Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川 龍之介, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke?, March 1, 1892 – July 24, 1927) was a Japanese writer active in the Taishō period in Japan. He is regarded as the “Father of the Japanese short story”. He committed suicide at age of 35 through an overdose of barbital
Ryūnosuke Akutagawa was born in the Kyōbashi district of Tokyo, the third child and only son of father Toshizō Niihara and mother Fuku Niihara (née Akutagawa). He was named “Ryūnosuke” (“Son [of] Dragon”) because he was allegedly born in the Year of the Dragon, in the Month of the Dragon, on the Day of the Dragon, and at the Hour of the Dragon. His mother went insane shortly after his birth, so he was adopted and raised by his maternal uncle, Akutagawa Dōshō, from whom he received the Akutagawa family name. He was interested in classical Chinese literature from an early age, as well as the works of Mori Ōgai and Natsume Sōseki.
He entered the First High School in 1910, developing relationships with classmates such as Kan Kikuchi, Kume Masao, Yamamoto Yūzō, and Tsuchiya Bunmei, all of whom would later become authors. He began writing after entering Tokyo Imperial University in 1913, where he studied English literature.
While still a student he proposed marriage to a childhood friend, Yayoi Yoshida, but his adoptive family did not approve the union. In 1916 he became engaged to Fumi Tsukamoto, whom he married in 1918. They had three children: Hiroshi Akutagawa (1920–1981) was an actor, Takashi Akutagawa (1922–1945) was killed as a student draftee in Burma, and Yasushi Akutagawa (1925–1989) was a composer.
After graduation, he taught briefly at the Naval Engineering School in Yokosuka, Kanagawa as an English language instructor, before deciding to devote his full efforts to writing.
A set photograph of 1919. The second from the left is Ryunosuke Akutagawa. At the far left is Kan Kikuchi.
In 1914, Akutagawa and his former high school friends revived the literary journal Shinshichō (“New Currents of Thought”), publishing translations of William Butler Yeats and Anatole France along with their own works.
Akutagawa published his first short story Rashōmon the following year in the literary magazine Teikoku Bungaku (“Imperial Literature”), while still a student. The story, based on a twelfth-century tale, was noticed by author Natsume Sōseki. Encouraged by the praise, Akutagawa thereafter considered himself Sōseki's disciple, and began visiting the author for his literary circle meetings every Thursday. It was also at this time that he started writing haiku under the haigo (or pen-name) Gaki.
These meetings led to Hana (“The Nose”, 1916), which was published in Shinshicho. Akutagawa followed with a series of short stories set in Heian period, Edo period or early Meiji period Japan. These stories reinterpreted classical works and historical incidents.
Examples of these stories include: Gesaku zanmai (“A Life Devoted to Gesaku”, 1917) and Kareno-shō (“Gleanings from a Withered Field”, 1918), Jigoku hen (“Hell Screen”, 1918); Hōkyōnin no shi (“The Death of a Christian”, 1918), and Butōkai (“The Ball”, 1920).
Akutagawa was a strong opponent of naturalism. He published Mikan (“Mandarin Oranges”, 1919) and Aki (“Autumn”, 1920) which have more modern settings.
In 1921, Akutagawa interrupted his writing career to spend four months in China, as a reporter for the Osaka Mainichi Shinbun. The trip was stressful and he suffered from various illnesses, from which his health would never recover. Shortly after his return he published Yabu no naka (“In a Grove”, 1922).
The final phase of Akutagawa's literary career was marked by his deteriorating physical and mental health. Much of his work during this period is distinctly autobiographical, some even taken directly from his diaries. His works during this period include Daidōji Shinsuke no hansei (“The Early Life of Daidōji Shinsuke”, 1925) and Tenkibo (“Death Register”, 1926).
Akutagawa attacked author Jun'ichirō Tanizaki by claiming that lyricism was more important than structure in a story.
Akutagawa's final works include Kappa (1927), a satire based on a creature from Japanese folklore, Haguruma (“Spinning Gears”, 1927), Aru ahō no isshō (“A Fool's Life”), and the Bungeiteki na, amari ni bungeiteki na (“Literary, Much Too Literary”, 1927).
Towards the end of his life, Akutagawa began suffering from visual hallucinations and nervousness over fear that he had inherited his mother's mental disorder. In 1927 he tried to take his own life, together with a friend of his wife, but the attempt failed. He finally committed suicide by taking an overdose of Veronal, which had been given to him by Saito Mokichi on July 24 of the same year. His dying words in his will claimed he felt a “vague uneasiness” 「ぼんやりとした不安」 (Bon'yaritoshita fuan?). He was 35 years old.
Akutagawa wrote no full-length novels, focusing instead on short stories of which he wrote over 150 during his brief life. The classic film Rashōmon (1950) directed by Akira Kurosawa is a reasonably faithful retelling of Akutagawa's story In a Grove. Only the title and the frame scenes set in the Rashomon Gate are taken from Akutagawa's story, “Rashomon.” In the film Kurosawa must finally offer a scene which purports to show the events as they would have appeared to an objective observer. In Akutagawa's story no such resolution is required and the reader is left with no guide but their own understanding to unravel an unexplained mystery.
In 1935, Akutagawa's lifelong friend Kan Kikuchi established the literary award for promising new writers, the Akutagawa Prize, in his honor.