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Diary: Stephen Mortland, (1) Reading Akutagawa
Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s Kappa is out in a new translation by Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda and Allison Markin Powell from New Directions
Kappa, in Japanese folklore, are small, impish water demons who reside in ponds and rivers. They resemble monkeys with yellow-green scales instead of skin and have wide beaks in the middle of their faces. On top of their heads they have indentations that are filled with water. If the water is spilled or otherwise dries up, 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 them from acting foolishly near dangerous waters.
Akutagawa’s Final Works
The final several months of the Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s life (1892–1927) 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 A Fool’s Life, 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 No. 23, as he is called in the novel, followed a Kappa inadvertently down a hole, finding himself, unexpectedly, in Kappa Land. His account outlines, in thorough—if episodic—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.
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.”
A Childhood Game
Young Ryūnosuke sat on the floor, spinning a wooden top called a 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 retreating, 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.
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.
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 it is printed on, though I have a vague recollection it may, in fact, be a postcard. I did not come to Akutagawa’s writing the way most people come to it. It is often his story “In a Grove” that introduces those outside of Japan to the author’s work. “In a Grove” tells the story—through competing testimonies and eye-witness accounts—of the violent death of the young samurai Kanazawa no Takehiro. It 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—not in spite of their irresolution, but because of it. The author is inescapably present in these stories, but, like the strange confessional figures of Robert Walser or the concealed self-portraits of W.G. Sebald, the author is revealed by what he sees, how he sees it, the associations that link disparate observations. I subsequently read all translations of Akutagawa by Ryan Choi that I could find. Many of them were minor masterpieces, many 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 ordered 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, 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.
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