Akutagawa Ryūnosuke is probably one of the most famous authors to ever emerge from Japan, even if people aren’t familiar with his larger body of work, ‘Rashōmon’ was made famous with Kurosawa Akira’s famous movie of the same name. There’s a literary prize named after him. Dazai first tried to commit suicide after learning of Akutagawa’s own demise.
The first time I read his work, I didn’t like it.
Not even a dislike of it, but actual loathing. I didn’t understand the hype surrounding him at all. It wasn’t something that resonated with me in any way.
I must admit that I’m unable to read, really any kanji, so this is was based on the translation that was presented to me and the only reason I could think that he’d had the impact that he’d had was that it was such a stark departure than his recent predecessors, someone like Kunikida Doppo. His narrative followed little of the previous stylistic choices that they’d made and often didn’t conform to any narrative form at all.
Something that he’d very purposely chose.
All these things meant that I regarded him with the same sort of suspicion that I regard a lot of literary writers, that the novelty, the break from tradition, are weighted too high against a good story. People praising style over substance.
I have since read this version, translated by Seiji Lippit, and I take back all of my previous thoughts. While I will always prefer Dazai, for reasons that are too numerous to mention here, there’s a beautiful simplicity to Akutagawa’s work. An elegance.
It makes me wish my Japanese was more proficient because I feel as though there are layers that are lost when translated. I’d like to be able to appreciate each choice in kanji, in a way that doesn’t translate in English.
His work is never going to be for everyone, his stories are often largely unsatisfying and dark in tone, a stark reminder of the cruelties of the world, but the language and manner with which he recounts the stories are magnificent. He’s someone who deserves more than one read because his value will never be immediately apparent.
So I’m very glad I went back to read this book after initially dismissing his work because it’s changed my outlook on a writer I would have initially overlooked.
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