Monday, September 19, 2016


by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Recommended Ages: 14+

This 1926 "novel," translated from Japanese by Geoffrey Bownas, is all of 100 pages long; the edition I read was fattened up a bit by the addition of a helpful 47-page introduction. It was one of the last works of an author now considered the father of the Japanese short story, celebrated for the clarity and circumstantial detail of his stories, and their tone of dry humor. His story "In a Grove" was the basis of the celebrated film Rashomon by director Akira Kurosawa. There seem to be a lot of different views about what kind of book this is - a children's story based on traditional Japanese folklore, a satire on the mores of early-20th-century Japanese society, or a cry of existential despair from an intellectual who was possibly suffering the early stages of schizophrenia.

I found a copy of it at a local secondhand bookstore with a sticker on the back cover listing a price in Yen; somehow it seems to have made its way from Japan to the quiet side of the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. It interested me enough to take it home, for two reasons: first, because I still fondly remember the smattering of Japanese I learned in high school, almost 30 years ago; and no less importantly, it features a magical creature listed in the Hogwarts school-book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them..

Kappas, according to Japanese tradition, are scaly critters that live in rivers, where their favorite pastime is drowning unwary animals and children. Their distinguishing features are a beak and an indentation on their head. According to Akutagawa, they also have a society that mirrors the foibles of Taishō-era Japan, including a capitalist system that virtually enslaved its workers, a religious scene that wallowed in futility, a crisis in the arts and the structure of the family, and many other problems that evidently disgusted the author. Toward the end of the book, he increasingly reveals a morbid side to his outlook. A sensitive reader cannot leave this book feeling satisfied; rather, its effect is unsettling, unnerving.

It certainly isn't what I would call a children's book; it has some decidedly adult material in it, including sexual references, cultural criticism, and a depiction of mental illness and suicide that may have been an unheeded cry for help. The year after he wrote this book, Akutagawa died of a self-inflicted overdose of sleeping pills at age 35. This information leaves the reader not with a warm sense of having enjoyed a piece of magical-creature folklore, but with a sad feeling of having witnessed a cultural tragedy. This strange, disturbing, yet curiously whimsical story documents a moment in that tragedy, but it also bears witness - even in translation - to a talent for writing crystalline sentences and blending believable details with bizarre and magical elements.

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