Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories
It started out as an attempt to read a few short stories from Akutagawa, especially his lauded In the Bamboo Grove. As it turns out, though, the collection gave me more than what I was looking for.
I had this misconception that Akutagawa only wrote convoluted psychological tales like In the Bamboo Grove (it’s the basis for the cult film Rashomon). The collection, however, is varied. It has old tales focusing on the slow decline of Japan before the Meiji era, as well as a few stories that explore the gradual westernization and growing despair in modern (1920s) Japan.
My favorite story in the collection is Green Onions. It’s, well, delightful. It’s very simple — a snippet of life trapped in words, I think — and yet compelling. It’s funny, too. (Perhaps that’s another thing I wasn’t expecting from Akutagawa. He really is quite funny.)
But what I find most interesting are the autobiographical stories near the end of the collection. Of course, I say “interesting” when I actually mean depressing. Akutagawa wrote a lot of stories mirroring his personal life and he ended up chronicling his own dissatisfaction and despair, as well as his thoughts of suicide.
The Life of a Stupid Man and Spinning Gears are particularly revealing. Here is a man obsessed with the idea of sin, of living in darkness. He kept thinking about the evil he had done, of his weaknesses, of his faults.
If you wonder what it’s like in the head of a man slowly spiraling into mental destruction, read Akutagawa. It is twice as chilling when you realize that this is a man who succumbed to the demons he was writing about.
How simple it would have been, if he had only realized that he wasn’t unique in his bleakness.
Dear Akutagawa-san: everyone has demons. It’s not always a matter of conquering them. Sometimes you just learn to live with them.