Japan Focus has expanded its mission one more time, this time to include new literary translations! They’ve published a Jay Rubin translation of an Akutagawa Ryonosuke story, The Story of a Head That Fell Off (“Kubi ga ochita hanashi”), which they describe as an “anti-war satire” and put in the context of a large body of untranslated Akutagawa anti-war satires
“Shogun” (The General, 1924), a well-known portrait of a victorious general resembling Nogi Maresuke (1849-1912), the “hero” of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, is a bitter satire of a man responsible for the death of thousands. “The Story of a Head That Fell Off,” set against the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, is an intense cry against the absurdity of war that unfortunately remains as relevant in our barbaric twenty-first century as it was in Akutagawa’s day.
In one brief, startling piece on the political misuse of history, “Kin-shogun” (General Kim, 1922), he incorporated Korean legend into a tale concerning Hideyoshi’s 1598 invasion of Korea.
I admit that most of the Japanese literature I’ve read was translated; I only delve into untranslated literary texts very rarely, but I do try to pay attention to what’s said about literature in other contexts. I’m more than a little surprised that Akutagawa’s anti-war stance never came to my attention before, but perhaps the fact that Akutagawa died in 1927 kept him from becoming a victim of the changing political situation post-1931 and therefore kept his politics a bit under the radar. Also, satire, particularly historical satire, can be very tricky to translate, especially for a general readership which is unfamiliar with the issues, context or style. And literary studies often specifically exclude political history, focusing on aesthetic and “cultural” elements, textual things that avoid the questions of audience and less subtle intentions.
It’s also a bit disconcerting, because Akutagawa is one of the few early 20c authors with which our students have the slightest chance of being familiar, through the famous movie version — and linguistic appropriation of the title to mean a situation of varying accounts — of “Rashomon” (and “In a Grove”, which is actually the story with the varying perspectives).1 It would be nice to have been better informed, and I wonder if my ignorance was common among my colleagues and readers, or if I just missed something obvious along the way.
The story’s pretty good, I’d say. It does have some of that familiar Akutagawa grotesquerie, which allows the characters to go a bit beyond normal polite conversation.