I read this story many years ago and the setting has always stayed with me. There’s a part of my mind where it is always raining heavily and those people are still huddling under the ruined gate. That’s partly down to Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic masterpiece of the same name, which is based on this and another of Akutagawa’s short stories ‘In A Bamboo Grove’. Returning to the original, I’m surprised by the economy of his writing. He conjures up that entire apocalyptic world in only a few words and yet it is incredibly atmospheric and enveloping (a quality that was there in the novels and short stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, which first got me into books as a mesmerised child). He was a truly astonishing writer, able to move from the exquisite to the horrifying seamlessly. And though his work seems like fables or even legends at times, there are raw truths underpinning them, namely the world is always ending for someone somewhere and secondly very few of us get to retain our innocence when things fall apart.
First published in Teikoku Bungaku, 1915. Currently collected in Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Tales, Penguin Classics, 2006