Book of da Week: Rashōmon & 17 Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Rashōmon and 17 Other Stories - Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Rashōmon and 17 Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa.

Here’s a gem we recently stumbled across – Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s (1892 – 1927) short story Rashōmon and 17 others bundled together in a terrific volume of oddness. Over in Nippon, Akutagawa’s stories are revered, but here in the west he’s something of an unknown. Having been reading a lot of Japanese literature in recent years, the stunning cover of this book won us over and we decided to give it a go.

Don’t judge a book by its cover and all that, we know we’re superficial heathens. Contained within this Studio Ghibli styled front cover, though, are works of surreal genius and compelling excellence. They’re akin to the likes of Gogol and feature a fantastical, mystical nature which should be enough to enlighten any eager reader.

Rashōmon & 17 Other Stories

The eponymous tale (that’s Rashōmon, in case you don’t know what eponymous means) is about a former servant who is contemplating taking to a life of crime in order to sustain himself. Five pages long, it’s short, sharp, and leaves an impact on you, but it also sets the scene for the rest of the book as these are rather short stories indeed.

Rashōmon is followed up by the unusual In a Bamboo Grove. An inventive story, it features several witnesses in court recounting a murder, although the story takes on increasingly fantastical elements until we’re left with evidence being provided by a disembodied soul.

Next up is the Nose, a thoroughly enjoyable story about a man with an enormous nose who has lived his life stoically, despite the mockery he has received for it. However, upon hearing there is a cure he puts himself through a bizarre, and humiliating, procedure to have the thing reduced to a normal size. It’s nuts, and not for the squeamish, but it’s one of our favorites!

Added to this, penguin’s serrated paper edge edition is an absolute marvel to behold thanks to its artwork, which adds something unique to what are, frankly, 18 bizarre, haunting, but quite brilliant short stories.

A National Treasure

Rashōmon - Book Artwork
A bit more artwork from Penguin’s fabulous edition.

For many readers, this man will remain a bit of a mystery. Indeed, it’s only the legendary Haruki Murakami who most modern readers will know as a Japanese writer, although Kenzaburō Ōe and Tanizaki may be others. But who was Ryūnosuke Akutagawa? In the introduction to this edition, Murakami explains:

"In Japan, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa is a writer of genuinely national stature. If a poll were taken to choose the 10 most important Japanese national writers since the advent of the modern period in 1868, Akutagawa would undoubtedly be one of them. He even squeeze in the top five."

He goes on to state a great Japanese writer of his time truly reflects the mentality of the Japanese nation at the time. He also states the quality of his writing is obvious and you’re eager to re-read his best stories – certainly the Nose is one we’ll be returning to sometime soon. As a selection of short stories, however, it’s a marvellously inventive and compelling world the writer creates, with each one seemingly flirting with the idea of madness whilst not expressly getting round to it.

Akutagawa was a paranoid character and seemingly a hypochondriac, greatly disturbed he might inherit his mother’s mental illness. When he began suffering hallucinations in the early 1920s, it eventually proved too much for him and committed suicide with a drug overdose aged 35.

If you’re new to Japanese writers then this is a terrific place to start as he’s regarded as the “Father of the Japanese short story”. The worlds he creates will draw you in, provide some unique or bizarre moment of interest, and then pass by as the next tale arrives. Each one will likely leave an indelible impression on your memory, which is the mark of any great writer if we do dare state so ourselves.

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