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Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories

af Ryunosuke Akutagawa

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Ry nosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) is one of Japan's foremost stylists - a modernist master whose short stories are marked by highly original imagery, cynicism, beauty and wild humour. 'Rash mon' and 'In a Bamboo Grove' inspired Kurosawa's magnificent film and depict a past in which morality is turned upside down, while tales such as 'The Nose', 'O-Gin' and 'Loyalty' paint a rich and imaginative picture of a medieval Japan peopled by Shoguns and priests, vagrants and peasants. And in later works such as 'Death Register', 'The Life of a Stupid Man' and 'Spinning Gears', Akutagawa drew from his own life to devastating effect, revealing his intense melancholy and terror of madness in exquisitely moving impressionistic stories.… (mere)
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Along with the titular "Rashomon," this collection features Akutagawa's most famous short story, "In a Grove" (titled "In a Bamboo Grove" in this collection; the actual basis of the film Rashomon). In addition to those two best-known stories, "Hell Screen" and "The Story of a Head That Fell Off" are my personal favorites by this author.

It's funny that "Rashomon" is almost always included in the title of any Akutagawa collection. I guess no one would buy "In a Grove" and Seventeen Other Stories. ( )
  CatherineMachineGun | Jul 31, 2020 |
Akutagawa is one of my favorite writers. He took his own life with barbiturates at age 35 and left behind some 300 stories, sketches, articles and literary experiments. In English he has appeared in over a dozen collections of the same 20-30 most famous stories retranslated a dozen times. This latest collection, translated by the consummate Jay Rubin, has a lovingly detailed introduction by the inimitable Haruki Murakami. It is a mere sampling of 18 stories from his impossibly good body of work. Unlike Toson, Soseki and Tanizaki, Akutagawa did not embark on massive literary projects. Instead, he honed his craft with precision and an appreciation for classic storytelling. I have read some of his stories ten times, and they always elicit a strong response from me.

In a lot of ways, he resembles Gogol, and even composed an homage with his story "The Nose." Though different in content, the tone is reminiscent of the Russian master. This is one of the masterpieces contained in this treasury. The others include: "Rashomon, In a Bamboo Grove, Hell Screen, Spinning Gears, Death Register, and the Life of a Stupid Man." Even the ones that are not masterworks per se, are extremely entertaining. "Green Onions, The Story of the Head that Fell Off, Horse Legs, and Loyalty" fall into this category. If you are new to this author, you may not enjoy all of his tales, but I believe you will appreciate many aspects of his singular talent.

He writes a few different types of stories: 1). retellings of classic tales from Chinese and other sources. These read a little like fables. 2.) Autobiographical tales: these are often depressing, taking details of his haunted life and casting them bleakly against the backdrop of his times. 3). Religious tales like "Christ of Nanking" (not included in the collection) and others. Historical tales, taking place well before the author's time but possessing uncanny verisimilitude.

In his stories you will find traces of his influences: Anatole France, Strindberg, Merimee, Goethe, Nagoya Shiga, Soseki, Toson, Tanizaki, Basho, Doppo, Ogai, Pu Songling and dozens of other European and Chinese authors. He has rewritten stories from Pu Songling's collections as well as retold many from the seminal Japanese proto-mythologies.

Akutagawa draws from Buddhism, Shintoism, Christianity and Myth. I think he is one of the most interesting writers I have ever encountered because he processes other literary worlds into new forms. Even when he waxes esoteric, he is charming and insightful. He explores human nature with deep characters and memorable comedy and tragedy.

This brilliant edition includes thorough notes by Rubin explaining the finer points of the stories. There is enough material in this singular Penguin edition to write a dissertation on Akutagawa. Jay Rubin has put in an astounding effort toward accuracy and illumination. I only wish he would continue with further volumes of stories.

If you appreciate the stories of Chekhov, Gogol, Maupassant, and Dostoyevsky, you will find a lot to love about this author. Typically, you can expect tortured artists, explorations of morality and death, futility and hope, love and loss. Very classic themes. "Green Onions" and "O-gin" were odd but welcome selections for this book. Overall, it is the most well-rounded collection of the author's writings in English.

I have so far discovered 107 Akutagawa tales in English. I've read every anthology of Japanese literature, every collection of his tales and tracked down out of print Japanese-American periodicals through JSTOR. I want to thank Ryan C. K. Choi and N. A. Feathers for publishing new translations of his work on their websites. This incredible author has not gotten a full treatment in English and I implore translators to get to work on making his complete works available. So far we have only about 900 pages of stories, when obscure, ancient masters like Pu Songling have been translated more comprehensively. Along with this collection you will want to read two more collections: Mandarins, translated by Charles de Wolf, and The Beautiful and Grotesque, which includes "Kappa," his novella.

Though Akutagawa's accomplishment is profoundly important (far more so, I would argue, than Murakami claims in his indicting introduction), one wonders what heights Akutagawa might have reached had he endured the agonies of his intellectual rigors for decades longer. Was he capable of writing novels? Were the demons he wrote about in "Spinning Gears" exaggerated or as sincerely recorded as in Strindberg's Inferno? These questions will never be answered. But part of his appeal is how digestible and varied his work is.

This is undoubtedly one of the greatest short story collections by any Japanese or non-Western author. ( )
  LSPopovich | Apr 8, 2020 |
There are several stories in this collection well worth 5 stars... and a few that are not. However, and this is a controversial decision in my own mind, the lesser stories still provide a key view into the authors.... disintegration. The last few in the collection, all published posthumously, are in fact difficult to read because of the writing... but also because the writer is clearly in a final downward spiral. It is uncomfortable because you are, essentially, reading someone's diary, and reading that they are going to kill themselves.

For that, I give an overall 5 stars, though perhaps it should be 4. ( )
1 stem dcunning11235 | Aug 28, 2017 |
There are some haunting stories here. Some just left me puzzled and others troubled me. These stories from a culture so different from my own were a challenge. Many were quite dark. Some were autobiographical. This author seemed a troubled person. I was grateful for the footnotes and introductions. Glad I read it, won't have to do so again. Enjoyed the book group with which I joined in discussion. ( )
  njcur | Sep 5, 2014 |
I enjoyed this introduction to the works of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. The biographical chronology at the beginning was a useful introduction to the man. Haruki Murakami's introduction made me smile - how keen he was to say that Akutagawa isn't his favourite of Japan's "National Writers", before offering an opinion on where Akutagawa had gone wrong as a writer and, perhaps, in life. I enjoyed rereading The Nose, which I'd studied for A Level Japanese, and Dragon: The Old Potter's Tale was fun, but my favourites are Hell Screen and Loyalty, perhaps because they are longer stories that explore human behaviour more fully, and Horse Legs, because it made me think of Kafka's Metamorphosis. The final story included in the collection is Spinning Gears, which was published after Akutagawa's death. It is an affecting piece of writing, as Akutagawa documents his inner feelings, particularly his fears of madness. It's a sad note to end the book on, both in the sense that Akutagawa took his own life as this story hints might happen and in the sense that his writing was moving in a new direction but was cut short. ( )
  missizicks | Jan 6, 2014 |
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Ry nosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) is one of Japan's foremost stylists - a modernist master whose short stories are marked by highly original imagery, cynicism, beauty and wild humour. 'Rash mon' and 'In a Bamboo Grove' inspired Kurosawa's magnificent film and depict a past in which morality is turned upside down, while tales such as 'The Nose', 'O-Gin' and 'Loyalty' paint a rich and imaginative picture of a medieval Japan peopled by Shoguns and priests, vagrants and peasants. And in later works such as 'Death Register', 'The Life of a Stupid Man' and 'Spinning Gears', Akutagawa drew from his own life to devastating effect, revealing his intense melancholy and terror of madness in exquisitely moving impressionistic stories.

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