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Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) Paperback – Deckle Edge, Oct 31 2006
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About the Author
Haruki Murakami has written eleven novels, including Kafka on the Shore, as well as numerous other works.
Jay Rubin's translations include many of Haruki Murakami's works.
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The author, Akutagawa (1892-1927), is even today considered one of Japan's most accomplished short-story writers. As some reviewers say, he's not for everyone. But readers attracted to the dark, pessimistic and atmospheric, or to the introspective and psychological subtleties conveyed with style in his best stories, might find some of his works worthwhile.
He published about 150 stories between 1914 and his death; a scholar of his work has written somewhere that about half of them are still readable. There's a big gap between the best and the rest. Before this collection, some 60 of the stories had been translated into English since the 1930s. Here, eight more appear in English for the first time. The translator claimed nine, but a translation by Lawrence Rogers of "The Death Register" appeared earlier, in 2002.
Akutagawa's short-story career can be divided roughly into three periods. In the early works, from 1914 to 1922, at his best he drew inspiration from Japanese folktales and history and a range of non-Japanese sources, focusing on the characters' psychology to make them strikingly modern. Of the early works, the best known in English are "The Nose" (1916), "Kesa and Morito" (1918), "H-ll Screen" (1918) and "In a Grove" (1921), besides the vignette "Rashomon" (1915).
In the middle period, from 1922 or so to 1925, he sought more frequently and somewhat less successfully to make the settings of his writing more contemporary, while beginning to draw more deeply from his own life. Many of the works from the late period, from 1926 or so to his death, were heavily autobiographical, with his unease and despondency strongly apparent. Among the best-known works from the late period are "The Life of a Fool," "Spinning Gears" and "Kappa," all from 1927.
This anthology devoted about two-thirds of its pages to the early period, with the remainder split between middle and late. The translator sought a balance between retranslations of the author's well-known pieces from throughout his career -- most of the stories already mentioned, plus the beautifully compressed moral tale "The Spider's Thread" -- and first-time translations of lesser-known ones from the early and middle periods. The first-time translations, it was claimed, showed a funnier, more shocking and more imaginative side than had appeared previously in English.
Of the first-time translations, most enjoyed were those from the middle period: "Daidoji Shinsuke: The Early Years" (1924), the author's recollections of growing up in Tokyo in which his early psychology came strikingly alive, and "The Baby's Sickness" (1923) and "The Writer's Craft" (1924), in which he depicted with concern or irony the details of his family and working life. It seems that translations of autobiographical stories from this period haven't been published widely before, if at all. So they appear to be one of this anthology's main contributions.
Stories from the author's early period that were translated for the first time covered subjects such as harassed Christian villagers in the provinces in earlier times and an insane feudal retainer in Edo. Though maybe not on the level of his very best writing from this period, they too helped provide a more complete picture of his work. In particular, his story about a Christian who renounced her religion in an attempt to save her daughter, who then died, showed again his great ability to depict the macabre in ways that can't be forgotten.
Of the retranslations, maybe what's most worthwhile is that the versions provided here of the late works "The Life of a Fool" and "Spinning Gears" are better than the previous ones, more nuanced and more polished.
The main short stories I missed in this anthology were "Kesa and Morito," a brilliantly reimagined event from Japanese medieval times told in the first person, from the clashing perspectives of a man and a woman. And "Tangerines" (1919), a memorable vignette of observation and feeling during a train ride taken by the narrator. These were missed because for me this author, except in his moral tales, is often at his best in the early stories when speaking through other characters in the first person. Or in the works before his late period when he's describing events drawn from his own life but is in full control. Otherwise, too often the earlier stories feel a bit detached or in the late pieces his nervous sensibility becomes too jarring.
The anthology seems to have been a labor of love by the translator, who reevaluated the author's complete works and retranslated a number of the best-known stories, instead of just reprinting previous versions. There was an introduction by the writer Haruki Murakami that was useful for a Japanese perspective on Akutagawa's life, problems and significance. The collection also supplied a detailed chronology of the author's life and many scholarly footnotes. It contained several more stories than the other large anthologies, Glenn Shaw's Tales Grotesque and Curious (1930), Takashi Kojima's Japanese Short Stories (1961) and Exotic Japanese Stories (1964), Seiji Lippit's The Essential Akutagawa (1999), and Charles De Wolf's Mandarins (2007). It's the most careful and detailed of any collection for this author that I've seen.
Still, it lacked works of his that are well worth reading. For that reason, those who enjoyed it might also like the other collections, especially the ones by Lippit and De Wolf. The quality of the translations in Lippit varies -- unlike Rubin's book, numerous translators were involved -- and about half the titles are the same. But from the early period Lippit offers strong pieces set in the past that supplement the ones in Rubin, such as "Kesa and Morito," "Tu Tze-Chun" (1920), "Autumn Mountain" (1921) and "The Faint Smiles of the Gods" (1922). His anthology also contains Akutagawa's erudite but grim note of farewell.
The anthology by De Wolf offers a mix of the familiar, including new versions of "Tangerines" and "Kesa and Morito," and tales translated for the first time. Compared to Rubin and Lippitt, De Wolf devotes less space to the macabre early stories set in the past and more to the variety of styles in the author's career. There are a number of tales from the early period set in contemporary times, for example, including "The Garden" (1922). And "Winter" (1927), a late but masterful story that isn't obsessively autobiographical.
Shaw's anthology also contains earlier works well worth reading, such as "Mori Sensei," "Lice" and "The Wine Worm," as well as good versions of "The Handkerchief" and "The Ball."
This reader hopes that translators of future collections for this author will take the opportunity to introduce into English a few more of his still-untranslated works, among them "The Story of St. Christopher" (1919), which has been called a stylistic tour de force, "A Day in the Life of Oishi Kuranosuke" (1917), and "Lechery" (1921). Or maybe even something from his essays, like "Words of a Dwarf." Aside from the interest of his best works, he stands out as one of the more sensitive writers of his time and place during a period of massive change. And not least, as a personality.
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.
Later stories included in the book, from 1925 to 1927 are more autobiographical or personal, and while revealing how similar that people feel about fear, stress, anxiety, and how we live within communal society, sadly, these stories show how the author is losing his equilibrium and peace of mind. It is difficult to parse out if it is the fear of going insane or if it is actual instability precipitating his emotional frailty.
Other reviewers have mentioned Kafka. I would add the early symbolist stories of James Joyce presented in cold realist style. But please do not categorize nor pigeon hole these profound presentations of reality from a meditative, Asian perspective. Enter this world without fear and ready to learn. Come with your cup emptied, ready to fill and to fill it up again.
Other reviewers have adequately explicated this excellent and generous collection which arrives to my grateful hands today. Finally perhaps something will release Mr. Joyce long enough from my hands to consider another author, having studied so long and frequently the film of Rashomon. Criterion's excellent restoration and commentary are well worth acquisition and stand up under repeated viewing of their DVD (as they choose among HDTV formats). Please notice here the orignal stories (also included in the Criterion package with different translator- a crucial point of departure) and the transfer of titles.
A great book for a quiet day. A great book for mass transport if you can focus in silence. I cannot destroy the tales by a clumsy attempt at summary. REpeated reading is rewarded by more profound understanding, just as walking through a village every day for a year will finally grant some slight perception of its realities and rhythms. I wish these were available on audio book as my over-worn eyes fade in to the gloom.
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