Rashomon and other stories - Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Rashomon and other stories
Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Tutle Publishing
ISBN: 0804814570 (Amazon link)

I'm a big fan of Akira Kurosawa films, especially those with the scenery chewing Toshiro Mifune in the lead. One of their best films together is the excellent Rashomon, which absolutely must be watched at least twice. I've read this film it is based upon two short stories in this collection; In a Grove provides the main story, of a death told from multiple points of view, and Rashomon the theme and the title.

I gather that Ryūnosoke Akutgawa is a very well known author in Japan, and while it perhaps seems a little gauche to be reading some of his stories just because I liked a subsequent film, I'm just glad that I've discovered an author I might not otherwise have even heard of. This collection is absolutely terrific, each story is a little polished gem and there are no dull pebbles. Obviously the translator, Takashi Kojima, shares much of the credit, but I was struck by how clean and clear the writing is given the subject material. Each story basically pivots around the consequences of choice, or a moral ambiguity, and to me, seem to be about those frozen moments of time where everything is changing in someone's life, where consequences start to unfold.

In a Grove Clearly this forms the bulk of what Kurosawa took to make his Rashomon. This is the story of a woman's rape and her husband's murder, told by multiple witnesses, each of whom recounts something very different. This isn't a puzzle story, the point is not to figure out whodunnit. Indeed, I can't see how to reconcile the different witnesses' versions, but as they include the woman and the murdered man, the result is thought provoking and disturbing.

Rashomon This is a vicious little discussion of why the choice of how to live your life is a luxury some people do not have. It's about the moment of choice made by a cast out samurai servant - starve to death in the streets or turn to crime? Given the author's culture, and indeed given his own suicide, this raises complicated questions about choosing to die.

Yam Gruel An odd one, but perhaps one of my favourites. This is the tale of 'Goi', which is a title for a low ranking court samurai - perhaps the most appropriate translation would be 'Clerk'. Goi is a minor functionary, a nobody, and worse, an ugly, unpopular nobody. He is subject to a constant barrage of teasing and abuse, and yet somehow he's content in his lot, clinging to the pathetic hope that this world can't be that bad while there's the special, once-a-year treat, yam gruel. This is a very high ranking food item, and even when it is served annually, Goi will get only a meagre serving. To eat his full of yam gruel stands for Goi's self-deluding desire for a better life. Then one day a visiting samurai of high rank, son of a Regency minister, decides to mock Goi by offering his chance to eat his fill of yam gruel. There's a wonderful supernatural element in this tale, with a fox - what else in a Japanese story? - acting a messenger and mirror to Goi.

The Martyr The author includes a note crediting this tale to a 1596 printing of a book of Christian stories, 'including not only the words and deeds of European saints, but also the religious devotions of Japanese Christians, presumably to serve evangelical purposes.' I'm not 100% that isn't just authorial conceit, but certainly the style of this one is different, even if the underlying theme is suspiciously similar to the other stories. Of course, that might simply be what drew the author to rework this story in the first place. Anyway, this is one of stories best read without knowing the direction of the tale, but concerns a young ward of the church excommunicated for refusing to take responsibility for fathering an illegitimate child on an umbrella maker's daughter in the town. Complications ensue. This is a very touching story, and if the postscript is true, then it's also a fascinating little historical document too.

Kesa and Morito This is a much darker story than many of the others, certainly much more like The Grove or Rashomon than the bitter-sweet Yam Gruel or The Dragon. Difficult to discuss without spoiling, it's the bitter musings of a women involved in a love triangle turned nasty. Love, lust, betrayal, and the ever present theme of accepting your fate. This is a hard story to like, but I re-read it a couple of times.

The Dragon The collection ends on a lighter note with the story of a priest called Hanazo ('Big Nose') who has a wide streak of the prankster in him. He puts a sign on a local pond saying that on a certain date a dragon will ascend to heaven from this pond. Naturally, events run away from him, and while he merely wanted to laugh at a few gullible locals, he ends up drawing far too much attention to the dragon's ascension... and ends up believing along with the gullible.

I haven't mentioned the best thing about this collection yet; all these powerful, memorable stories are told in less than 90 pages, in large print.


PS Cheers James! Good birthday present.

Posted: Sat - June 5, 2004 at 11:58 PM