Today I am recommending Rashomon & Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. This collection holds six short stories by Akutagawa. The title story “Rashomon” has become widely recognized because of the movie of the same name first released in 1950. However, the movie follows the storyline of a different short story titled “In a Grove,” which is also found in this collection. Akutagawa was considered the “Father of the Japanese short story.” Many of his works have inspired movies and he wrote well over 100 stories before his untimely death in 1927 at the age of 35.
The six stories in this collection are: “In a Grove” “Rashomon” “Yam Gruel” “The Martyr” “Kesa and Morito” and “The Dragon.” I first encountered Akutagawa’s work during my MFA program. We read “In a Grove,” which I think is the strongest story in this collection. It is a great example of Akutagawa’s work and sets the tone for many of the other stories. It is also a great example of what fiction can do and I recommend it to all writers who may be unfamiliar with his work. After all, it is used in many educational settings and has inspired several movies with it’s simple yet complicated storytelling.
These stories are not traditional stories that follow a structured plot and have happy endings. The main characters tend to be the forgotten or downtrodden who are overlooked or mocked despite holding high positions. Though I wasn’t alive at the end of the 19th century (though I did get to see the end of the 20th), I can see, through these stories, the strife Akutagawa felt during his own time. I believe a great short story keeps you thinking long after it ends. Most of these do just that. Despite their often strong critique of humanity and the status quo, some of them end with a tinge of hope.
Some of these stories may not sit well with you. Others may make you wonder what times were like 100+ years ago, and yet others may make you see that certain societal problems have existed for a long time. These six stories span roughly 100 pages and can be read all at once or picked up here and there. This may be outside of your usual reading bubble, but that’s a good thing. Give it a try. You may love it or you may hate it. You will probably learn something nonetheless.