You’ll be forgiven for thinking Haruki Murakami to be the first Japanese author to capture the hearts of American readers.
Is it our fault our memories are short, and Japan is so far away?
On the other hand, it wasn’t that long ago that Yukio Mishima riveted our attention with his 1963 story “The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea.”
And Tanizaki Junichiro’s novel “The Makioka Sisters” remains high on many Western reading lists [for example, Jane Smiley’s list in “13 Ways to Look at the Novel”]
Still, it was only after World War II that Americans began, en masse, to seriously adopt Japanese culture and read Japanese literature.
Ditto, the rest of the world who eventually found short story master Kawabata Yasunari [author of “Snow Country” and “Thousand Cranes”] worthy of a Nobel Prize, Japan’s first.
But what of Ryunosuke Akutagawa?
How could we have forgotten that he wrote the short story “Rashomon,” the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s classic film?
Again we claim as our defense the existence of a pre-World War II cultural blindness to all things Japanese.
Archipelago Books’ just-published Mandarins: Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, translated by Charles De Wolf, shines the light anew on the “father of the Japanese short story,” a lyrical writer who wrote about Japan in the ’20s, a decade on the cusp of old and new Japan.
Teahouses, fishermen in loin cloths, geishas dot the stories as well as western cultural references and modern technology. And if the reader’s cultural knowledge lags, footnotes on language, geography, etc. will help clear things up.
As with so much Japanese culture, there is much melancholy in these stories—beauty, yes, but beauty doomed to pass.
Akutagawa also holds up a melancholy mirror between the natural world and the man-made one. And he waxes on about traditional values versus intrusive new ones.
This is a collection deserving of our attention, not only because it helps complete the hierarchy of literature, but for the transitory beauty of the period in which Akutagawa wrote.
On another melancholy note, Akutagawa—like Mishima and Kawabata—committed suicide.
A, perhaps, more questionable tradition.