(1892 - 1927)
Haunted by his mother's madness, insomnia and self-loathing, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, one of Japan's leading literary figures, killed himself at 35. But not before a final creative outpouring, says David Peace
Saturday 8 September 2007 23.46 BST
ighty years ago, in January 1927, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, his wife and his youngest son waited for the train that would take them back to Tokyo. Akutagawa and his family had been away for almost a year in the hope that the peace and quiet of his wife's village would restore Akutagawa's health and nerves. He was 34 years old and short stories such as "Rashomon" and "Jigoku hen" ("Hell Screen") had established him as one of Japan's leading literary figures. These early stories were often grotesque but highly stylised retellings of classical Chinese and Japanese tales. He was also a noted critic and editor.
But during 1924, in the year following the Great Earthquake that destroyed much of Tokyo and killed over 100,000 people, Akutagawa had increasingly turned in on himself as his writing had become more autobiographical. It had also become increasingly bleak and despairing. Possibly the arbitrary nature of his own survival and his huge exposure to death in the wake of the earthquake had exacerbated his feelings of guilt and self-loathing.
By 1926, his insomnia was chronic and his fear of having inherited his mother's madness had become an obsession. There had also been a number of affairs and near-affairs with women, which left him with feelings of guilt. One woman in particular remained his private fury, the Goddess of Revenge, and the source of much of his torment.
Work provided no respite; an anthology of new Japanese writing, which Akutagawa had painstakingly edited, became mired in accusations of financial impropriety and breach of copyright. He was heavily criticised and sales were poor.
It was to escape these personal and professional pressures that Akutagawa fled Tokyo for a period of recuperation in his wife's village. Here there was a "sad renewal" of their marriage vows, but Akutagawahad also made another vow: as he boarded the train home for Tokyo that January, he knew he would be dead within the next six months.
Just days after his return to Tokyo, his brother-in-law killed himself to escape his mounting debts and a serious court case. The burden of looking after his sister and her family fell to Akutagawa. He was in no fit state. Thrown into a constant state of anxiety that worsened day by day, he suffered from visual and auditory hallucinations, accompanied by violent headaches. Delusions and paranoia plagued him. He had déjà-vu and déjà-vécu experiences. He believed his actions were being controlled by some external power. His wife would find him cowering in his study, clinging to the edges of the room, convinced the walls were falling in. He kept this room darkened during the day and only left his house after nightfall. His sole relief came through drugs. For some time, Akutagawa had been taking sleeping pills: "If I do not sleep for two nights, I am tired enough to be able to sleep on the third night. But then, the night after, I am wide awake again." He was now prescribed opium.
In this state he lived out the last six months of his life. But these months also witnessed a final creative outburst, as diverse as it was prolific, which included some of his finest work: criticism and essays such as "Seiho no Hito" ("Man of the West"), the stories "Genkakusanbo" ("The Villa of Genkaku") and "Shinkiro" ("Mirage"), and three masterpieces: Kappa, "Aru Aho no Issho" ("The Life of a Stupid Man") and "Haguruma" ("Spinning Gears").
A month after his return to Tokyo, and beset by the financial repercussions and family obligations of his brother-in-law's suicide, Akutagawa began to write Kappa. He wrote it in less than two weeks and it was published in the March edition of the magazine Kaizo. Kappa is a Gulliver-esque account of a visit to a foreign land. In Japanese folklore, Kappa are greenish and frog-like water creatures, sometimes benign but sometimes evil. In the novella, the Kappa are decidedly human in their foibles and sins. Indeed, Akutagawa often drew himself as an ink-black Kappa and the society he describes is the one in which he lived.
This dystopian and fantastical book stands in stark contrast to the impressionistic autobiographical material of Akutagawa's last year. Yet Kappa still begins and ends in madness. The tale is narrated in 17 short chapters by Patient No 23 in a lunatic asylum as he recounts his life among the Kappa; his gradual familiarisation with their civilisation and language, their manners and customs. It makes uncomfortable reading.
Kappa's satire is directed at capitalism and war, relationships between the sexes and the responsibilities of families. But Akutagawa's most ferocious attacks are aimed at fate and himself. In one of the most startling, and personal scenes, Patient No 23 recalls the Kappa practice of calling in to a foetus to ask if it wishes to be born. It replies: "I do not wish to be born. In the first place, it makes me shudder to think of all the things I shall inherit from my father - the insanity alone is bad enough. And an additional factor is that I maintain that a Kappa's existence is evil." The novella also includes a thinly veiled self-portrait in the character of Tok. As vain as he is critical of Kappa society, Tok is a philandering and pessimistic poet who suffers from delusions and insomnia. He solves his problems by putting a bullet through his head: "Kappa was born out of my disgust with many things," wrote Akutagawa to the critic Taiji Yoshida. "Mostly with myself."
In April, Akutagawa began a lengthy exchange with his friend the novelist Junichiro Tanizaki on the Japanese novel. Tanizaki had taken exception to comments Akutagawa had made in a series of critical essays entitled "Literary, all too Literary". He disagreed with Akutagawa's claim that the Japanese novel needed more poetic qualities, reflecting an "observant eye" and a "sensitive heart". Rather, Tanizaki believed what was needed were defined structures and stronger plots. He also went on to suggest that because of his own physical weakness, Akutagawa lacked the energy and resolve to write such novels. The last two pieces Akutagawa wrote before his death, and published posthumously, would prove them both right.
"The Life of a Stupid Man" is a harrowing summation of Akutagawa's life, told in a montage of 51 fragments. In its form it more closely resembles the film scripts he was also working on during these last months, "Yuwaku" ("Temptation") and "Asakusa Koen" ("Asakusa Park"), and betrays the influence German expressionism had on him. The sections describe books he has read and women he has loved, his fear of society and his hatred of himself, and every line reeks of defeat and death. Section 49, entitled "A Stuffed Swan", concludes:
Once he had finished writing "The Life of a Stupid Man", he happened to see a stuffed swan in a secondhand shop. It stood with its head held high, but its wings were yellowed and moth-eaten. As he thought about his life, he felt both tears and mockery welling up inside him. All that lay before him was madness or suicide. He walked down the darkening street alone, determined now to wait for the destiny that would come to annihilate him.
The manuscript was completed on June 20 1927, and Akutagawa sent it to another novelist friend, Masao Kume. In an attached note, Akutagawa wrote: "I am living now in the unhappiest happiness imaginable. Yet, strangely, I have no regrets. I just feel sorry for anyone unfortunate enough to have had a bad husband, a bad son, or a bad father like me. So goodbye, then ..."
There was, however, one final piece. "Spinning Gears" is the story of a few days in the life of a writer. "Mr A", the author of "Hell Screen", is staying at the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, as he struggles to write the works demanded of him. During these days, he is tormented by visions of his dead mother, a spurned lover, his own doppelgänger and hallucinations of rotating cogwheels. Everywhere he goes, everything he sees threatens him; books, taxis, airplanes and, particularly, the colour yellow. Finally, Mr A joins his wife and children at a seaside resort. He finds his wife face down on the floor, sobbing. He asks her what's wrong: "It wasn't any one thing. I just had this feeling that you were going to die . . ." Mr A/Akutagawa concludes: "I don't have the strength to keep writing this. To go on living with this feeling is painful beyond description. Isn't there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep?" As the critic Donald Keene wrote, "After reading 'Spinning Gears', we can only marvel that Akutagawa did not kill himself sooner." But that time was now approaching.
That last summer of 1927, Akutagawa took part in a short publicity film at his home in Tabata, north Tokyo. There is a point in the film where he stops playing with his children to light a cigarette. From under a broad-brimmed sun hat, he puffs on his cigarette and stares into the camera. Half hidden in shadow and smoke, it is the face of defeat, the face of death.
July 23 1927 was a day of record heat in Tokyo. Akutagawa, however, seemed unbothered by the heat and joked with his children over lunch. Throughout the afternoon and early evening he received the usual stream of visitors eager to speak with one of the leading writers of the day. After dinner, he finished "Man of the West", his essay on Christ as a poet. He then began to write a considered and lengthy letter to Kume, entitled "A Note to an Old Friend", explaining what he was about to do. In this letter, Akutagawa describes his meticulous plans for suicide; he had rejected drowning because he was a strong swimmer, death by hanging because it was unsightly. Having decided on drugs, he had then read extensively on toxicology. Finally, he gives his actual reason for suicide as a "vague anxiety about my future".
In the early hours of July 24, as a light rain finally broke the heat, Akutagawa spoke with his wife for the last time. Then, shortly before dawn, he took a fatal dose of the barbiturate Veronal. He lay down on his futon and fell into a final sleep reading the Bible. By the following evening, his death was national news. Friends and reporters rushed to his house. At a crowded news conference, Kume read aloud from Akutagawa's suicide note: "I am now living in an icy clear world of morbid nerves ... Still, nature is for me more beautiful than ever. No doubt you will laugh at the contradiction of loving nature and yet contemplating suicide. But nature is beautiful because it comes to my eyes in their last extremity ..."
Akutagawa's death came just six months after the death of the Emperor Taisho and the start of the Showa era. For many, it represented not only the end of an era, but the defeat of Japanese intellectualism. Two years later, Kenji Miyamoto began his career as a Marxist critic with an essay on Akutagawa entitled "Haiboku no Bungaku" ("The Literature of Defeat"), the "defeat" being a deliberate echo of the title of the last section of "The Life of a Stupid Man". Howard S Hibbett, in an essay on Akutagawa, quotes Miyamoto:
Akutagawa's 'last words' in literature expressed a feeling of despair toward man's happiness in social life. Like all pessimists, he had to find a conclusive comment on the eternal Weltschmertz with which man is burdened. This is not at all a new idea. It gives rise to the fatal logic of the petty bourgeoisie which views self-despair as the despair of society as a whole. Thus Akutagawa views the agony born of and defined by his physiology and his social class as the eternal agony of humanity.
But these "last words" are not words simply of self-loathing and self-pity. They are harrowing, but utterly honest. Morbid, but beautifully wrought. They are beyond class, beyond nationality. They are universal. Eternal. In their unflinching depiction of personal defeat, these works had their predecessors in Japan, notably in the later novels of Soseki, and their successors in the immediate postwar stories of Osamu Dazai and Ango Sakaguchi. But outside of Japan, perhaps only the prose of Kafka or the poetry of Celan bears comparison.
In September 1926, Akutagawa had written a short piece entitled "Death Register" ("Tenkibo"), which made public for the first time his fears of having inherited his mother's madness. The piece ends at the family burial plot, where Akutagawa recalls a haiku:
A shimmering of heat -
Outside the grave
Alone I dwell.
Eighty years later, on the anniversary of his death, I leave an unlit cigarette on Akutagawa's grave. There are flowers here too, other cigarettes, coffee and sake. A pale girl sits by the grave, writing in a notebook. Crows scream in the trees, mosquitoes bite into her skin. Yards away, the corpse of a cat is being eaten by maggots and flies. But here Akutagawa is no longer alone and, thanks to his last words, neither are we.
· The article above was amended on Friday September 7 2007. Some text was missing from the print version of this story. It has now been added.
Ryunosuke Akutagawa And Rashomon
When one thinks of Japanese literature, one must speak of RyunosukeAkutagawa. His short stories, In A Grove and Rashomon were combined and made into the classic movie Rashomon by Kurosawa, but besides this famous story, Akutagawa was a scintillating writer, famous for his short stories, poems and other writings, which he left behind, committing suicide at the age of 35. I decided to read his stories 2 years ago, and he figures quite prominently in Borges' library too, especially his Kappabook.
I am only going to focus on the writer here and not the movie. Akutagawais generally regarded as one of the most widely read persons of his generation. His first published works are translations by Anatole France and Yeats and by the time of his suicide, Akutagawa had left behind brilliant short stories, poems and other writings. It seems that Akutagawawas by nature melancholic, if that doesn't sound too cliched and his writings reinforce a pattern, an aura of profound difference, not only in the manner of his writings but in his persona as well. He was a stylist and his excellence in the short story genre is a thing to marvel at. He was very sensitive in his approach of the subject matter and yet he was very satirical of what he observed and that is well reflected in his work.
Akutagawa's work take a swipe at stupidity, at greed and hypocrisy. His introspection is that of an outsider, a person who is outside and looking in, yet his sermonizing is not a pain for it does not seem so. Thus, in his narratives, we have the dual alternating nature of man and the so-called reality that surrounds us constantly forcing the person under question to answer acutely, in situations of duress, of psychological duress, of inner stress, when they are faced with moral problems, when the scrutinizing forces are inside. And as Howard Hibbet writes in his introduction,Akutagawa was an intellectual and an artist, with a Zen taste for paradox, for dramatizing the complexities of human psychology, and his work contains flashes of mockery to perplex the straightforward reader.
If we consider Rashomon the movie, ( the story is too well known for me to sketch it here) we find that most of the narration is in front either of theRashomon gate with those ceaseless sheets of rain or in front of the prosecutor in the blinding heat. Thus, one feels that the narrator or the voice is the camera, a camera that stays still and captures the essence of the drama, of this narration. We are behind the camera but we do not know exactly what we are behind of. However, in the story called In a grove, the narrator is invisible, as he narrates the testimony of the various protagonists, but he stays invisible, invisible in this drama, for he does not tell us what happened. The narrator only narrates, he does not take sides. His narration is unambiguous, matter of fact, he or she does not think what happened but only says what others say happened or thinkhappened.
As Howard Hebbit writes in his excellent introduction to Rashomon and other stories, Akutagawa is at a distance from the story, at an oblique glance only, for he does not participate in the narration but only seems to be doing so. But is that actually true? Reading In A Grove a few times, I think Akutagawa realizes in this story a phenomenal act of participation for in just telling us what others have testified, he puts the onus on the reader to sketch, to the best of the readers ability or memory to actually what happened. Thus, he forces the reader to reconsider, reappraise the situation, for to be honest, even though in the movie one gets a semblance of what might have actually happened, the story gives you absolutely no chance and it is a dizzy act in the end for the result achieved is exactly what the writer desires to, the culpability of memory and the mixture of fact and fiction. However, Akutagawa lays bare the possibility of mixing desire in this memory for in the end, from the point of view of the raped noble woman she suffered an act of aggression, while from the point of the bandit, she desired it to some extent.
This story is an act of metaphysics, a philosophical enquiry into the nature of truth, the difference between objective and subjective truth, of history, of the politics of history too. It is an attempt to deconstruct on a grand scale whatever we hold holy or unholy, for it questions memory and desire and wishful thinking. within a few pages, Akutagawa forces the reader to think and concentrate and then reconsider the previous thoughts. It is an act of asking the reader, questioning his or her memory and enquiring the validity of memory. The reader must think and see and listen and never judge or speculate.
Akutagawa's art is rare and lies in making the reader reassess and philosophize. That is success beyond what many good writers can dream of. And more importantly, you don't know what he thinks.