By Akutagawa Ryūnosuke
Translated into English by Nathan Collins
Introduction (Page 1)
Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, author of over one hundred short stories and namesake of the prestigious Japanese literary award, the Akutagawa Prize, was born to Makinohara Toshizō and Niihara Fuku on March 1, 1892. Shortly after Akutagawa's birth, his mother, Fuku, went insane, and his father unceremoniously gave him away to be raised by his maternal aunt. In 1913, Akutagawa enrolled in the English Literature Department of the Tokyo Imperial University. Within his first year there, he published a literary magazine with two other students for which he wrote his first short story, Old Age (1914). Only one year later, he published Rashōmon (1915).
Famous Japanese author Natsume Sōseki (I Am a Cat, Kokoro) took notice of Akutagawa's work and helped draw attention to the young writer among literary circles. Akutagawa and Natsume share a similar history--both were born in a turn-of-the-century Japan trying to find its place in the Western world, both studied English Literature at the Tōkyō Imperial University, both enjoyed writing Chinese poetry, both left teaching jobs to write short stories for a newspaper, and both took a hiatus from their writing careers to study abroad – Natsume in England and Akutagawa in China for four months in 1921.
Many of Akutagawa's early short stories retold classic Japanese tales using a contemporary writing style. Rashōmon, The Nose (1916), and Potato Gruel (1916), among others, reexamined stories from the Konjaku Monogatari (Tales of Times Now Past), while The Hell Screen (1918) was based on a tale from the Ujishūi Monogatari (A Collection of Tales from the Uji). In particular, Rashōmon contains numerous clear references to the Hōjōki (An Account of my Hut), a chronicling of the series of disasters which befell the capital of Japan at the time. Akutagawa also wrote many stories intended for children, such as The Spider's Thread (1918), while others, like The Christ of Nanking (1920), held Christian themes.
In 1918, Akutagawa married Tuskamoto Fumi, with whom he had three sons. After his trip to China in 1921, Akutagawa's health rapidly declined. Afflicted with insomnia and gastric problems, he started to hallucinate and began to worry that he had also inherited his mother's insanity. During this time, he wrote In a Grove (1921), which served the basis for the famous 1950 Kurosawa film, Rashōmon. As Akutagawa continued to weaken from illness and anxiety, his writings became more focused on the themes of life, death, and his own past. It is said that one of the characters in Kappa (1927) is based on Akutagawa himself, and A Fool's Life (1927) is widely regarded as an unofficial autobiography. After a failed attempt at suicide with his wife's friend (perhaps "double platonic suicide" as written in A Fool's Life), Akutagawa took his own life with an overdose of Veronal and died on July 24, 1927.