Book Review: Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories

Although technically a challenge I’d set for myself for 2015, I decided to bend the rules and start expanding my horizons a little early. It’s a good thing I did, because to be honest, I’ve found this collection of Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s short stories rather hard to swallow. Don’t get me wrong, the stories are impeccably crafted. It’s the subject matter I object to. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, given what I learned about the author from the brief biography in the introduction to the stories.

With a life marked by tragedy and mental illness that ended in suicide at the age of only 35, is it any wonder that Akutagawa should be obsessed with themes of death and religion? Perhaps this will give you a little insight into the author. The story Green Onions begins with a confession from Akutagawa that he is writing on a deadline and has no idea what the following story is going to be about. Throughout the narrative he continues to interject his own thoughts, including this gem about himself: ‘the fellow the critics are always blaming for having too little heart and too much intellect’. I can’t help but agree with this assessment. The stories (particularly the historical pieces) are filled with scenes of torture, religious persecution, executions, murder, and graphic depictions of rotting corpses. Had I known this beforehand, I probably would have chosen a different book to read.

Interestingly, the translator has arranged the stories chronologically – not in the order they were written, but in the order of historical setting. The earlier stories are based on Japanese folk tales and historical events, while the later stories are set in the author’s present day. Here I must admit that my knowledge of Japanese history is woefully inadequate, and I was very grateful for the notes provided by the translator and publisher. Many of the stories would have made little sense to me without them.

Although I would be lying if I said I enjoyed this collection, I didn’t feel the need to stop reading it either. I found the last six stories very enlightening, as they were semi-autobiographical, and explained a lot about the kind of mind that would write the other pieces. Would I recommend them to others? Hard to say. While the stories weren’t exactly my cup of tea, they certainly have literary merit… perhaps the best I can do is to suggest that readers make up their own minds based on what I’ve described above.

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