Born: Niihara Ryunosuke in Tokyo, Japan, 1 March 1892; adopted by uncle and given the family name Akutagawa. Education: Educated at Tokyo Imperial University, 1913-16, degree in English. Family: Married Tsukamoto Fumi in 1918; three sons. Career: Member of literary staff, Shinshicho [New Thought Tides], university magazine, 1914, 1916-17; English teacher, Naval Engineering College, Yokosuka, 1916-19; literary staff member, Osaka Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, 1919; travelled through China and Korea for Osaka Mainichi, March-July 1921. Addicted to opium by 1926.Died: (suicide) 24 July 1927.
Shu [Selected Works], edited by Nakamura Shin’ichir5. 1928; 2 vols., 1953.
Zenshu [Collected Works]. 10 vols., 1934-35; 20 vols., 1954-57; 8 vols., 1964-65; 11 vols., 1967-69; 9 vols., 1971.
Sakuhin shu [Collection of Pieces], edited by Hori Tatsuo, Kuzumaki Yoshitoshi, and Akutagawa Hiroshi. 1949.
Bungaku tokuhon [Literary Reader], edited by Yoshida Seiichi. 1955.
Ochomono zenshu. 2 vols., 1960.
Miteiko shu [Unfinished Works], edited by Kuzumaki Yoshitoshi. 1968.
Jihitsu miteiko zuho [Projects for Unfinished Works in His Own Hand], edited by Tsunoda Chuz5. 1971.
The Essential Akutagawa: Rashomon, Hell Screen, Cogwheels, A Fool’s Life and Other Short Fiction, edited by Seiji M. Lippit, 1999.
”R5nen” [Old Age]. 1914.
”Rash5mon.” 1915; as ”Rashomon,” translated by Takashi Kojima, in Rashomon and Other Stories, 1952; also translated by Glenn W. Shaw, 1964.
”Hana.” 1916; as ”The Nose,” translated by Glenn W. Shaw, 1930; also translated by Dorothy Britton, 1987.
”Imogayu.” 1916; as ”Yam Gruel,” translated by Takashi Kojima, 1952.
”Hankechi.” 1916; as ”Handkerchief,” translated by Glenn W. Shaw, 1930.
”Gesaku zammai” [A Life of Frivolous Writing]. 1917.
”Tabako to akuma” [Tobacco and the Devil]. 1917.
”Jigokuhen.” 1918; as ”Hell Screen,” translated by W.H.H. Norman, in Hell Screen (”Jigokuhen”) and Other Stories, 1948; translated as Hell Screen, 1987.
”H5ky5jin no shi.” 1918; as ”The Martyr,” translated by Takashi Kojima, 1952.
”Kumo no ito.” 1918; as ”The Spider’s Thread,” translated by Glenn W. Shaw, 1930; also translated by Dorothy Britton, 1987.
”Kesa to Morit5.” 1918; as ”Kesa and Morito,” translated by Takashi Kojima, 1952.
”Kare no sh5” [Withered Fields]. 1918.
”Kairaishi” [The Puppeteer]. 1919.
”Mikan” [Tangerines]. 1919.
”Kage d5ro” [Street of Shadows]. 1920.
”Yabu no naka.” 1921; as ”In a Grove,” translated by Takashi Kojima, 1952.
”Yarai no hana” [Flowers from the Night Before]. 1921.
”Torokko.” 1922; as ”Flatcar,” translated by Richard N. McKinnon, in The Heart Is Alone, 1957.
”Ikkai no tsuchi.” 1924; as ”A Clod of Earth,” translated by Richard N. McKinnon, in The Heart Is Alone, 1957.
”Daidoji shinsuke no Hansei” [The Early Life of Daidoji Shinsuke]. 1924.
”Genkaku sanbo” [Genkaku's Villa]. 1927.
Kappa. 1927; as Kappa, translated by Seuchi Shiojiri, 1947; also translated by Geoffrey Bownas, 1970.
Tales Grotesque and Curious, translated by Glenn W. Shaw. 1930.
Hell Screen (”Jigokuhen”) and Other Stories, translated by W.H.H. Norman. 1948.
Rashomon and Other Stories, translated by Takashi Kojima. 1952. Japanese Short Stories, translated by Takashi Kojima. 1961; revised edition, 1962.
Exotic Japanese Stories, translated by Takashi Kojima and John McVittie. 1964.
The Spider’s Thread and Other Stories, translated by Dorothy Britton. 1987.
Kushu [Poems]. 1976.
Toshishun. 1920; as Tu Tzu-chun, translated by Sasaki Takamasa, 1944; revised edition, 1951; as Tu Tze-chun, translated by Dorothy Britton, 1965.
Shina-yuki [Notes on a Chinese Journey]. 1925. Ume, uma, uguisu [Plum, Horse, Nightingale]. 1926.
Tenkibo [Death Register]. 1926.
Bungeiteki na, amari ni bungeiteki na [Literary, All Too Literary]. 1927.
Yuwaku [Temptation] and Asakusa Koen [Asakusa Park] (unproduced film scripts). 1927. Shinkiro [Mirage]. 1927.
Aru aho no issho. 1927; as A Fool’s Life, translated by Will Petersen, 1970.
Haguruma. 1930; as Cogwheels, translated by Cid Corman, 1987.
The Three Treasures (stories for children), translated by Sasaki Takamasa. 1944; revised edition, 1951.
Shuju no kotoba (essays). 1968.
Hell Screen, Cogwheels, and A Fool’s Life, translated by Takashi Kojima, Cid Corman, Susumu Kamaike, and Will Petersen. 1987.
Akutagawa, edited and translated by Akio Inoue, 1961; ”Akutagawa: The Literature of Defeatism” by T. Arima, in The Failure of Freedom, 1969; ”Akutagawa and the Negative Ideal” by Howard Hibbert, in Personality in Japanese History, edited by Albert Craig and Donald Shively, 1970; Akutagawa: An Introduction by Beongcheon Yu, 1972; in Modern Japanese Writers by Makoto Ueda, 1976; ”From Tale to Short Story: Akutagawa’s Toshishun and Its Chinese Origins” and ”The Plot Controversy between Tanizaki and Akutagawa,” in Reality and Fiction in Modern Japanese Literature by Noriko Mizuta Lippit, 1980; ”Akutagawa Ryunosuke” by Donald Keene, in Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era: Fiction, 1984.
Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s reputation as a purveyor of grotesque and exotic narratives, suggested by the titles of two collections of his stories in English, has been reinforced, not only by the film Rashomon, which Kurosawa Akira based on two of Akutagawa’s stories— ”RashOmon” and ”Yabu no naka” (”In a Grove”)—but also by reference to the facts of his often unhappy life, ending in a suicide which, committed at the early age of 35 and leaving three small boys in his wife’s care, was shocking even in a country where suicide is traditionally regarded with less dismay than in most other cultures.
However, there is more to Akutagawa’s work than the morbidness that all this may suggest. The range of his interests and of the genres he wrote in was unusually broad. His thoughtful essays on the literature of East and West from which he drew general inspiration and specific ideas and images; his stories for children; his reflections on his journey through China and Korea in 1921—none of these deserves to be overshadowed, as they often have been, either by the more popular stories or by ”Haguruma” (”Cogwheels”), ”Aru ahO no isshO” (”A Fool’s Life”), and the other harrowing autobiographical texts of his final months. Nor are the stories as simple as the conventional labels would indicate. The ”grotesque” stories are vivid explorations of extreme situations and their psychological effects, rather than merely exercises in making the reader shudder. Yoshihide in ”Jigokuhen” (”Hell Screen”), continuing painting the fires of Hell even as his daughter burns, is more than just another image of the obsessive artist, though he is that too. He is also a father maddened by grief, whose predicament is so convincingly evoked that the horror of the situation comes to seem understandable. Rashomon stands out among all the many Japanese fictions about Kyoto as a depiction of the ancient capital at its lowest ebb, desolated by war and deserted by most of its population, with a resonance which the course of Japan’s history since Akutagawa’s death has accidentally enhanced. As for his ”exotic” stories, such as ”Kumo no ito” (”The Spider’s Thread”), based on Buddhist eschatology, or ”Kare no shO” [Withered Fields], depicting the disciples of the 17th-century poet BashO, these reflect the depth of his knowledge of history and of religion, though it should be stressed that he was neither didactic nor romantic about either of these interests. The best of the many stories which fit neither of these all-too-convenient labels is perhaps ”Mikan” [Tangerines], a deft exercise in social observation and psychological insight, in which one simple action transforms the narrator’s view of the apparently stupid girl sharing his train compartment.
But the masterpiece among Akutagawa’s fictions is the novella Kappa, which transcends all labels. There are obvious comparisons to be made between its hero’s journey to the land of the kappa, the legendary sprites or gnomes that live in Japanese rivers, and the travels of Jonathan Swift’s character Lemuel Gulliver. Both are presented in first-person narratives which use imaginary countries to imply critical observations of the authors’ own societies; both travellers eventually overcome their initial confusion and mystification about the strange creatures they observe to conclude that human beings are in many ways even stranger. Yet the differences are also telling. Gulliver visits several different societies, takes part in their activities as far as he can, and returns home at last wiser, perhaps more cynical. Akutagawa’s hero, a patient in a mental hospital rather than a prosperous sea-captain, is a passive observer of only one society, which turns out to be all too much like his own, and what he learns from the final poem of his dead kappa friend Tok supplies a kind of wisdom he would rather not have had. It is as though the misanthropy which marks Gulliver’s visit to the land of the Houyhnhnms, the wise and virtuous talking horses, had been extended to a general revulsion from human and non-human creatures alike, since all alike lack wisdom and virtue. For Gulliver, if not perhaps for himself, Swift the Christian was able to find solace and a kind of resolution; Akutagawa, who killed himself some months after finishing Kappa, was at the end of his tether. Thus the difficulties that Kappa presents, for both Japanese and non-Japanese readers, are not so much stylistic or intellectual—it is a deceptively simple tale, simply told—as emotional. Without any overt use of horrific imagery its cumulative effect is nonetheless not for the squeamish.
In the end, then, Akutagawa’s enduring position as one of the most popular and influential of modern Japanese writers rests on the sheer variety of his subject matter, handled in a lucid and elegant prose style, particularly on his use of Chinese and Japanese themes familiar to generations of his compatriots. But the significance of his work also lies in his efforts to assimilate the impact of Western technology, values, and, not least, literary forms. Before him Natsume S5seki, of whom Akutagawa considered himself a disciple, had made his own peace between his heritage as a scholar of Chinese traditions and his career as an English teacher and newspaper contributor (jobs which did not exist for earlier Japanese writers, and which Akutagawa also took). In later years Tanizaki Junichir5, with whom he debated literary principles in Bungeiteki na, amari ni bungeiteki na [Literary, All Too Literary], would embrace in turn extreme ”Westernization” and the revival of native tradition, finding means of self-expression within both, at least partly by inheriting and extending Akutagawa’s tendencies toward grotesquerie. It is a matter for great regret that Akutagawa’s frequently expressed self-disgust should have overwhelmed the intelligence and passion that are the mark of almost all his writings.