Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Book Review: Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Ryunosuke Akutagawa was a Japanese author writing in the early twentieth century (he died a suicide in 1927). His fictional settings range through the centuries. His attitude toward human nature is mostly consistent--cynical and pessimistic. The texts are straightforward accounts where the nuances come out of the characters' actions and thoughts.

1. In a Grove--Various witnesses give testimony to a High Police Commissioner about a rape and murder in a grove off of a major thoroughfare. Some incidental witnesses give some details and the main witnesses (the bandit assumed responsible, the assaulted wife, and the dead man who testimony comes from a medium) have stories that don't sync up. The truth is hard to find when people hold their egos in higher regard. The story is more of a character study than a mystery--the enigma of what happened is perhaps unsolvable.

2. Rashomon--Standing in the rundown city gate called Rashomon, a samurai's servant is waiting out the rain. He's just been fired so he considers what he will do. Like the gate, the city of Kyoto (the former capital of Japan) is run down. The prospects of earning an honest living are minimal, so he considers becoming a thief. His considerations are interrupted when he discovers another lost soul in the Rashomon. The bleak atmosphere of the story is unrelenting and the ambiguous resolution makes for a good discussion.

3. Yam Gruel--In the remote past, mid-level (i.e. non-descript) samurai Goi has no other desire than to eat yam gruel, then considered a delicacy. Goi is shabby in appearance, clothing, thought, and will, making him the target of practical joking by his superiors and inferiors. One superior, Toshihito, decides to play a long joke and takes Goi off to his splendid mansion in a distant province with the promise of yam gruel in abundance. The author makes a big deal about Goi being the hero of the story, perhaps only to satirize the hero's journey. If so, it is a rather bleak and joyless satire.

4. The Martyr--An orphan shows up at a Jesuit church in Nagasaki. The brothers take the child in because of a rosary wrapped around his wrist and the child's sweet and silent disposition. He grows up only to find horrible accusations made against him. The final twist in the story is a little too unbelievable (though a postscript claims the story is based on true events), spoiling an otherwise interesting look at Christians in Japan.

5. Kesa and Morito--Two lovers plan to murder the woman's husband. The story is told twice--once from the man's perspective, next from the woman's. Their differing details are reminiscent of "In a Grove," with the same sort of pessimism running through it.

6. The Dragon--Ancient storyteller Uji Dainagon Takakuni collects a story from a potter much like one of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales from one of the pilgrims. The potter's story involves a prankster Buddhist priest who puts up a sign by a local pond: "On March third a dragon shall ascend from this pond." The sign causes a sensation all out of proportion from the intended joke, leading to massive crowds camping out on the assigned date. Even the priest starts to think a dragon may rise!

The most upbeat of the stories (The Martyr and The Dragon) are from other source materials, making me reluctant to seek out more from Akutagawa. I don't mind dark themes and stories but these are a bit too unrelenting for me. I am sure to rewatch Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, which uses the story Rashomon as a framing device around the In a Grove story. Kurosawa has a more positive resolution to the story, which makes a fascinating contrast.

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