Sometimes a book would make us feel that we have every right to laugh loudly at the world, and Rashomon: A Story Collection by Akutagawa Ryunosuke is one of the rare gems that has such an effect on us. Consisting of six short stories and a novella, this particular Indonesian edition presents us with not only unique structures and out-of-this-world ideas, but also deep meanings that force us to question our being and everything we hold.
This edition of Rashomon may not have the same list as the one published outside Indonesia. Here, the (short) story collection contains Rashomon; In a Grove; Kappa; Yam Gruel; The Spider’s Thread; The Dog, Shiro; and The Nose. These stories may or may not be the best of Akutagawa, who’s nicknamed the best Japanese short story writer, but at least to me they are ones of those which could have my eyes wide open in shock and awe at the same time, making me both depressed and laugh out loud, at myself in particular and people in common. My most favorite story is definitely Kappa, which is actually a separate novella but lucky me the editor had decided to include it in this book. The 17-part short novel tells the story of a man who is lost in a fog and falls into the land of Kappas (animals of Japanese mythology), being taken care of and eventually living in that strange world. During his stay, he learns Kappa’s language, way of life, religion and befriends Kappas from every profession imaginable. Though living the way humans do, Kappas hold very different values than those of humans, especially those held by the Japanese society. Their faith is Modernism, or the religion of Life, and they worship the God of Life; it’s women, rather than men, who take up the sexual chase; they are naked everywhere they go; their government is secretly controlled by a woman despite the obvious reign of men; what they call art is utter rubbish and the censorship done by the authorities is a harsh one. As we follow all these things through the eyes of the fallen man, we might wonder if the story is actually mocking human beings with all that they hold.
The other story that managed to hold my full attention is In a Grove, a short story about a man who dies in a bamboo grove and whose wife is nowhere to be found. I completely marvel at how Akutagawa organizes the structure so that the story has several (un)convincing points of view, from which we can see it and make our own judgment on the tragic event. Each point of view is so subjective that it borders on being unbelievable. Even after reading the last viewpoint of the story, as convincing as it might seem, we would feel the character with that point of view is only talking nonsense. So now, who’s right and who’s wrong? The Spider’s Thread and The Dog, Shiro are pretty interesting, too. It’s about committing sins and doing something to make up for it. It’s funny to see how the results can differ considerably between a man and a dog. But if you think those two stories are already thought-provoking enough, maybe you should try and read Yam Gruel or The Nose. Both of them tugged at my heartstrings mostly. It’s not that they’re sad, tragic stories. In fact, the tone is quite playful. Each talks about a man who has a very strong desire to have something, and eventually gets it. Behind the giggle-eliciting narratives, though, both actually challenge us to think long and hard: will we be happier after getting what we want? What’s so unfortunate, in my opinion, is that the title story, Rashomon, didn’t leave a strong impression on me. It is a great story, and I’m sure most people think it is the best work of Akutagawa, but how the ending goes left me cold. The idea is about how humans can be pulled between their good and bad sides of being, and how they cope with it in a time of disaster where any wrongdoing can be justified. It’s just that Akutagawa doesn’t elaborate the mental struggle more at the last scene.
I have to admit, it was the first time I had a try at reading Akutagawa Ryunosuke, but every single piece in this edition of Rashomon story collection has instantly won my heart. I was, and still am, so fascinated by his one-in-a-million ideas and the way he delivers them to the reader. It’s as if he is truly the best writer ever and there is no one like him. Some of the plots he creates here may be just as straight as any, rendering us thinking that they are only “another short story”, but the execution of the finales often makes us gape in disbelief. Perhaps In a Grove is the only short story with the most unusual structure and the best execution in this collection, but that doesn’t stop me from loving stories like Kappa, The Spider’s Thread, and The Nose, which managed to keep me lost in thought. Rashomon has a surprising ending, as well, but it comes out so sudden that, during my finishing it, I felt a little bit uncomfortable as it is pretty elaborate at the beginning.
Overall, all the tales filling Rashomon: A Story Collection can be said to be (almost) perfect. Akutagawa seems to try to invite us readers to think about the good and the bad of the world, about where the border of our subjectivity end, about the isms we hold dearly, about our wants and desires, about sincerity. He plays mainly in the psychological area, one that might have been explored so often by other writers, classic or contemporary. But, to me, he has a unique way of arising questions in our mind about ourselves and the way we view this world in general.
Note: This review is submitted to fulfill Opat’s 2016 Japanese Literature Reading Challenge.