Akutagawa’s visions of Hell

“Rashomon” and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, translated by Jay Rubin, published by Penguin Classics

rashomon

There’s more than a whiff of the demonic about Akutagawa. His visions of life, whether set in ancient days or in contemporary times, seem to be set in a moral darkness, and depict various types of agony, both physical and spiritual. In the very first story, “Rashomon” (1917), which gave the title and the setting (though not the storyline) to Kurosawa’s film, takes us into the upper storey of Rashomon Gate, where bodies of those killed in those lawless times have been deposited, and where, amidst the hideous stench of physical corruption, an old woman is plucking the hair from the corpses in order to make wigs: she has to live, after all. But in the world that Akutagawa presents, there doesn’t seem much reason to want to live. Akutagawa himself, whose mother had died in an asylum, and who was haunted by the fear that his mother’s mental illness may be hereditary, committed suicide in 1927, aged only 35. The autobiographical stories grouped in the final section of this collection do not give the impression of a particularly happy or contented life.

His most famous story, thanks to Kurosawa using it as the basis of his film “Rashomon”, is “In a Bamboo Grove” (“Yabu no naka”, 1927). A woman has been raped, and a man has been killed; the story consists of the various narratives given in evidence by the people involved in the matter – including one from the dead man himself, speaking through a medium. These stories all give contradictory accounts accounts of what really happened, each participant in the affair putting his or her self in a good light, and the others in a bad. That there is a truth out there somewhere, an absolute truth, is not questioned: what is questioned is our ability to get to that truth, given that all we have to go by are our fallible perceptions, and given also our ability, indeed, our propensity, to deceive – to deceive both other people and ourselves, to deceive both deliberately and unwittingly, such that, beyond a point, we can no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy.

Distinguishing between reality and fantasy is not, after all, an easy thing to do. In one of the stories, a monk invents a myth about a dragon. He knows it to be a myth: it’s his own invention, after all. But when everyone starts believing in it, he curiously starts believing in his own fantasy, and at the climactic point of the story, he too glimpses, along with the vast throng of the faithful, the mythical dragon, his own invention, rising into the sky. Akutagawa did not seem to have much time for religion: the human imagination may indeed be a thing of wonder, and can create its own reality, but, for Akutagawa, that’s where Heaven resides – in our imagination, and in our imagination only.

Hell, however, is all too real, and nowhere more so than in the story “Hell Screen” (“Jigokuhen”, 1918). But Akutagawa’s Hell is not of the other world: it is right here, on earth. We are, once again, in ancient times, and the lord, the local potentate, is an evil and cruel man. The narrator, though, is very obviously a foolish man, who cannot see his master’s evil. The court painter, Yoshihide, however, can, and when the lord graciously makes Yoshihide’s daughter a lady-in-waiting, Yoshihide knows exactly what that means, although the narrator doesn’t. He tries his best to rescue his daughter, but he cannot.

The situation is similar to the one we find in Verdi’s Rigoletto (which was based on Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi S’Amuse, an English version of which I have been trying for years to track down, though without much success): in that opera, Rigoletto, the hump-backed court jester despised by all, and his innocent daughter Gilda, find themselves victims of an evil and lascivious ruler; but the terrible irony is that Rigoletto himself is very much part of the moral corruption to which he and his daughter eventually become victims. Similarly here: Yoshihide is very much part of the evil and the cruelty of the society he inhabits, and which claims both his daughter, and, eventually, himself. But dark and pitiless though the entire story is, I must admit to being taken by surprise, and, hardened reader though I think myself to be, genuinely shocked by the ending, where all the horrors of Hell itself seem to irrupt with the utmost force and violence. Why look for a hell in the other world when it is right here, under our very noses?

Akutagawa is renowned in Japan as a great stylist, and, assuming translator Jay Rubin’s English version reproduces at least something of Akutagawa’s writing style, one can see why. The prose is spare and precise, with all excess fat trimmed off. It is not without humour, but the humour is invariably grim, and dripping with irony. Gogol sometimes comes to mind – not least because that both he and Akutagawa seem to have an obsession with noses, and both have actually written a story called “The Nose”; but Akutagawa has none of Gogol’s whimsy, and there’s no hint here of Gogol’s eccentric and highly idiosyncratic digressions, which seem so often to displace the principal story itself as the major focus of interest. Akutagawa always has a story to tell, and he tells it directly. The images he chooses are clear-cut, and to the point: they never take a life of their own, as Gogol’s frequently do. And yet, despite the precision of the writing and the orderliness such precision suggests, the world depicted is one that is most disordered, bordering on the Hellish, and sometimes, indeed, crossing over the border into some Hell right here in this world. It is the Hell-on-earth depicted by Kurosawa in his cinematic masterpiece Ran (which, I am told, means “chaos”): we all know that this film was Kurosawa’s take on Shakespeare’s King Lear, but I cannot help wondering to what extent Kurosawa’s demonic vision was informed by Akutagawa’s. At the start of the unforgettable battle sequence in the film, a dying soldier informs us that we are indeed in Hell; and what follows is a vision of Hell that seems at least as close to the world of Akutagawa as it is to the storm-swept heath of Shakespeare’s play.

Hell is particularly apparent in the last few stories in this collection. Akutagawa never wrote an autobiography, but some of his stories are so clearly autobiographical, that, grouped together as they are at the end of this collection, they serve as an autobiography of sorts. The last two stories he did not publish: they were found amongst his papers after his death. One of them, “The Life of a Stupid Man” (“Aru aho no issho”), is startling: rather than a continuous narrative, we are presented with a series of vignettes and passing thoughts and seemingly random ruminations – some as short as a mere couple of sentences or so –all of which come together as in a mosaic to form a whole. And in the last story in this collection, “Spinning Gears”, the pretence, flimsy to start with, that this is really a work of fiction, is quickly dropped: the narrator is depicting his own disintegrating mind, and, as he mentions by name some of his earlier work, there can be no doubt that he is no fictional character: the narrator here is Ryunosuke Akutagawa himself. And here again, we have a depiction of a Hell right here on earth, as he realises that he can no longer exert any control over his own mind. But no matter how febrile the content, no matter how little control he seems to have over the workings of his own mind, the writing throughout remains firmly focussed and controlled. The disorder of his mind is expressed with the most exemplary literary order, and feeling for form.

In “The Life of a Stupid Man”, he had described – writing about himself in the third person – an unsuccessful attempt at suicide:

Taking advantage of his sleeping alone, he had tried to hang himself with a sash tied over the window lattice. When he slipped his head into the sash, however, he suddenly became afraid of death. Not that he feared the suffering he would have to experience at the moment of dying. He decided to try to again, using his pocket watch to see how long it would take. This time, everything began to cloud ever after a short interval of pain. He was sure that once he got past that, he would enter death. Checking the hands of his watch, he discovered that the pain lasted one minute and twenty-some seconds. It was pitch dark outside the lattices, but the wild clucking of the chickens echoed in the darkness.

It is hard to figure out just what state of turmoil his mind must have been in while writing something like this, but that mind could still pick out the “wild clucking of chickens”, and place it with absolute precision.

The final story, “Spinning Gears”, ends with this:

– I don’t have the strength to keep writing this. To go on living with this feeling is painful beyond description. Isn’t there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep?

This is followed only by translator Jay Rubin’s laconic note in parentheses:

(1927: Posthumous manuscript)

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15 responses to this post.

  1. I have trouble with a lot of contemporary Japanese literature which I often find cold and, quite frankly, tedious. This collection does intrigue me though, not least for my love of the Kurosawa film version of the title story, but coming from the early 20th century, I think I might quite like it. Thank you for the review.

    Reply

    • I’m afraid I am not at all well read in Japanese literature – indeed, I am not very well read in most areas: my ignorance is quite shocking – but these stories are far from cold or tedious. Kurosawa’s film is indeed wonderful, but not more so than Akutagawa’s story.

      Reply

  2. Great piece. I have only read three short works in a Penguin Little Black Classic but they were dark and fascinating – particularly “In A Grove”.

    Reply

    • Ah yes – I have seen that book in the Little Black Classics series in the shop, but I can’t remember what stories it contains. As in any collection, some stories are better than others, but there isn’t a single weak link in this collection, and at its best, it is astounding.

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  3. I have the same text, but with a different cover. I agree with you that Akutagawa sees no need for a Hell in some other level of existence–it is right here on Earth. Perhaps we are all being punished for our sins committed in a previous existence. Isn’t that the purpose of reincarnation–to work off all the bad karma we accrued.

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    • It would be interesting to know if the concept of reincarnation had already existed in Japan, or whether it came from India via Buddhism. But Akutagawa doesn’t seem to believe in anything other than the here-and-now: all other beliefs he seems to regard as hysteria. These stories are very bleak and comfortless.

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      • I really know little about Japanese religious beliefs, but what little I know about Shintoism does not include any sort of ideas about reincarnation. After death, the spirit? goes to a place that resembles the Greek Hades, a dark gloomy place.

        So, I would tentatively at this point think that reincarnation was introduced by the Buddhists from China.

  4. Posted by nnyhav on May 25, 2016 at 1:24 am

    I preferred Mandarins (trans Chas DeWolf, Archipelago Books), elsewhere said “only the last 2 stories (in Rubin) overlap (with the last and antepenultimate ones in DeWolf), and I didn’t get far into them without thinking Mandarins better. Othernthat, Murakami’s intro betrays a certain uppermiddlebrowedness, so the combo w/ Rubin in 1Q84 is dampening my enthusiasm a tad.” but ymmv …

    Reply

    • I guess I shall have to take a look at Mandarins since there’s only two stories that overlap. Have you read Kappa by him? It’s a satire.

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    • Thanks for that – I didn’t know there was another collection of his stories available in English. Since the two only have a couple of stories in common, I’ll try to get hold of Mandarins.

      I agree with you that Murakami’s introductory essay is not very good.

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  5. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on May 25, 2016 at 9:54 am

    I’ve never heard of this writer and his stories, as you have outlined them, seem intriguing. I very much believe that hell is on this earth for much of humanity and, indeed, other creatures.

    Thank you for informing me about Akutagawa.

    Reply

  6. Very interesting. I love that ‘wild clucking of chickens’. The only Akutagawa I’ve read is the longish short-story or novella Kappa, which I reviewed here. On the surface, it’s rather more genial than the tales you describe here, but the undercurrents are dark and hellish enough.

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  7. Very nice review. I’ve seen (and love) the film, but never read the stories (though I have read a reasonable amount of Japanese fiction, though mostly contemporary).

    The clucking chickens is a devastating detail.

    Cold stuff, bracing like a dip in an icy sea.

    Reply

    • The film is wonderful – as, indeed, are the other Samurai films of Kurosawa. I had long been meaning to read these stories, but it was the work trip to japan that finally spurred me to read them – and I am glad I did: Akutagawa is a troubling presence, but a compelling one.

      Reply

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