Date of Publication: 2006, Penguin Classics
Number of Pages (including notes): 268
Description: Considered to be one of the greatest national writers of Japan, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa had a short but brilliant career in the early twentieth century. This collection includes some of his best known short stories, such as “Rashōmon”, “Spinning Gears”, “Loyalty”, and “The Nose”, as well as some of his lesser-known works. The stories range from humorous, to historical, to agonizingly autobiographical. The Penguin Classics edition also includes a wonderfully insightful introduction by Haruki Murakami.
Review: For much of Akutagawa’s early career, he delved into Japan’s literary past. The story “Loyalty” is a complex tale based on a true event that took place during the Tokugawa period, when the young head of a noble family went insane, creating a crisis among his samurai retainers. Samurai were meant to be loyal to the death, but that loyalty also extended to the Shogun. If one’s master posed a thread to the Shogun, where should your loyalty lie? This is the problem that faces two very different retainers, each of whom must make an almost impossible decision. The story explores not only loyalty, but the issues of sanity, respect, obligation, and shame.
Some of the more humorous stories include “Horse Legs” and “The Story of a Head That Fell Off”, both involving dead men who suffer terrible humiliations, one at the hand of some spiritual bureaucrats, and the other because of a medical miracle. But the final section of the book, which include those selections that tell Akutagawa’s own story, is possibly the most moving and compelling. Akutagawa’s childhood was difficult, as his mother went insane shortly after his birth. He was afraid of mental illness for the remainder of his life, and the final story of the book, “Spinning Gears” tells the tale of his last months spent in depression and constant anxiety. He suffered from insomnia, hallucinations, and constantly worried about his own sanity. It is the final passage of the story that conveys Akutagawa’s overwhelming despair:
I don’t have the strength to keep writing this. To go on living with this feeling is painful beyond description. Isn’t there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep”
The story was published posthumously in 1927, the year Akutagawa took his own life. The story progresses toward that inevitable conclusion, and gives us an insight into Akutagawa’s tortured mind.