When one thinks of Japanese literature, one must speak of Ryunosuke Akutagawa. 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 Kappa book.
I am only going to focus on the writer here and not the movie. Akutagawa is 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 Akutagawa was 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 the Rashomon 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 think happened.
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.