Published in Aim, Spring 1999
JAPAN'S EDGAR ALLAN POE
If you like Edgar Allan Poe's short stories, you'll probably also enjoy those of Akutagawa Ryunosuke. As many of us consider Poe (1809-1849) our greatest short story writer, in Japan many consider Akutagawa (1892-1927) theirs. And he has a remarkable number of other things in common with Poe.
In spite of what might first appear to be polar differences, even their lives were similar. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809, and died in Baltimore, on October 7, 1849, so lived only forty years--a short and troubled life. His parents were traveling actors, but both died before Poe was three. He was then adopted by the John Allans, who lived in England through his grade-school years. But in his teens he became alienated from his adoptive father, and was finally disinherited by him.
It also seemed that, not only his mother and foster mother, but all the women closest to Poe died lingering deaths of tuberculosis. When his young wife slowly coughed out her life in his arms, it left him devastated. Struggling with such problems, Poe began to drink, and, more than once, attempted suicide. In somewhat mysterious circumstances, he was found ill and delirious on the streets of Baltimore and taken to the hospital where he died--at forty.
Akutagawa Ryunosuke was born in Tokyo on March 1, 1892, so 83 years after Poe--at the other end of the 19th century and in Japan, at the other end of the world. But it was a Japan that was rapidly becoming westernized, which included an increased reading interest in western writers. He, too, was adopted, because his parents were older people, and his mother was committed to a mental institution shortly after he was born. He was taken into the home of, and later adopted by, his mother's brother. He grew up suffering much the same kind of family rejection Poe had suffered. Moreover, given his mother's condition, he was always fearful about his own sanity. Finally, after several failed attempts, Akutagawa did, in fact, commit suicide, July 24, 1927, when he was only thirty-five. So he lived an even shorter, and perhaps even more tormented, life than Poe did.
It is common to see the trials and tribulations of each writer's short life as reflected in the bizarre and grotesque stories they wrote, and in the madness and suffering of their central characters. Many of Poe's poems and short stories deal with the death of a beautiful woman seen through the eyes of her bereaved lover, for example. Readers like to picture Poe as a haunted man dressed in black (with a raven on his shoulder). Akutagawa is also often pictured as pale and tormented, driven by a life of suffering to write such morbid stories. But both are also among the most conscious literary craftsmen each country has produced.
Many of the best writers of short stories have also written novels, of course, but neither of these writers did. Each wrote literary reviews and criticism (and very different kinds of poetry), but each is a famous writer largely on the basis of his strange short stories--tales of horror, involving supernatural suggestion, many with madmen as central characters.
Akutagawa knew Poe's work, even translated a few of his stories into Japanese. But, while some of their stories are often compared--Akutagawa's "Cogwheels" to Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" for their mechanical images of terror, his "Mannikin" to Poe's "William Wilson" as a study in double identity (a doppleganger story), for example--the direct influence is small. Akutagawa took the plots for his stories largely from traditional Chinese, Japanese, and, to a lesser degree, European sources. What they share are the "romantic" qualities--set in far-off times and places, involving supernatural elements, with deranged narrators and other characters in special psychic situations.
And many of the stories of each are quite short. Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Masque of the Red Death," are all are under ten pages long. They can be read in a matter of minutes--then are never likely to be forgotten. Akutagawa also wrote short short stories, just as memorable, such as "The Spider's Thread," "A Woman's Body," and "The Tangerines." But even the stories of standard length, such as Poe's "Ligeia" or "The Fall of the House of Usher," and Akutagawa's "In a Grove" and "Rashomon" (combined in Kurosawa's film "Rashomon," which won the Grand Prix at the Venice International Film Festival in 1951) are also definitely romantic.
And among their best known stories are two that I find quite comparable, Poe's "The Black Cat" and Akutagawa's "The Hell Screen"--two genuinely great stories. In each an animal is an important character. In the Poe story it is the black cat. The increasingly mad narrator cuts out the cat's eye, then, later, apparently hangs the cat. But it (or another one-eyed cat?) comes back to haunt him. Finally, after provoking him to kill his wife, the cat reveals him to the police, in an ironic revenge. In the Akutagawa story the central character, an artist willing to sacrifice the daughter he loves to his art, is equally mad. In this case the animal is a monkey, who, loving the daughter more than the artist does, shares her fiery death. This is probably Akutagawa's most admired story.
So, if you already enjoy reading Edgar Allan Poe, and would like to try some Akutagawa Ryunosuke, why not first re-read Poe's "The Black Cat," and then read "The Hell Screen." If you'd like to try something shorter first, read "The Spider's Web"--or browse through a collection and pick a story or two that look interesting. The Akutagawa stories must be translated from the Japanese, of course, but many have been, and you should be able to find collections in your local library. I think you'll like them.
For more information on Akutagawa's life, see, particularly, Beongcheon Yu, Akutagawa, Wayne State University Press: Detroit, 1972, and the introductions by John McVittie to two fine collections of his stories, Japanese Short Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Liveright Publishing: New York, 1961, and Exotic Japanese Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Liveright Publishing: New York, 1964. For Poe, there are many collections and biographies, of course, but the collection I used as reference, and for some biographical facts, in writing this essay was Great Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Washington Square Press: New York, 1968.