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I first came to Ryunosuke Akutagawa by way of Akira Kurosawa's film Rashomon , which conflates a story of the same name with In a Bamboo Grove The latter work is a remarkable example of Akutagawa's distinctive early style, which added psychological complexity to medieval Heian period folktales. Redolent of Browning's The Ring and the Book , In a Bamboo Grove consists of seven testimonies concerning the death of a samurai who had been travelling with his wife.
These accounts, including the dead man's own version via a spirit medium, all contradict one another to varying degrees. In highlighting the subjectivity of truth - no single account solves every paradox - Akutagawa displays an insightful and keenly creative intelligence in prose so lucid its sophistication is hardly visible.
The period in which Akutagawa wrote, from the first world war until his death in , was marked by affluence and liberalism in urban Japanese society.
At the same time, outside the major cities a more or less feudal culture still held sway. Bridging this gap, Akutagawa became enormously popular by applying modernist techniques to his adaptations of traditional stories. In the mids, however, a radical shift split Japanese literary culture between the autobiographical, inward-looking I-novel or, more accurately given the genre's short story element, "I-fiction" , and the chiefly Marxist works of the proletarian school, both of which were Japanese strains of European naturalism.
Suddenly there was no audience for Akutagawa's modernist-medieval tales, of which he had in any case grown tired. There followed a period of desultory though not undistinguished experimentation.
Having made his name with a unique fusion of styles, Akutagawa was understandably unwilling to join either the confessional or proletarian schools although he wrote incisively and sympathetically about the latter in his essay, What is Proletarian Literature?
It is the best sort of satire, with humour and a commitment to truth working in concert. It was with his mental health in steep decline that Akutagawa set to work on a final series of devastating, pared-down works of introspection that culminated in his barbiturates overdose in the summer of And while these share traits in common with I-fiction, Akutagawa's was a typically individual take on the style.
His fear of following his mother into madness pervades these diarylike pieces, which also unflinchingly document his paranoid delusions.
The Life of a Stupid Man, completed just a month before his death, sees its narrator clinging to his diminishing will to live as a man "leaning as it were upon a chipped and narrow sword". In another particularly revealing passage the narrator, reading Candide, says that "Voltaire supplied him with man-made wings.
The posthumously published Spinning Gears amplifies this atmosphere of despair. It is a vision of hell on earth in which the author, who has come to see portents everywhere, from maggots in his meal an hallucination that Akutagawa suffered regularly to strangers' words heard in passing and brands of cigarette, surrenders the last shreds of his will to live.
Looking back to his youth in The Life of a Stupid Man, Akutagawa writes, "He wanted to live life so intensely that he could die at any moment without regrets. As a final note, Jay Rubin's translations in the recent Penguin edition of Akutagawa's stories represent a significant improvement on several past efforts.
The choice of Haruki Murakami to write the introduction is a puzzle, however, given that he only musters faint praise for his subject. But that's an irony Akutagawa, who once ended a story by claiming that if her boyfriend didn't brutally deflower his heroine then the critics most surely would, might well have enjoyed.
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A brief survey of the short story: part four
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Analysis Of Ryunosuke Akutagawa 's ' A Bamboo Grove '
As in any detective story, we learn the events from the head and tail instead of in linear fashion. The first account is that of the woodcutter who discovered the man's body in the woods. He says the man died of a single sword stroke to the chest, and that the trampled leaves around the body showed there had been a violent struggle. There were no swords nearby, and not enough room for a horse—only a single piece of rope, a comb and bloodstained bamboo blades. A traveling Buddhist priest delivers the next account. He says that he saw the man, who was accompanied by his wife on horseback, on the road, around noon the day before the murder. The man was carrying a sword, a bow and a black quiver.
In a Grove
It presents three varying accounts of the murder of a samurai, Kanazawa no Takehiro, whose corpse has been found in a bamboo forest near Kyoto. Each section simultaneously clarifies and obfuscates what the reader knows about the murder, eventually creating a complex and contradictory vision of events that brings into question humanity's ability or willingness to perceive and transmit objective truth. The story opens with the account of a woodcutter who has found a man's body in the woods. The woodcutter reports that man died of a single sword stroke to the chest, and that the trampled leaves around the body showed there had been a violent struggle, but otherwise lacked any significant evidence as to what actually happened. There were no weapons nearby, and no horses—only a single piece of rope, a comb and a lot of blood.
Rashomon Summary and Analysis of "In a Grove"