Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa – Reviewed by Guy Portman
The book, which is divided into four parts, begins with the sinister tale Rashōmon. Set during the Heian era (11th century) it sees a confrontation between an unemployed servant and an old woman, who is in the process of stealing hair from a dead body. Hell Screen entails a depiction of hell being recreated for the purposes of art, and the The Nose is about a priest with a prodigious proboscis.
In the second segment, titled Under the Sword, we move forward in time to the early seventeenth century. Its three stories include the Christian martyrdom-themed O-Gin. The third part, Modern Tragicomedy, consists of three Kafkaesque fables. In one a company employee acquires horse legs, much to his chagrin. The final portion is autobiographical in nature. It provides insights into the background and tortured psyche of arguably Japan’s most famous literary exponent.
A sense of doom and despair permeates this somewhat disparate assemblage whose cynicism, dark humour and tormented, fin-de-siécle tone appealed to this reader. Whilst traversing the second section was onerous, the historical details, human foibles and comical components make this is a rewarding introduction to the influential modernist master.