Thursday, January 22, 2009

'Rashomon and other stories'

Rashomonby Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Fiction/short stories, stories originally published independently in Japan from 1914 - 1922, this collection in English translation, 1952
Liveright, trade pb, 102 p.
Translated from the Japanese by Takashi Kojima
Illustrated by M. Kuwata
Ryunosuke Akutagawa wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century when Western industrialism and culture mounted an assault against the pride of traditional, insulated Japan. Whether he set his fictions in 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 Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashomon, tells the chilling story of the killing of a samurai through the conflicting 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, regaining 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 enduring voice of modern Japanese literature.
This book had been languishing in my TBR stacks for quite some time and I’m so glad I finally read it. This slim edition contains six stories, including the title story “Rashomon”, and the story “In a Grove”, which the movie Rashomon is based on. (Confused?) These two stories are the ones that have stuck in my mind the most vividly although I really did enjoy all of them. Akutagawa is renowned for his precision with words and this did come across in what seemed to be a good translation however I’m sure much of the subtlety of the original was lost. (Let me lament again the fact that I can't read Japanese). Now that I’ve read these, I’d love to read more of Akutagawa’s stories. I’m quite tempted to get the Penguin Deluxe edition, not only for the fantastic cover, and the introduction by Haruki Murakami, but especially since it contains several more stories. I’d also like to finally watch Akira Kurosawa’s film.
Final verdict: Well worth reading this modern Japanese classic!

**A little trivia: The title of the story "In a Grove" (藪の中, yabu no naka) has even become an idiom in Japan, “used to signify a situation where no conclusion can be drawn, because evidence is insufficient or contradictory.” (from Wikipedia)

Read "In a Grove" online

My Rating: 4/5
(#3 for 2008, Japanese Literature Challenge 2, Reading Japan, 1% Well-Read Challenge, Lost in Translation Challenge)

Reminder: If you have reviewed this title, let me know and I'll link to it here.


  1. This does sound good, Nat! I have heard of the movie, Rashomon, but did not know it was based on a short story. I will have to add this to my wish list.

  2. This sounds really good! Soooo ... "In the Grove" is really the story behind the movie "Rashomon"? That is interesting ... and, you're right, confusing! Thanks for the great review.

  3. I also really like the sound of this!

  4. Never heard of this book before! I guess I am really missing out on Japanese literature :(

  5. Wendy - I didn't know that either when I first heard of it a while ago. I'm definitely going to have to watch the movie one of these days.

    Terri B. - That's how it seems. I'll have to confirm that once I finally see the movie and I'll post about it here once I do.

    Nymeth - Well-written with some glimpses of Japanese culture and basic human nature.. they really were fun to read. :)

    Happy Reader - There are so many books it's hard to have heard of all of them. But now you have! Heard of this one, that is. :)

  6. Sounds great. I thought Kurosawa's Rashomon was amazing, but I didn't know it was based on a short story, and not the one titled Rashomon eh! Thanks, wil look it up.

  7. mariel - The main story of the murder and the conflicting testimonies is from the story 'In a Grove' but apparently in the movie the Rashomon gate, as it was known then in Kyoto, makes an appearance and is where the story 'Rashomon' takes place. LOL. According to wikipedia, 'Rashomon' provides the setting, while 'In a Grove' provides the characters and plot. Now that I've read both stories I really want to see the film for myself so I can see what was taken from each story.

  8. I've got the Penguin edition in my pile (with the Murakami introduction, but a different cover). You've just reminded me that I really must get to it soon... thanks!

  9. Rob - You're welcome! I couldn't resist getting the Penguin Deluxe edition so now I'm looking forward to reading the other stories that weren't in this slim edition and the introduction by Murakami.


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