Steve's Reviews > Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories

Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
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's review
Feb 11, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction

I'm a big fan of the movie. The title story, interestingly, is not the same as the movie. Well, at least most of it. It's the following story in the collection, "In a Bamboo Grove," that Kurosawa based his masterpiece on. It's a good story, but not, by far, the best in the collection. (The title story "Rashomon," which precedes "Bamboo Grove" is one blackest stories I've ever read.) It's one of those rare instances where the movie is better than the story it's based on. It's not that the story is bad, it's just short, slight even. But it provided Kurosawa with a skeleton that he fleshed out into one the greatest films ever made. All those shadows and nuances and closeups from the film are not to be found in the story.

The collection is odd. Haruki Murakami provides the introduction, but it's an introduction that seems geared, with its various references to Japanese writers I know nothing about, to the Japanese reader. Still, it is Murakami, and he is true student of writing. It turns out Akutagawa is not Murakami's favorite modern Japanese writer, though he greatly admires him. And, like Murakami, Akutagawa was a real student of western fiction. Still, as Murakami points out in this introduction, despite his technical brilliance something seems to have be missing in Akutagawa's writerly core. It would eventually mushroom into madness and suicide. In a number of these stories the reader will pick up, uncomfortably, with this writer's obsession with madness. This obsession is really on display in the story "Loyalty,"which is about a young nobleman, Itakura Shuri, who is losing his mind. It's impossible, since this story appears around the middle of the collection, to not think of the author is writing about himself.

His head ached. He could not even apply himself to this reading, normally one of this favorite activities. The mere sounds of footsteps in the corridor or of voices in the house was enough to break his concentration. As the symptoms grew more severe, the tiniest stimuli kept preying on this nerves.

If, for example, a black-lacquer tobacco tray bore a decoration of creeping vines in gold, the delicate stalks and leaves would upset him. The sight of sharp, pointed objects such as ivory chopsticks or bronze fire tongs would make him anxious. His condition finally deteriorated to the point where the intersection borders of tatami mats or the four corners of a ceiling would fill him with the same nervous tension he might experience in starting at sharp blade.

As I said above, it's an odd collection. I'm sure it's in part meant to show Akutagawa's range as well as the arc of his career. The first half of the book is comprised of stories that take place in Japan's past. Kind of like a weird fusion of Borges and Jack Vance. There's considerable horror along with some black humor. One story, "The Nose," is a comic masterpiece. And then there's the horrific "Hell Screen," about a mad artist (natch), and his local ruler who wants a painting of Hell. What a wild story. Hints of incest, the supernatural, a crazy monkey, and cruelty. Poe would have loved this one. "Hell Screen" may be the best story in the collection. It's a must read.

The last third of the book didn't hold my attention as well. These stories have a modern setting, and are often just as dark, but they lack the wonderful weirdness of the earlier stories in the collection. Definitely a collection worth reading, just don't come to it thinking the "Rashomon" of the movie is to be found in similar form.
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Reading Progress

February 11, 2010 – Shelved
February 11, 2010 – Shelved as: fiction
April 5, 2016 – Started Reading
April 5, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
April 18, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Heather (new)

Heather Shaw Everyone in our house LOVES this book. Big fight before back to college about who got to take it with them. Not sure who won. It wasn't me.

Steve I've only seen the movie (which is a huge favorite).

message 3: by Tristram (new)

Tristram A brilliant movie indeed. In case you speak German: I wrote a review on that film on the German Amazon site.

Steve I can't read German, but thanks! The actual story isn't that long (about 10 pages). It's amazing what Kurosawa did with it.

message 5: by Tristram (new)

Tristram I think Kurosawa used two of Akutagawa's stories, and the ending with the baby is entirely from Kurosawa himself, who did not want his film to end on as bleak a note as the stories do.

message 6: by Evan (new) - added it

Evan It's impossible to too highly praise Kurosawa's masterpiece, the breakout movie of Japanese cinema. Thanks for hipping me to these original stories.

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