Author Story: Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Around 2013, while looking for stories with multiple points of view, I discovered In the Grove. I was fascinated by the story and noted that it was adapted into the movie Rashomon but forgot the name of the author.

In 2018, I got more interested in Japanese movies and literature. I looked for Rashomon, the movie. After watching it, I was interested in reading the source material. That led me to Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories translated by Jay Rubin. I began with In the Grove then Rashomon and fell in love with the way Akutagawa’s style.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) is known as the Father of Japanese short stories. His works primarily deal with despair, darkness and madness. Although Rashomon is his most popular story, I believe Hell Screen is his magnum opus. It is the story of a painter Yoshihide, who is ordered by Lord Horikawa to depict nine levels of Buddhist Hell on a huge folded screen. Despite his brilliance in painting, Yoshihide cannot draw anything which he has not seen. This problem leads into a tragedy for Yoshihide and his daughter.

Despite his reputation as writer who told dark tales, Akutagawa he also wrote comedies. One of my favourites is the metafictional “Green Onions”. He tells he has to finish the story before the morning and proceeds to tell about a girl who works in a restaurant in his town. This girl falls in love with a young man. But she does not know anything about him. While they go on a “date” to see the circus, the circus has moved to a different place. Just as starts doubting the young man’s intentions, a twist in the tale brings a humorous end.

In his early days as writer, Akutagawa wrote stories based on older periods of Japan. He depicted the darkness and rotten scenario which was also similar to his time. His own financial problems, fear of descending into madness like his mother had, and the actual descent into madness form the stories of his later period of life. As I read these stories, I felt helpless. Akutagawa had become my favourite writer and I did not want him to suffer. However, the pain and darkness gripped him. They would leave him only after his death. Akutagawa committed suicide through overdose of barbital (a sleep-inducing drug) at the age of 35.

In his short literary career between 1913-1927, Akutwagawa wrote about 150 stories. Sometimes, I wish he had not suffered mental illness and had lived longer. Sometimes, I wish there was someone who could have taken him out of the dark pit he had fallen into. His stories and his life also make me question the dangers of financial insecurities and artistic obsessions. I wish life were easier for artists!

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