawa turned inwards. Given his earlier preoccupations with the flawed feudal system, a more logical way to answer his critics – not least himself – surely would have been to turn his rapier pen to critiquing the society immediately present around him? Some would argue that he did this in the introspective pieces, that his illustration of an artist (himself) losing his mind under the pressure of social obligations and guilt was the greatest critique of Japanese society anyone could make. Maybe so, but the fact is he scarcely believed it himself: ‘His own works were unlikely to appeal to people who were not like him and who had not lived a life like his,’ he wrote of the autobiographical writer-protagonist in ‘The Life of a Stupid Man’.

The inescapable conclusion is that Akutagawa looked at the society around him, then back at himself, and concluded that he, not it, held the greater share of guilt. Guilt, after all, requires a human heart. There is much to suggest that Akutagawa regarded his society and culture as something supra-human, an ineluctable mechanism, impossible to stop and therefore beyond attack. He was too astute not to realise that this was merely his own, unreliable perception. His final story-cum-suicide note take its name from the hallucinatory visions of spinning gears which, without warning, take over the autobiographical narrator’s vision and prevent him from seeing what is closest around him.

Again it is unclear why Akutagawa felt powerless to examine the human make-up of the ever more mechanised and imperialistic society in which he lived, with its accompanying grand diversity of frailties and follies. In fact, he toyed with the idea, made the opening and then drew back from it. The six ‘Yasukichi’ stories, based on Akutagawa’s three years teaching literature at a Naval Engineering School, teeter on the brink of penetrating the culture of Japanese militancy. These stories offer brief insights into the psychology of the men in uniform who would go on to define Japan’s image so negatively in the rest of the world for years to come.

In ‘The Writer’s Craft’ a young lieutenant with clumsy literary aspirations pesters the narrator, Yasukichi, a thinly-veiled version of Akutagawa himself: ‘You don’t write criticism do you? That’s one thing I’d like to try my hand at, maybe write something on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.’ Yasukichi has been steamrollered by an efficient captain into writing the funeral eulogy of a Lieutenant Honda whom he had never spoken to and who ‘was just a face in the mess room – and a vulture-like face at that’. The reader is left longing to know more about these characters whom Akutagawa draws with such deft strokes of the pen.

As its title suggests, however, ‘The Writer’s Craft’ is ultimately about Yasukichi and his inability to believe that the clichéd funeral eulogy he tossed off in half an hour reduces the dead man’s family to tears, while the tale he spent months crafting for a literary journal is derided by a critic as ‘the spare-time jottings of a Navy school teacher’. The irony is blackly funny, no doubt, yet somehow Akutagawa goes too far in making the woes of a writer the dominant point of the story and letting other trails go cold in the shadows.

Questions are left unanswered, such as what the grimly efficient Captain Fujita was doing while Yasukichi was peeing in a dark lane in the story’s overly metaphorical final scene, and whether Lieutenant Tanaka was at home beginning his critique of Hamlet. The characters in this Naval Engineering School seem to cry out for a novel running the full gamut of comedy and tragedy. Instead, Akutagawa left it at the marvellous but limited ‘Writer’s Craft’, moved on into ever more personal material, and three years later was dead.

Perhaps his reluctance to take the imaginative leap into other bodies and minds was a question of those renowned Japanese qualities of collectivism and humility. To write critically about characters different from yourself, even if you have created them, implies a certain degree of individual arrogance. Having been accused of that flaw early in his career, Akutagawa resolved to turn the mirror unflinchingly on himself. Often he did so to brilliant emotional effect. Had he been a little bolder, however, he might have written something whose national impact would have done more than squeeze into Murakami’s top five. He may also have saved himself.

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