My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Six stories make up this brief collection. All six are intriguing, well-written, and shine a light onto the dark side of mankind. The works of Akutagawa collected herein are all morality tales, but aren’t written in a moralistic tone. In fact, it’s not clear that the author wishes to convey lessons on virtue and vice as he’s intrigued with the instant at which an ordinary person turns bad. That instant, and the inflamed passions that often inspire it, is a prevailing theme throughout most of this small anthology. Akutagawa beats AMC by the better part of a century in showing us how bad breaks.
The first story is entitled In a Grove. This is a murder mystery in which we are given conflicting accounts of a man’s murder through the process of the investigation of the act. The final account that we are offered is that of the victim himself–as presented by a psychic medium. [Only two of these stories contain supernatural elements–this one and the last. Most of the collection involves realist premises. One must remember that Akutagawa was writing in the early part of the 20th century, and scientific rationality hadn’t yet gotten as strong a hold as it does today.] In this case, the use of a psychic is really just a plot device to give the reader insight into a truth which couldn’t otherwise be revealed. Having heard the perspectives of the murder and the dead man’s wife, one is left with questions owing to the self-serving nature of those statements. Of course, the final section reveals a twist–that I won’t spoil.
The second story is the title story, Rashōmon. The title is the name of a gate in Kyōto, the largest gate of Kyōto, in fact. However, Kyōto has fallen on hard times, and our protagonist is a newly masterless samurai who has sought the gate’s shelter from the rain. There, he contemplates whether he should take up a life of crime, which seems to be his only means of survival in the current economy given his skill set. The gate has become a repository for the corpses that are amassing as victims of the hard times accumulate. Within the gate, he finds an old hag who loots bodies for a living. His interaction with the old woman helps him to decide his own destiny.
The third story is called Yam Gruel. While “yam gruel” (or anything with the word gruel in it) might not sound appealing given today’s usage, a fact one must know is that during the time of the story it was a highly-prized and rare dish. The story follows a milquetoast administrator who leads a rather pathetic life in which he has but one ambition, to eat his fill of yam gruel. As a member of the samurai class, he’s invited to an Imperial banquet each year. However, because of his low status and the high-value of yam gruel, he never gets more than a taste. One year he openly bemoans the fact that he never gets his fill. A powerful samurai overhears this complaint, and it puts a seed of mischief in his mind. While this tale isn’t about breaking bad, it is about inflamed passions.
The fourth story sticks out as different from the others. While the bulk of the stories center on that moment at which a more-or-less good person goes bad, The Martyr tells us about a protagonist that never goes bad, despite having every right to. This might seem like a sea change in theme, but in reality it’s just another way of shining a light on the dark seed that resides in people. Only this time it does it by way of contrast. All of the other characters are deeply flawed, and we see that most vividly when contrasted against the one who always behaves virtuously. In this case, that virtuous character is Lorenzo, a novice monk who is accused of a severe breach of good conduct. Lorenzo becomes an outcast and a vagrant due to these allegations. Yet, despite all this, he acts heroically–even to assist those who’ve betrayed him.
In the fifth story we revisit the theme of breaking bad. In Kesa and Morito we are presented with two regret-filled accounts of the instant at which an adulterous couple decides to kill the husband of the woman involved in the affair. Each member of the cheating couple thinks that the other desperately wants the killing to go forward. In reality, both consider it a foolish decision driven by a brief moment of passion. This is another tale about letting one’s passions get out of control.
The final work is a retelling of the story of a monk named Hanazō who decides to prank his fellow monks because they chide him about his huge nose. Hanazō sets up a sign that says a dragon will appear from the local lake at a certain time and day to fly up into the heavens. The joke doesn’t turn out at all as the monk intended. I won’t go into the moral of the story to avoid giving too much away, but suffice it to say there is a moral.
I highly recommend this collection. As I’ve suggested, the collection isn’t just a disparate collection of tales, but has an integrating theme. Akutagawa was truly one of the masters of the short story. He wrote 150 stories before dying at the age of 35 in a suicidal drug overdose.
For those who like to see how literature is portrayed in, below one can watch the film version of Rashōmon.