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Ever-unfashionable Akutagawa

by Donald Richie

JAPANESE SHORT STORIES, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, translated by Takashi Kojima, foreword by John McVittie. Singapore: Tuttle Publishing, 1981, 240 pp. with 15 illustrations, $14.95. THE ESSENTIAL AKUTAGAWA, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, edited by Seiji Lippit, foreword by Jorge Luis Borges. New York: Marsililio Publishers, 208 pp., $14.95.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa remains something of a literary anomaly. A major stylist, he is denied the established standing of a Natsume Soseki or a Shiga Naoya. Instead, he is relegated to the role of eccentric, a minor symbolist who wrote a few popular pieces.

Perhaps this very popularity works against his inclusion in the establishment. He is comparatively easy to read and there is correspondingly less for a literary scholar to do. In addition, he is an extraordinarily imaginative writer, even a fanciful one, and literary opinion in Japan has long been controlled by the various schools of realism.

He was also an antisocial maverick, and this did not endear him to the literary establishment. Even the fact that he committed suicide — usually enough to ensure instant canonization — has not been sufficient to earn him a place in the local literary pantheon.

Nor to a proper place in that part of the foreign pantheon devoted to Japanese literature — and for many of the same reasons. Here, too, his popularity works against him. He is the most translated of all Japanese authors. Fifteen columns are devoted to Akutagawa in the PEN bibliography of foreign-language editions, “Rashomon” alone having been translated 42 times. With so much available, foreign scholars are not much interested. They prefer to make their reputations staking out their own, preferably virgin, territory.

Another problem with the foreign translations, besides their sheer number, is that Akutagawa was translated early. As a result, these first translations range from the unscholarly to the appalling. One of their unwelcome qualities is that they insist upon the exotic — this being one of the few ways to sell Japanese literature in the early days. An unfortunate result is that Akutagawa is made to seem quaint and curious, a mere purveyor of the exotic.

That he was much more, indeed, a major figure in early 20th-century literature, has been obscured. At least, however, the work has been there, in some form or other. Akutagawa has never gone out of print — either in Japanese or in foreign languages.

Here are two newly issued volumes, which indicate both the continued popularity and the troubled legacy of the renderings. Seiji Lippit’s anthology brings together some of the later and much better translations. These include those of Howard Hibbett (“Kesa and Morito”), Ivan Morris (“Autumn Mountain”), Cid Corman (“Cogwheels”), Will Peterson (“A Fool’s Life”), Dorothy Britton (“Lu Tze-Chun”) and those Lippit himself translates. None of this work has been collected, and to read Akutagawa so well-translated in a single volume is a pleasure.

The collection also includes a very rare item — Arthur Waley’s translation of Akutagawa’s film scenario, “San Sebastian.” Though never intended as a film (Akutagawa liked odd forms in which to cast his ideas), it is an allegory about faith and politics, the inner musings of a Japanese peasant who converted to Christianity in the 17th century and then blamed the Dutch for his consequent persecution.

In the Kojima collection, we’re back on more familiar ground. The book itself is a brand-new printing of the 1981 reprint of the 1961 Liveright edition. Eleven stories are included, many unavailable elsewhere (though Lippit reprints the Kojima translation of “The Hell Screen” in his collection), and all are first-rate Akutagawa. This includes one of the finest stories of all, “Tangerines” — though I wish Lippit had included Dorothy Britton’s luminous translation in his collection.

English was not Kojima’s mother tongue and no number of American/English eyes overlooking his labors can make up for this shortcoming. Further, there have been a number of simplistic additions (the cast of characters added to “Genkaku-Sambo”; the childish introduction to “Nezumi-Kozo”), with no indication given that these are not by Akutagawa.

The English is carefully pedestrian. Borges says in the piece reprinted by Lippit that extravagance and horror are in Akutagawa’s work, “but never in the style, which is always crystal clear.” I am not in a position to check the accuracy of the translation itself, but in the matter of stylistics, I believe it to be what used to be called “free.”

Certainly a degree of freedom is taken with the original edition. On the credit side, the volume is now larger (“quality”-paperback size) and consequently easier to read. On the other side, no corrections have been made in the text, and the illustrations (which are all bunched at the back) are nowhere credited. These are by Masakazu Kuwata, whose fine, stencil-like work well reflects Akutagawa’s style. In the Lippit volume, similarly, we are nowhere told where the Borges piece came from. This kind of editorial sloppiness is the result when literature is seen as mere reprint.