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
Fantastic morality story from the master of Japanese short stories, pontificating on a man’s journey climbing a spider’s thread from hell to heaven.
Included in Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories, Penguin 2006. Available to read online here
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.)
First published 1924. Published in these translations by Asymptote, July 2018 (‘Snowfall’) and The Yale Journal (‘Game of Tag’) –
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.
Probably my favourite Japanese author, well, the one I return to more than others, Akutagawa is best known for his short stories ‘Rashōmon’ and ‘In a Grove’ – Akira Kurrosawa’s Rashomon is based on the latter and not the former tale. For a take on Akutagawa’s troubled life and writings, read David Peace’s fictional biography Patient X. This story details the slow disintegration of Akutagawa’s mind, faith and life. It recalls the doubles in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Fyodor Dostoevsky and looks forward to the doppelgangers in the novels of Vladimir Nabokov and Ursula K. Le Guin. Akutagawa walks through the streets of Tokyo’s Shitamachi, much as Poe’s William Wilson had done in Stoke Newington one hundred years earlier. In this Tokyo, still devastated by the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, Akutagawa encounters people we are not quite sure exist, friends say they have met him in bars when Akutagawa wasn’t there and he becomes obsessed with the strange workings of his mind and memory. Other Japanese authors I could have included are Kanoko Okamoto, Osamu Dazai, Kenji Nakagami, Mieko Kanai, Yūko Tsushima, Yōko Ogawa and Mariko Nagai.
First published posthumously as ‘Haguruma’, 1927. Translated by Jay Rubin in Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2009. Online here