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Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories

Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories (2009) is a collection of works by Ryünosuke Akutagawa (1892–1927). I'd seen Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film Rashomon a couple times but never read the story on which it's based. Turns out that the film is actually more of a retelling of Akutagawa's 1922 short story "In a Grove", which is the second of the 17 stories in this book. "Rashōmon" the story is the first in the collection and categorized under the editor's heading "A World in Decay". This section also includes Akutagawa's fantastically imaginative tales "The Nose" and "Hell Screen", the latter of which recounts the degenerating sanity of a renowned artist ("the greatest painter in the land") who is commissioned to paint his vision of Buddhist hell on a folded screen. The artist becomes obsessed with accuracy and truth in his work, and this eventually drives him over the edge.

The other sections are: "Under the Sword", "Modern Tragicomedy", and "Akutagawa's Own Story". And reading through these subsets of stories you get a good sense of this troubled author's rise to literary success and fall due to drugs and mental instability ("wracked nerves" as he describes it) before he committed suicide at the age of 35. He was considered a prodigy in his youth, publishing in popular magazines and newspapers and gaining the respect of celebrated Japanese writers, and then later tried his pen at different types of writing (tragicomedy, autobiography, perhaps a play he might've burned, etc.), and then finally published (some posthumously) what reads like diary excerpts, many of which are dark and at times cryptic.

I really enjoyed the collection for how it reflects this arc that was Akutagawa's life. He was a painstakingly honest writer, not only in terms of conveying his sensitivities but also in delivering highly textured, authentic images through language. He was quite modern in terms of style as well. I found it remarkable that the stories had been written around a hundred years ago. Also, Akutagawa was terrified of going insane. His mother went mad during his adolescence, and a fear of insanity creeps into a number of these stories. The first and final parts of the book are most absorbing. The first for its strong descriptions and elements of horror and the latter for Akutagawa's honesty (albeit in third person) in his writing at great depths about his own life and suffering, with "The Life of a Stupid Man" and "Spinning Gears" especially standing out. The cover art is impressive too, and I like the paperback's uncut-style pages and the book's introduction by Haruki Murakami.

Akutagawa Ryūnosuke
Akutagawa Ryūnosuke


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