Daniel Williams

Posts Tagged ‘japanese literature’

‘Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories’ (2006) Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

In Book Review, Japanese, Literature, Review, Writing on 17/01/2012 at 19:55

This collections splits eighteen short stories into four categories: ‘A World In Decay’, historical fiction and the stories that made the writer popular; ‘Under The Sword’, again historical fiction with focus on soldiers and samurai; ‘Modern Tragicomedy’, these stories take place in Akutagawa’s day, but with Kafkaesque or post-modern twists; and finally ‘Akutagawa’s Own Story’, possibly autobiographical stories, written shortly before the author’s suicide. In every story categories there is the strong voice of Akutagawa- a wryly comical cynic. The darkness and cynicism are most prevalent in the last two categories, as Akutagawa moves from cynicism with the world and people, to pessimism about himself and his own life.

My favourite stories in the collection were all within the first part of the book. Those include the ones famously turned into Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950). My favourite of these stories was ‘Hell Screen’, about an egotistical painter and his daughter. I really enjoyed the darkness and the hint of the supernatural with this story. It has an unreliable narrator, who spends a lot of time trying to defend a character. This technique came across as a little obvious, but in worked well the character.

It’s the last stories in the book that have been bothering me. Knowing that Akutagawa feared mental illness and eventually killed himself, these stories are hard to ‘enjoy’. Technically they’re very well written. ‘Spinning Gears’ is near perfect in putting together very short passages to build up an overall picture of distortion and nihilism. But I could never say I ‘enjoy’ these stories. I admire them.

I do really like Akutagawa’s style. His blend of darkness and humour appeals to me and I shall certainly want to read more by him. The Penguin Classic’s edition of Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories (2006) has been an excellent starting point. The stories are all of interest and these two great introductions, one by the translator, Jay Rubin, and the other by Haruki Murakami. Murakami’s introduction looks at the influence of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa on him as both a reader and a writer. But in trying to read more of his work, I’ll try to stick to the early stories.

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‘The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea’ (1963) Yukio Mishima

In Book Review, Japanese, Literature, Review, Writing on 27/08/2011 at 12:36

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea (1963) is an odd book. It starts off with a 13 year-old boy spying on his mother undressing and it only gets stranger from there. The boy’s mother, Fusako, begins an affair with a sailor on shore leave. The sailor, Ryuji, has a love-hate relationship with the sea and dreams of a glorious destiny. The 13 year-old boy hangs around with a group of teenagers who call each other by numbers and believe they are geniuses in an overly sentimental world. This doesn’t sound too bad, but as the story progress the boy continues spying on his mother and the sailor, and his group of friends begin to put their theory that they are above others and are permitted to do anything into practice. Half way through the novel you can guess how it will all turn out, but, like a Greek tragedy, waiting for the moment of violence is part of the perverse pleasure of reading The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea. The ending of The Sailor Who… is a grim one, but anticipating the expected outcome had my heart racing while reading the last chapter.

The book is quite poetic in places. Unsurprisingly the imagery of the sea, ships and sailing occur throughout, but it never feels forced. In one moment a character wishes to have a hard heart like an anchor. That really worked for me.

Yukio Mishima covers some of the same philosophical ground as Fyodor Dostoyevsky in the group of boys who believe they are above others. But whereas Dostoyevsky’s characters have religion and his novels often end with redemption through suffering, Mishima’s only redemption seems to be through death. Maybe my judgement is clouded by the knowledge that Yukio Mishima ended his own life. There is a moment in the book when one character looks down on another for having failed a suicide attempt.

The Sailor Who… is a dark, violent and strange story, but none the less its made me curious about the author’s other works.

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