Writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, Ryunosuke Akutagawa created disturbing stories out of Japan's cultural upheaval. Whether his fictions are set centuries past or close to the present, Akutagawa was a modernist, writing in polished, superbly nuanced prose subtly exposing human needs and flaws. "In a Grove," which was the basis for Kurosawa's classic film Rashomon, tells the chilling story of the killing of a samurai through the testimony of witnesses, including the spirit of the murdered man. The fable-like "Yam Gruel" is an account of desire and humiliation, but one in which the reader's sympathy is thoroughly unsettled. And in "The Martyr," a beloved orphan raised by Jesuit priests is exiled when he refuses to admit that he made a local girl pregnant. He regains their love and respect only at the price of his life. All six tales in the collection show Akutagawa as a master storyteller and an exciting voice of modern Japanese literature.
I read and watch a lot of Anime and Manga. Usually the sort that is easily available, the ones with teens at boarding school with very little family. This has skewed my perception of Japanese Culture. The stories in this book, written in the early 1910's, changed all that.
These stories are very modern in tone, even being written at the turn of the century. Even the stories based of Japanese Fairy Tales are modern. I like that they show a much different side of Japanese Culture. The characters here keep in touch with family, even extended. The stories show the whole human spectrum of emotion - from Hope to Hate. From Happiness to Depression.
My favorite story in this collection is "Dragon: The Old Potters Tale". Its a simple story that runs deeply. A few of them are not as good as others but as a whole, I loved these stories.
My voyage into Japanese fiction is really just beginning. This book was the first of such I’ve read beyond Murakami’s work. But it is reason enough to propel me into a reading much more.
In Rashomon, the act of the ghoulish old woman picking out long hairs from the skulls of the corpses to make wigs and sell them to buy scraps of food delineate a desperate act to fulfill the demonic perils of life. Similarly, 'Martyr' highlights the thriving soul of hypocrisy in religion and the susceptibility to strong gossip.
Akutagawa’s affinity for such themes brings out his real tumultuous relation with mental anxiety and clinical neurotic dwelling of his personal life. (He committed suicide at the age of 35 due to an overdose of Vernol). Furthermore, his description of kimonos/garbs adorning his protagonists illustrates a high usage of the color blue which in Japanese culture is the color of naivety,immaturity and youth.
For that, I give an overall 5 stars, though perhaps it should be 4.