Everyone knows the name of the man who made Rashomon. But no one knows the name of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the Japanese literary legend responsible for the stories on which Akira Kurosawa based his film. Reading Mandarins, a new collection of fifteen Akutagawa stories translated by Charles De Wolf, will make you wonder why he’s not as well known as Mishima and Kawabata. He writes with melancholy, passion, tenderness, and irony of a country and its people making the transition to modernity; his elegant prose never buckles, even under the more melodramatic moments. “I must say that I have grown weary of all that is called modern enlightenment,” a character says, and Akutagawa himself, who committed suicide in 1927 at the age of 35, wasn’t convinced that the new Japan was better than the old one. His men hold out for love only to be cuckolded, his women sacrifice their talent to familial love, and even the landscape suffers—a family’s once-grand garden withers from neglect while they chase after money. The stories, some of which are based on the classical Japanese folk tales Akutagawa loved, bring to mind the Russians he also revered, but with that fatalism relieved by a capacity to be consoled by the world’s occasional, accidental beauty: a moon whitewashing a river at night, a young woman tossing an armful of oranges to her brothers from a train.
That last image comes from the title story, which turns on it, and which I regret mentioning in the way I might regret giving away what happened this season on The Wire. We’re very, very enlightened now, but hardly any writer working today could make you feel that in describing a visual detail you’ve spoiled a plot twist. Or would cede narrative power to the pleasure taken in beauty—pleasure unapologized for, and unadorned by sentiment.