“As for my vague anxiety about my future I think I analyzed it all in A Fool’s Life (1927), except for a social factor, namely the shadow of feudalism cast over my life. This I omitted purposely, not at all certain that I could really clarify the social context in which I lived.” -Akutagawa (1927, in his suicide note)
In 1915 the prolific Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa penned the novella Rashomon which – combined with another of his stories titled In A Grove – became the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic “shot heard round the world” [Rashomon, 1950] as well as an American adaptation called The Outrage (1964) by Martin Ritt, starring Paul Newman. Like Kurosawa after him, Akutagawa reinterpreted Japanese folkloric traditions and mined the caverns of his own dismal history in a quest for linguistic mastery, unflinchingly cinematic in his clarity despite his choice of medium. Akutagawa’s two main phases of literary output could be generalized in the former by folkloric/historical extracts, and in the latter by autobiographical extracts. All throughout, one constant exists: the dissolution of “truth” or “fact” through the blending of reality and fantasy.
Akutagawa’s later autobiographical works, such as A Fool’s Life and Cogwheels were dedicated to a character (himself) ill-at-ease in the purposeless patterns of daily life, whose obsessive dejection is the playground for revelation, no matter how pained. The diary chronicle Cogwheels charts Akutagawa’s rise to a hallucinatory tipping point, steeped in the anxieties of one afraid of losing their mind. A Fool’s Life is a poetic volume of epigrams (numbered 1-51) that express “moral and philosophical reflections, parables and metaphors” as Akutagawa collides pure fiction, autobiography, and sheer musing seamlessly. It is this particular focus that inducts Akutagawa into the Occupy Nowhere conversation. The character of his self undergoes existential upheaval while exiled-in-plain-sight by the tides of expectation and the mundane.
To celebrate Akutagawa’s consequential contribution to cinema, and the undeniable cinema of his language, I have included several excerpts from A Fool’s Life. Consider how each, in their brevity, resonates with Occupy Nowhere’s emotional core, and how Akutagawa interprets so many shades of escape or disenfranchisement – physical, emotional, psychological – which are dismaying but ultimately revealing. He observes that which can only be expressed by one inhabiting that disenfranchisement, and also that which escapes them – as reflected in the opening quote above. That sentiment of not knowing how to clarify his own social context is reminiscent of the same incapacity held by the first Occupy Wall Street protestors.
This first selection, entitled Self, is altogether a swan song for Occupy Nowhere, wholly about formative escape. The exact volume that contains the stories referenced here can be found inexpensively on Amazon and even at Brick Bat Books in South Philadelphia.
With a graduate, sitting at a café table, puffing at one cigarette after another. He hardly opened his mouth. But listened intently to the graduate’s words.
“Today I spent half a day riding in a car.”
“On business, I suppose?”
His senior, cheek reclining on palm, replied extremely casually.
“Huh? – Just felt like it.”
The words opened up for him an unknown realm – close to the gods, a realm of Self. It was painful. And ecstatic.
The café was cramped. Under a painting of the god Pan, in a red pot, a gum tree. Its fleshy leaves. Limp
In the outskirts in a room on the second floor he slept and woke. Maybe the foundation was shaky, the second floor somehow seemed to tilt.
On this second floor he and his aunt constantly quarreled. Nor was there a time when his foster parents had not had to intervene. And yet, above all others, it was his aunt he loved. All her life alone, when he was in his twenties she was almost sixty.
In the outskirts in this room on the second floor, that those who loved each other caused each other misery troubled him. Feeling sick at the rooms tilting.
All at once he was struck. Standing in front of a bookshop looking at a collection of paintings by Van Gogh, it hit him. This was painting. Of course, these Van Gogh’s were merely photo reproductions. But even so, he could feel in them a self rising intensely to the surface.
The passion of these paintings renewed his vision. He saw now the undulations of a tree’s branching, the curve of a woman’s cheek.
One overcast autumn dusk outside the city he had walked through an underpass. There at the far side of the embankment stood a cart. As he walked by he had the feeling that somebody had passed this way before him. Who? – There was for him no longer need to question. In his twenty-three year old mind, an ear lopped off, a Dutchman, in his mouth a long-stemmed pipe, on the sullen landscape set piercing eyes.
On a big bed with her, talking of this and that. Outside the bedroom window rain was falling. The blossoms of crinum must be rotting away. Her face still seemed to linger in moonlight. But talking with her was no longer not tiresome. Lying on his stomach, quietly lighting a cigarette he realized the days he spent with her had already amounted to seven years.
“Am I in love with this woman?”
He wondered. Even to his self-scrutinizing self the answer came as a surprise.
“I still am.”
The hand taking up the pen had started to tremble. He drooled. His head, only after a 0.8 dose of Veronal, did it have any clarity. But only then for half an hour or an hour. In this semi-darkness day to day he lived. The blade nicked, a slim sword for a stick.
* Look forward to a post about the film Portrait of Hell (1969), adapted from Akutagawa’s Hell Screen.