Ryūnosuke Akutagawa is famous for stories like ‘The Nose’, ‘Rashōmon’ and ‘In the Grove’ (the last two forming the basis of the 1950 Kurosawa film, Rashōmon). But over the past two years, Ryan C.K. Choi has been publishing translations of his short, fragmentary stories. The two stories I have selected, ‘Snowfall’ and ‘Game of Tag’, contain many of the trademarks of these later translated works: they feel surprisingly contemporary, but also somehow distilled, cleansed of certain modern preoccupations.
In ‘Snowfall’ the narrator is travelling through the west of the country by train when the sight of a snow-covered mountain range transports him back to a seemingly mundane moment from his past: a conversation between an artist friend and a model that takes in the changing seasons, the onset of winter, and (as a central metaphor for the story) the ways “that the soil is a living creature too, no different from you, no different from me.”
Where ‘Snowfall’ is hyper-specific and fleeting, ‘Game of Tag’ feels almost universal. The story is framed like something of a parable or a fable, a simple tale that carries the weight of unspecified metaphor and allegory. Its story of the relationship between a boy and a girl travels two decades in under 300 words. The story hinges on two key winter-time meetings between the boy and the girl: once as they play as children under the gas lamp’s glow and later on a “train bound for snow country,” washed by the “evocative scents of snow-sodden shoes.” It is a love story—maybe?—and a story about coincidences and entangled histories.
The two stories read well as companion pieces. In each, Akutagawa uses the wintry landscape to contrast and highlight certain aspects of the characters. Everything—landscapes, characteristics, dialogue—serves some greater object. The stories are portraits of feelings, portraits of nostalgia. A deep-dive into Akutagawa’s work is incredibly rewarding and an interested reader could consume all available translated work in a relatively short amount of time. (All of Ryan Choi’s translations can be found here.)
Chosen by Stephen Mortland. Stephen is a writer living in Indiana. His stories can be found at New York Tyrant, Egress Magazine, NOON Annual and elsewhere. You can find him online @stephenmortland.