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Stephen Mortland

A Variation of Goethe

Come, let us go

To the valley that cuts through this fleeting world

Where the rocky crags are steep, and over it the mountain

stream runs pure

Where the herbs are fragrant

Akutagawa’s rendering of Goethe’s Mignon’s Song   in the hand of Tok, the Kappa poet, translated by Allison Markin Powell & Lisa Hofman-Kuroda

A Photograph of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

There is a photograph of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa hanging in a square black frame above my writing desk. It is the only photo I have framed in the room where I write. The photograph shows a young Japanese man with unkempt hair, his hand to his chin, his eyes turned slyly, even playfully, away. The photograph has been with me long enough—and long enough in its frame—for me to have forgotten what sort of photographic paper it is printed on, though I have a vague recollection that the photograph may, in fact, be the back of a postcard. I did not come to Akutagawa’s writing the way most come to it. It is often his story “In a Grove” that introduces those outside of Japan to the author’s work. The story experiments with narratology and perspective. It tells the story—through competing testimonies and eye-witness accounts—of the violent death of the young samurai Kanazawa no Takehiro. According to critic Richard Benton, the story “suggests that people have the morality they can afford.” “In a Grove” was adapted into  a movie by Akira Kurosawa in 1951. It was one of the first Japanese films to receive significant international reception, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival that same year. But my introduction to Akutagawa was not “In a Grove,” it was two short pieces, translated by Ryan Choi, called “Yokosuka Scenes” and “Record of Eyes and Ears.” These pieces are not pristine objects in the same way “In a Grove” is a pristine object. They are fragmentary. They feel somewhat incomplete—sketches, drafts. Nonetheless, I found them deeply compelling—moving, even—and I was moved by them not in spite of their irresolution, but because of it. The author is inescapably present in these stories, but it is not the vulnerability of an exhibitionist—quite the opposite. It’s the vulnerability of observation. Like the strange confessional fictions of Robert Walser or the concealed self-portraits of W.G. Sebald, Akutagawa is revealed in his work by what he sees, how he sees it, and the associations that link these disparate observations. Reading “Yokosuka Scenes” and “Record of Eyes and Ears” for the first time, it was not the salacious satisfaction of seeing the author’s life unmediated and fearlessly laid bare that compelled me, it was the satisfaction of dissatisfaction—feeling that certain images would not resolve, that these images were, in fact, the product of the author’s private associations, that left me, after having read it, moved. I subsequently read all translations of Akutagawa by Ryan Choi that I could find online and in print—many of them were minor masterpieces, all of them left me affected. Many of these stories were from the period, in the latter half of Akutagawa’s short career, when the author embraced a more fragmentary and autobiographical approach. From there I purchased a collection of Akutagawa’s earlier stories that included “In the Grove.” When the book arrived in the mail—a slim edition published by Charles E. Tuttle Co in Tokyo Japan, the same edition featured in Jim Jarmusch’s film Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai—I opened the book and the postcard with the photograph of Akutagawa (if indeed it was a postcard) was pressed between the pages. 

A Childhood Game

Young Ryūnosuke sat on the floor, spinning a wooden beigoma. He notched a knotted string at the beigoma’s narrow tip and wrapped the string up the sloping sides. He pulled the string quickly, releasing the top, listening as it spun and hummed. His mother knelt across the room. She watched the boy, or looked past him, and her face showed no emotion. Having gone to live with his maternal uncle, Ryūnosuke hadn’t seen his mother in months. Visiting her now, he noted that she was mostly retreated, mostly silent—but each time Ryūnosuke pulled the string and spun the top, his mother spoke. “Momo,” she said and the top hummed. “Tsukuyomi,” she said. Whenever she spoke, whatever she said, it made the small hairs on the back of the young boy’s neck prickle. He stopped his game and held the top tightly in his palm. He watched his mother’s face. He was withholding something from her and he knew it. Wrapping the top again, he spun it. It hummed, but his mother said nothing, and when the top had fallen on its side, and Ryūnosuke looked up, he saw the back of his mother’s gown as she left the room and stepped through the door into the sun.

A Foundling

Whatever the circumstances and reasoning that led to their decision, it was, to Ryūnosuke’s mind, unequivocally abandonment. He was born in the spring of 1892. The hour, day, month, and year of his birth were all of the Dragon. His father, Toshizō Niihara, was a dairy merchant. His mother, Fuku Niihara, went mad shortly after he was born. His parents were of ill-omened ages and, to avoid bad luck, the infant Ryūnosuke was given to a friend of the family, in whose home he was nursed. After some time had passed, the baby was accepted back by his parents as a foundling. “I grew up,” Akutagawa later confided in a friend, “without tasting my mother’s milk.”

The Kappa

Kappa, in Japanese folklore, are small, impish water demons who reside in ponds and rivers. They resemble monkeys with  yellow-green scales like fish scales instead of skin and wide beaks in the middle of their faces. On top of their heads they have hollow indentations that are filled with water. If the water is spilled or otherwise dries, the Kappa loses its supernatural powers. Japanese mothers and fathers, as far back as the Edo period, warned their children of the Kappa to keep the children from acting foolishly near dangerous waters.

The Kappa II

The Kappa pester. They lift the kimonos of passing women, they steal bowls of rice. They are capable, also, of great harm—kidnapping, death, and rape. The Kappa drink their victims’ blood, eat their victims’ livers. They gain power by devouring their victims’ shirikodama—a mythical ball said to contain the soul, which is located inside the anus. But the Kappa are unpredictable creatures and not always malevolent. Once befriended, a Kappa may perform any number of tasks for human beings—helping farmers irrigate their land, providing fresh fish, bringing good fortune to a family they wish well. The Kappa are also highly knowledgeable about medicine, and legend has it that it was the Kappa who originally taught the art of bone setting to the Japanese.

Childbirth Among the Kappa

It is traditional, in Kappa society, when a she-Kappa is pregnant, for the father Kappa to put his mouth to the genitals of the mother, “as if he were speaking into a telephone,” and ask the baby Kappa, still in the womb, if the child desires to be born. If the baby Kappa replies that it does not wish to be born, a midwife performs a procedure and the mother Kappa’s belly immediately deflates and the child is not born.

Something Ryūnosuke Believed

Akutagawa’s identification with his birth mother was as strong as it was distant. Though he hardly knew her, he was convinced of a kinship between the two of them that went beyond hereditary bonds, a kinship reinforced by their singular vulnerability. He believed—and so feared—that he might, at any moment, succumb to obsession, paranoia, and hysteria just as his mother had, and this belief—the ever-present possibility of descent—rendered all of life, no matter how supposedly stable and trustworthy, meaningless for him.

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s Three Mothers

The first, who brought him into the world, went mad eight months after he was born. She died when he was ten years old. He was living, at the time of her death, away from her. The second, his legal mother, the wife of his maternal uncle, was mother to him only by record. His impression, on first encountering her—that she was nervous and easily defeated—did not change over the course of a childhood spent in her house. The third mother—a mother by force—was his unmarried aunt Fuki who lived all her life in her brother’s household and who, on the boy’s arrival, fastened herself to him for unclear purposes (though perhaps she was enticed by the opportunity of achieving something near legitimate motherhood without the need for marriage). Whatever Fuki’s reasons, her devotion to the boy was faultless. These three existed, for the boy—and later for the man—as poles that tethered him, poles that demarcated the boundaries of his self-conception. When Patient 23 visits Kappa Land, he meets a Kappa poet named Tok. Tok explains that parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters exist for the sole pleasure of making each other altogether miserable. Later, though, Tok sees, through a window, a Kappa family sitting serenely around the dinner table. He is envious, he admits, even though he knows better. Watching the family as they eat together, Tok says quietly, “I suppose even those eggs right there are more health-giving than love.” 

Akutagawa’s Condensed Biography of Basho

“He committed adultery and thereupon eloped from his native province Iga; arrived at Edo, where he frequented brothels and other such places there; and gradually evolved into one of the age's great poets.”


He sat at his desk. He lifted his pen. On the paper he wrote about a man coming home, a man seeing his wife and her refusal to meet his eyes. He wrote about the man sitting at a desk and writing. For all his life, Akutagawa had opposed the Japanese shishosetsu tradition—the “I-novel.” It subordinated art to life. It repressed artistic freedom. Its currency was slander and its effects were obscene. Sitting at his desk, he wrote the story of a man who, for all his life, opposed the shishosetsu tradition. He heard his wife standing outside the door. She whispered something to his son. The boy came through the door with a plate of peaches saying, “Momo, Papa.”

Visiting His Father’s House on the Occasion of his Mother’s Funeral in 1902

Alone, momentarily, in his late-mother’s room, Ryūnosuke walked to the tansu chest tucked into the alcove in the corner. He was overcome with the desire to see one of his mother’s kimonos, to feel the material and the weight. The tansu was made of cypress wood, lacquered with images of irises and with symbols of the dragon. It had been years since he had seen his mother and even when she was dying he was not taken to see her. On one hand, he regretted his absence and despised his overbearing aunt for keeping him away. On the other hand, he was quite grateful, because, in truth, he feared his mother, and he feared that on seeing her he would see himself. It was as if his mother possessed a secret knowledge that would easily ruin him if he learned it. Now that she was dead, the secret died with her. Not even the most ardent curiosity could pull the secret from the grave. Standing at the tansu, he opened the widest drawer. The kimonos were inside—black kimonos, white kimonos, cherry kimonos made of Yūki silk. They were folded and ordered neatly. But a mess of washi paper, stacked and scattered, covered over the top of the kimonos. The papers were of many different colors. He lifted one out of the drawer. A kitsune was drawn on the paper. The fox, with nine tails, narrow snout, was floating, its lean body twisting. He removed another paper and found another kitsune. The drawer of the chest was full of such drawings. He opened the drawer above it, and it too was stuffed with drawings of kitsune. Because of the transparency of the paper, the kitsune communed together in their piles, one showing through on top of the next and all twisting and writhing together in the dark confines of the tansu among the pleats of his mother’s kimonos. Seeing the drawings made Ryūnosuke nauseous and he closed the drawer and left the room to find his uncle and return, with the rest of them, to the funeral procession.


“MOTHER: (Offstage) Yes, it’s me! I’m home now …!”

from Akutagawa’s “Tiger Stories: A Play” (translated by Ryan Choi)

An Excerpt from Akutagawa’s Suicide Note

“I reside in a world of diseased nerves, as translucent as ice. Last night I spoke with a prostitute about her wages (!) and felt deeply the pathos of we humans who ‘live for the sake of living.’”

Flowerless Cherry Blossom Trees

On a certain Sunday afternoon, when the table was cleared and Ryūnosuke was sitting outside the house smoking a cigarette, his wife, Tsukamoto, watched her husband’s back—noticing also their sons at play in the yard ahead of him and the smoke rising over his head, the way the smoke traced the branches of the flowerless cherry blossom trees lining the road—and she wondered what it was that troubled him, wondered, also, if his trouble was something he courted or something he could not escape, and even as these thoughts passed through her mind, she was aware, in some other, distant part of her thinking, that she felt no complicity in his sadness, no sense of guilt or shame, and that his melancholy, whatever its cause, was not a thing she carried alongside him.

Swamps: 1

“The critic rested his case, sharpening his air of self-belief: ‘The man went mad by attrition, from his inability to get the images from his head onto the canvas. Say what you like, but this is the nature of the work that you prize.’”

— from Akutagawa’s “Swamps: 1” (translated by Ryan Choi)


When I am reading a piece of fiction I am not looking for the fiction to recreate reality like a photograph. I am not hoping that the images provided will precisely match images I see in the world around me nor am I hoping that the writing will make foreign images familiar to me. The most effective descriptions, in the fiction I read, are those that act, not as photographs, but as prompts. In James Salter’s Light Years, he writes, “She was like a beautiful dinner left out overnight.” He writes elsewhere, “Eve was tall. Her face had cheekbones.” If five different readers read these descriptions, the images formed in their minds would not be a uniform image. The woman with cheekbones would not be the same woman for each of them. But the images formed in the minds of these five readers are solid and affecting precisely because they do not carry the burden of photographic realism. The reader responds to such descriptions by creating a new, personal image prompted from language that is, itself, derived from private associations in the author’s mind. In this way, there is a near-touching that takes place between the reader and the author. What is seen in the mind of the reader is not the author’s mental image, but something near it. Another strength of these descriptions—their restraint—are the ways they allow themselves to be reduced to pure language. Eve becomes, in some impossible way, cheekbones. Akutagawa’s fictions are a form of realism, attentive and observant, that take a similar approach. He writes: “Things that most depress me: khaki lacquered chimneys; rust on tracks that stalls the trains; caged monkeys in rooftop gardens.” (“In the City, or Tokyo 1916” tr. Ryan Choi). He writes: “A woman on the stoop of her rear tenement, the wife of a low-salary employee, engrossed as if in prayer in the latest popular novel about the life of a fictional count’s wife. I see the tragedy in her cozy elation, which I also find rather quaint.” (“On Applause” tr. Ryan Choi).

Standing Outside the Maruzen Bookshop

Standing outside the Maruzen bookshop, flipping through a volume of Van Gogh’s paintings. He stopped on a page showing Van Gogh’s “Wheatfield with Crows.” Though it was only a reproduction, a photograph of the painting itself, it was still surprising. The shapes of the crows were an extension of the shape of the heads of wheat. The narrow lane that split the painting, extended more up than out. And the brushstrokes—it was the brushstrokes that surprised him most of all—the texture of the brushstrokes. As if Van Gogh had dribbled the tips of his fingers all over the sky, Akutagawa thought. When he looked up from the book, he noticed the sky above the nearby buildings. It looked smooth and undisrupted. It was nothing like Van Gogh’s sky at all.

On Art

He pitted Renoir against Van Gogh and Renoir against Gauguin. He pitted Matisse against Picasso. “When I happened to come across these two painters,” he wrote, “I felt sympathy with Picasso and a mixture of intimacy and envy toward Matisse.” In the end, he would choose the side of Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Picasso. It was the side of art—he considered—and it was in opposition to the cult of life. It was Cézanne, though, who came closest, in Akutagawa’s estimation, to creating, with painting, what the “pure novel” attempts to create.


“His tragedy was the tragedy of endeavoring to be great and finding to be small.”
—scribbled in English by Akutagawa in the margin of his incomplete manuscript pages for "The Youth of Daidoji Shinsuke"

The Saints of Nowism

The Great Temple of Nowism is the largest building in Kappa Land. Every possible architectural style was incorporated into its construction. Among the Corinthian columns, the vaulted Gothic ceilings, the Moorish checkered floors, and the pseudo-Secession prayer kneelers, there are niches cut into the walls and marble busts set into each niche. The marble busts depict the saints of Nowism. There is a shrine to Saint Strindberg, who confessed to having attempted to kill himself. There is a shrine to Saint Nietzche, who lost his mind. There is a shrine to Saint Tolstoy, who believed in the effectively unbelievable Christ and, naturally, didn’t die by suicide. There is a shrine to Saint Kunikida Doppo, “a poet who truly understood the sentiments of the laborer who throws himself in front of an oncoming train.”

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa Wakes in the Night

It was only a dream, he told himself. He said it out loud—only a dream. The room was shadowy and he was awake. Knowing he wouldn’t be able to sleep again, he dressed and left the house. The night was dark. There was a smell like rotting apricots in the air that reminded him, obscurely, of the earthquake of 1923. Having forgotten his pocket watch at home, he wasn’t sure of the hour, but the streets were mostly empty. A group of men on the corner were drinking from a shared bottle. A white dog with a wide face walked across the street ahead of him. He thought of the story Hanasaka Jiisan. It was a story his aunt often told him when he was a child. He remembered, as a boy, always anticipating that the dog would somehow return from the dead at the end of the tale. But the dog did not return from the dead, even after it appeared in dreams, even after it increased the wealth of its former owners. The dog remained buried under the felled fig tree. On the street ahead of him, the white dog ducked behind a cafe with dark windows. Everything, he realized, reminded him of his mother.

Kappa Aphorism 1

“We are proudest of what we don’t have.”

—Aphorism from Kappa philosopher, Magg, in his book Words of a Fool (translated by Allison Markin Powell & Lisa Hofman-Kuroda)

Flowerless Cherry Blossom Trees III

“In the soft light of fairy tales, beneath the flowerless cherry blossom tree, the old man and the hare were mourning the death of the old man’s wife at the hands of the tanuki. They were listening to the tongue-cut sparrows flap their wings and the distant echoes of the waves barrelling unbroken across the sea, as in the old man’s dreams of sailing to Ogre Island.”

— from Akutagawa’s “Kachikachi Mountain” (translated by Ryan Choi)


The Kappa poet, Tok, shoots himself in the head. A contemporary reader cannot read the account of Tok’s suicide without considering that the author of Kappa would, mere weeks after completing the novel, also kill himself. A gunshot rings out from Tok’s house. They find the poet lying face up in a potted alpine plant. A female Kappa is crying with her face in his chest. In the corner of the room, a small Kappa child is not smiling and does not understand what is happening. Those standing over Tok’s body discuss his situation. They mention his selfishness, his incurable depression. They pity his family. A paper is sitting on the desk near where Tok has died. It is, presumably, the last thing he wrote. They read the poem written on the paper and discover that it is a portion of verse plagiarized from Goethe’s Mignon’s Song. "Kappa was born out of my disgust with many things," wrote Akutagawa to the critic Taiji Yoshida. "Mostly with myself."

Yasunari Kawabata Commenting on the Successful Writer

“In his works, most of today’s intellectuals will detect a symbol of their own tragedy.”

Akutagawa’s Final Works

The final several months of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s life were among his most prolific. He wrote frantically, producing, during these months, a collection of critical essays, many of his most successful short stories, difficult to categorize autobiographical works such as Cogwheels and The Life of a Fool, an essay on Christ as a poet, and the short satirical novel, Kappa. The narrator of Kappa relays a story told to him by a patient housed at a mental institution in Japan. Patient 23, as he is called throughout the novel, followed a Kappa inadvertently down a hole finding himself, unexpectedly, in Kappa Land. His account outlines, in thorough—if sporadic—detail, the social and cultural customs of Kappa life, noting the similarities and differences between Kappa society and Japanese society at the turn of the twentieth century.

Haruo Sato’s Advice to a Young Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

“Rid yourself of your aversion to stripping yourself naked and confessing. This is the only way for you to escape the straightjacket of your reserve.”

Empedocles on Etna

“Perhaps you recall twenty years ago when we discussed ‘Empedocles on Etna’ under the linden trees. At that time, I was one who fancied himself a god.”

—The final lines of Akutagawa’s suicide note

Kappa Aphorism 2

“No one objects to destroying idols. At the same time, no one objects to becoming an idol themselves. Yet, he who can rest easily on a pedestal is blessed by the gods to the highest degree—and is either a fool, a scoundrel, or a hero.”

—Aphorism from Kappa philosopher, Magg, from his book Words of a Fool (translated by Allison Markin Powell & Lisa Hofman-Kuroda)

What Ryūnosuke Said Regarding His Mentor 

“Everytime I think of him I am even more impressed with his sublime fury; it is beyond compare.”

Two Blocks of Stone

“Last time I visited my mentor Natsume Sōseki, he was seated in his library with his arms thoughtfully folded. ‘It’s been a while,’ I said. ‘Am I disturbing something?’ ‘Yes,’ he spoke sternly. ‘I was having a vision of Gokoku Temple. The sculptor Unkei was chiseling at two blocks of stone below the great triple gates. Taking shape in the stones were the fearsome Niō, the muscular guardians of the Buddha himself.’”

—from Aktugawa’s “Kanzan and Jittoku” (translated by Ryan Choi)

During His First Year in Tokyo Imperial University

Akutagawa was sitting on the bank of the Kanda River in the shade of the Ochanomizu Bridge. On his lap was a historical novel by a Japanese author. The novel told the story of a moneylender and a medical student. It was a love story, of sorts, though it seemed more concerned with the changing situation between the Edo and Meiji period Tokyo than it did with romance. Akutagawa was not reading the book. He was staring past the bridge at the spires of the Nikolai Cathedral, which stood black against the white sky. On his way down the slope to the bank of the river, he had noticed a sign posted on the trunk of a cherry blossom tree. Beware of Kappa, the sign said. While he sat in the grass and stared at the spires of the Nikolai Cathedral, he remembered a story his aunt Fuki once told him, the story of a carpenter who, needing extra help, built dolls and breathed life into them. The dolls woke and assisted him with his work. When his work was completed, the carpenter disposed of the dolls in the river, where, left alone, they transformed into mischievous Kappa.

An Incomplete List of Akutagawa’s Studies

He wrote translations of Anatole France and Heinrich Ibsen

He read The Brothers Karamazov.

He read Guiliver’s Travels.

He was particularly interested in the work of Franz Kafka and Edgar Allan Poe, masters of the grotesque.

He wrote translations of Edgar Allan Poe. He considered the translations failures.

He read the philosophers Bergson, Eucken, La Mettrie, Spinoza, Kant, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer.

He was a regular customer at Maruzen, Tokyo's foreign language bookshop, and bought books by such writers as Strindberg, Mérimée, Verlaine, the Goncourt brothers, Flaubert, and Tolstoy, all of whom he read in English translations.

“Life is not worth a single line of Baudelaire,” he wrote.

He translated Yeats.

“Thinking how Gogol, too, had gone mad, he could not help feeling that there was a force governing all of them,” he wrote.

He translated Keats.

His graduation thesis was a commentary on William Morris, the English artist and writer best known as a designer of wallpaper and patterned fabrics.

He read William Morris’ utopian novel, News from Nowhere.

His diary entry of June 18, 1919 indicates that he purchased two books by Joyce, along with another two by Conrad.

He translated an early portion of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

He read the Bible in English and was affected by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

He read Caxton, Defoe, Goethe, Bierce, Browning, Butler, and Régnier.

His admirer Hori Tatsuo said of him: “He finally ended without any original masterpiece. In all of his masterpieces, in every single one of them, linger the shadows of previous centuries.”

He replied to criticism of this sort, saying: “I am not at all ashamed to imitate the geniuses of all ages and to appropriate their crafty methods and devices.”

December 1915

In 1915, while still a student, Akutagawa published his second short story, “Rashōmon,” in the literary journal Teikoku Bungaku. The story was not received with any great applause, but its publication, nevertheless, gave him courage to visit one of Natsume Sōseki’s weekly literary circles. Having entered the salon and seated himself, Akutagawa remained silent, listening as the men conversed. They discussed concerns of craft, the plight of the historical novel and the social novel. They read selections of their work. After some time, Sōseki turned his attention to the young writer in their presence. “And what about you?” he asked. “Have you brought us anything?” Akutagawa spoke slowly, and recited, “Ill on a journey, Wandering in fevered dreams, O'er a withered moor.” The room waited on Sōseki, to see how he would respond. Smoothing his thick mustache with the pads of his fingers, the novelist smirked. “It is nice,” he said. “But I prefer Buson.”

Unreliable Memories

“In any case, recollections of my school teacher days are not unpleasant. (Yet even in dreams I am dismayed to find myself still teaching. Maybe, memories are unreliable. Or maybe it’s good to have these unreliable memories.) To a young man of 25 or so, life could be pleasant, and he should be grateful for these pleasant dreams. . . . Nowadays I often inject some extra oil to lubricate life, and when I realize I’ve overdone I hasten to sprinkle sand over it.”

— Excerpt from a letter to a former colleague in the naval school where Akutagawa taught for a time. The letter expresses his desire to depict certain mutual friends in his fiction.

Autobiography II

There is an apparent contradiction between Akutagawa’s lifelong opposition to the shishosetsu tradition and his turn, late in his career, toward expressly autobiographical fiction. We might say that there are two modes of  “I-novels”—two variations, broadly, of autobiographical fiction. There are “I-novels” in which the “I” is an event. In such novels, the priority is full-disclosure. These novels believe in a certain depth of meaning behind the “I,” a depth of meaning with universal consequence. And then there are “I-novels” in which the “I” is not event, but mere occasion. In such novels, the “I” is incidental and inescapable. Or, as I once heard Renee Gladman put it in a lecture on the first-person, “Every moment is an autobiographical moment.” If the first variation of “I-novels” suggests depth, this second variation suggests a vacuum. Or, as Vivian Gornick wrote when considering the Hollywood noirs of Alfred Hayes, this variation of the “I-novel” suggests “the inability to feel the reality of your own life, or anyone else’s.” Akutagawa had little patience for the first variation. He recognized it as a form of sensationalism with a low artistic ceiling. It is this second variation in which his fiction is located. At a certain point, toward the end of his career, even when he was not engaged in expressly confessional writing, the work could not help but engage his autobiography. Kappa begins as a clearly satirical novel in the vein of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or Butler’s Erehwon. Somewhere, partway through, however, the fabric of the novel is tugged away from satire. The socio-cultural observations become increasingly personal. The author is more and more implicated in his text. When Patient 23, toward the end of his account, is looking to leave Kappa Land, the Kappa philosopher turns to him and says, “Let me tell you something before you go. Make sure you’ll have no regrets about leaving.”

Akutagawa Weeps at The Father Returns

Sitting in the The Teikoku Theatre, Akutagawa watched the play unfold. It was a new sort of drama, different from the kabuki theater he was accustomed to. The one-act play told the story of a son who despised his father, and the story of a father returning home after a long period of disregard. It was a distinctly Japanese drama, Akutagawa considered. He was seated next to the author of the play, Kikuchi Kan, and he was embarrassed to find, partway through the performance, that he could not help but weep. His embarrassment, though, subsided when he turned and saw that the playwright himself was weeping too. Later, Kikuchi Kan would call this evening—weeping alongside Ryūnosuke Akutagawa at the premiere of his one-act play—the most dramatic and joyful occasion of his entire career.

Sleeping Pills

“If only I could lay myself down like this rose, I thought, and sleep forever in this bed of autumnal scents, drunk on lethargy …”

—from Akutagawa’s “Eastern Autumn” (translated by Ryan Choi)

Earthquake in 1923

The Great Kanto Earthquake shook the Kanto Plain at 11:58 a.m. on September 1, 1923. More than half of the brick buildings and one-tenth of the reinforced concrete buildings in the Tokyo-Yokohama metropolitan area collapsed. Hundreds of thousands of houses were shaken down. A crumbling mountainside pushed the entire village of Nebukawa, along with a passenger train and a railway station, into the sea. A cloud of dust engulfed the cities completely. Fires started after the earthquake. Strong winds from a typhoon centered off the coast of the Noto Peninsula caused many small fires to spread and collect into firestorms. Tarmac melted and trapped those trying to escape. 38,000 people were killed when a fire whirl consumed the Rikugun Honjo Hifukusho where they were sheltering. Because the earthquake broke water mains, it took two days for the fires to be put out. A tsunami with waves up to 33 feet high struck the coast of Sagami Bay, Bōsō Peninsula, Izu Islands, and the east coast of Izu Peninsula within minutes of the earthquake. There were 57 aftershocks. The Home Ministry declared martial law. A false rumor was spread that Koreans were taking advantage of the disaster—committing arson and robbery—and were in possession of bombs. Vigilante groups, in collusion with Army and police personnel, set up roadblocks throughout the cities, testing civilians for supposedly Korean-accented Japanese—beating and killing those who failed. The killings continued over a period of three weeks. Regional police and the Imperial Army used the pretext of mob violence and civil unrest to murder political dissidents such as Hirasawa Keishichi, Sakae Ōsugi, Noe Itō, Ō Kiten and others who were abducted and killed under suspicion of plotting to overthrow the Japanese Government.

Calligraphy Wrapped in a Furoshiki

He was drinking a cup of tea when the earthquake struck. He ran to the door as if prepared to flee. Tsukamoto chastised him for neglecting their young sons. Fearing aftershocks, the family left together for Tsukamoto’s village. Tsukamoto packed a case of clothing for their children. Ryūnosuke brought only a scroll of calligraphy by Natsume Sōseki, which he wrapped in a furoshiki wrapping cloth. As they left their house, they passed a pond where bodies were piled on top of bodies. They passed the corpses of children. Too bad we didn’t all die, Akutagawa would write later, when reflecting on the earthquake.

The Parrot

On September 14, two weeks after the earthquake, Akutagawa wrote “The Parrot: Notes on the Great Earthquake.” It is the story of Daifu Kane, a sixty-three year old teacher, resident of Honjo-Yokoamichō, Tokyo, who lost his home and his niece in the earthquake and subsequently wandered the devastation with a cage containing his pet parrot, Gorō.

An Affair

He turned to the poet, Hide Shigeko who lay quietly next to him. He watched her face as words formed somewhere behind her closed lips. She turned her head and faced him. “No,” she said. “I can’t accompany you.”

His Last Several Months

In a letter to his friend Saito Mokichi, Akutagawa likened himself to the medieval samurai Kusunoki Masashige fighting his final battle. “All I want now is animal energy, and then animal energy—and then animal energy.” In another letter to Mokichi, on March 28, 1927, four months before his death, Akutagawa wrote: “Lately again a multitude of half-transparent cogwheels revolve, obstructing the vision of my right eye.”

Home is a Word I Can’t Pronounce

At the end of Kappa, Patient 23’s madness is marked by a sudden eruption of the alien Kappa language—a preference for the foreign language he discovered and then abandoned. Natsume Sōseki, when working as an English teacher, corrected a student who translated "I love you" into Japanese as "kimi o aisu." The correct translation, he explained, is “tsuki ga kirei desu ne,” or "The moon is beautiful, isn't it?'"

July 24, 1927

On July 24, 1927, at the age of thirty-five, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa took a fatal dose of the barbiturate Veronal, lay down on his futon, holding a Bible, and died.

Hirotsu Kazuo on Akutagawa’s story, “The Records of the Dead” (1926)

“When I read the story I had a feeling that he was going to die.”

Fuku Niihara Wakes in the Night

It was only a dream, she told herself. She whispered it out loud—it was only a dream. But in the dark room ahead of her, she saw the form, amorphous and wriggling, a shadow on the ground with unclear borders, writhing and kicking approximations of limbs. She prepared to go to it, to smother it if she must. No matter that the form was mute—she must quiet it further. Its muteness was filling the room and oppressing her. But she stayed on her futon. She watched the shadow as the shadow spread itself and spread itself further, breaking apart and joining the darkness of the room until the shadow was so much a part of the room that it was unseen, indistinguishable, and it was then that Fuku remembered, with dreadful certainty, that her child was not in the home, her child was somewhere else.

Flowerless Cherry Blossom Trees II

Tsukamoto watched her husband’s back. He braced himself against the wall of the bedroom. When he lifted his hand and beckoned her, she saw that his fingers trembled. The walls were falling in, she knew. The ground, though they couldn’t feel it, was shifting. The ground was shifting and the walls were falling in. Maggots were in the food, she knew, and one couldn’t be too careful. Occasionally, when his mind settled and his eyes grew sharp, she watched his troubles leave him entirely. In these moments, he was not only free of his delusions, he was free, also, of the sadness that marked him before the delusions and the paranoia intruded. She sat him beside the table. He crossed his legs and breathed deeply. Looking over her shoulder, he said, “You’ve left the door open.” She turned and looked. Out the front door, the flowerless cherry blossom trees swayed.

Stephen Mortland’s writing has appeared in NOON Annual, New York Tyrant, and Fence Magazine. His story, Elenin, was featured in the 2022 Pushcart Anthology. He has work forthcoming from Post Road and Chicago Review. He lives in St. Louis, MO.

Feature image by Will Matsuda.

A version of this piece was previously published in Book Post.