The unique voice of Ryunosuke Akutagawa


RASHOMON AND SEVENTEEN OTHER STORIES, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, translated by Jay Rubin, introduction by Haruki Murakami. London: Penguin Classics, 2006, 268 pp., £9.99 (paper).

In what is still the finest assessment of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s life and work, Howard Hibbett complained that for most, the author’s name meant merely a collection of exotic, misanthropic stories, and that this ironist and superb stylist had had an ironic fate abroad. “He has been the most amply translated of modern Japanese writers, yet his work has been sadly diminished by both the hazards of translation and by the loss of a rich extraliterary context.”

This is now amply remedied in Jay Rubin’s most welcome edition. The renderings are what one expects from the exemplary translator of Natsume Soseki (fittingly, the author under whom Akutagawa studied).

And an unusually rich “extraliterary context” is provided. There is a biographical essay, translator’s notes, chronology, bibliography with informations on other translations, as well as entries on Japanese name order and pronunciation, and unusually ample notes.

The stories presented include such old favorites as “Rashomon” and “In a Bamboo Grove” (famously conflated into the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film “Rashomon.”), “The Nose,” “The Spider Thread” and “Hell Screen.” These sections are categorized by the translator under the rubric of “A World in Decay.”

Rubin’s three other sections include: “Under the Sword,” historical tales; three “Modern Tragicomedies”; and “Akutagawa’s Own Story,” which holds several of the biographical studies.

Nine of the stories are published in English for the first time: “Dr. Ogata Ryosai,” “O-Gin,” “Loyalty,” “Horse Legs,” “Daidoji Shinsuke,” “The Writer’s Craft,” “The Baby’s Sickness,” “Death Register,” and “Green Onions.”

The last is an extraordinary find, a 1919 short story, self-referential in the modernist mode, about an imaginary cafe waitress named O-Kimi. She thinks she looks like Mary Pickford, gets Beethoven and Woodrow Wilson mixed up but knows how to fend off an admirer. She is also the first of her line. A year later Junichiro Tanizaki drew her again in “Naomi,” and 10 years later she appears in Yasunari Kawabata’s “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa,” with many an appearance in between.

With only 18 stories included, favorites are apt to be missed. I missed “Tangerines,” my favorite Akutagawa story. Fortunately it exists in another collection in a fine Dorothy Britten translation. Other stories in the Rubin collection, including some famous ones, read as though for the first time — so bad were some prior translations, so good this one.

So good that one wants more. The Haruki Murakami introduction is, on the other hand, 18 pages long. And best-selling author though he is, Murakami is not much interested in the author he is writing about. He lets us know that the Akutagawa influence got to him only in third place “at some distance,” after Soseki and Tanizaki.

Murakami also has a “problem” with Kawabata’s works and shows that he has no interest in Shimazaki Toson or Shiga Naoya (an Akutagawa favorite). He instead goes on to compare the Japanese author to F. Scott Fitzgerald, a Murakami favorite.

The collection of stories, however, is still invaluable and Akutagawa finally speaks to us in the English equivalent of his own voice. His subtle and celebrated style becomes visible, and his honest and despairing view of the human race becomes persuasive.