The Short Fiction of Akutagawa
The Writer’s Craft: An Analysis of Akutagawa
How is it that one’s purpose or direction in life always seems to be predetermined? Nowhere is there a check point where it is appropriate to pick what one’s hopes and aspirations are and magically expect them to happen. The only plausible explanation for this is that it simply will not happen. Society has cast a dark shadow in the sense that there is little hope for venturing outside one’s expected bounds. This is one of the main themes in the story “The Writer’s Craft.” Horikawa Yasukichi experiences this first hand as he gets so caught up in the supposed societal bounds that it interrupts him accomplishing anything and puts his dream of being a critically acclaimed author to a screeching halt. No matter what he tries to do, the only success the Navy school teacher has when it comes to putting pen to paper is writing eulogies in a time of despair. The title that embeds him seems forever inescapable, hence causing Yasukichi to act in an outright manner, almost depressing to some degree. This frightening fact along with the way others perceive him goes back to show how tightly and how harshly a simple title can tarnish not only one’s livelihood, but also one’s will to live.
The seemingly endless list of preconceived notions concerning Yasukichi was the turning point in his demeanor as it was the first of many breaking points for him. It was these very titles that led to his own short-sightedness in terms of painting himself in a brutally harsh light: Navy school teacher. A Navy school teacher. A simple title that seems harmless, but put into context it is a death sentence for Yasukichi. In his mind he had dreams of soaring above the clouds and coming out on top in the literary world. Not surprisingly, that dream was to stay just that, a dream. A title like that is meant to stick together tighter than molasses on a steaming August afternoon: “True, he taught English, but that was not his real profession. Not in his mind, at least. His life’s work, he felt, was the creation of literature” (165). The key phrase in this quote is “He felt,” because at this point Yasukichi is not coping with reality as he has yet to accept the limits that society has awarded him. It begs the question of what a title truly entails. In this case, Yasukichi has been given a strict title, but the true problem evolves when he becomes consumed by that title. He has no ability to see beyond that and accepts the daunting reality that he is suppose to go about business within his limited realms. In the scarce opportunities he has been asked to write a piece, it has been to write eulogies. It almost seems ironic that the achievements he has in a literally sense are about death and that goes hand in hand with where his career of becoming an author is headed. With a different profession or credentials, Yasukichi may have had the success he had always hoped for, but the title he acclaimed would not allow that. It shows the power of a three worded title and how it can prevent him from reaching his dreams. A Navy school teacher.
One may have the will to make an attempt at escaping their supposed role, but people will do everything in their power to ensure that does not happen. This was the case with Yasukichi as he was opened to the world of critics. He was put into an incredibly difficult situation as he was at times praised for his work. This gave him a false sense of hope and once he attained that confidence level it was simply setting him up for a tougher plummet towards the bottom. When receiving instructions for Lieutenant Honda’s eulogy, Captain Fujita ended by saying “Let your famous pen do the rest” (163). This is wrong for many reasons and especially because in no way is Yasukichi famous for his literary pieces. The only thing worth while that has come from the “famous pen” of Yasukichi are his previous two eulogies. By directly referring to the pen, rather than Yasukichi, it indicates that there is nothing famous that he himself has actually created. He remains resentful at first for the reason that he believes he is above writing eulogies and should be focusing his attention on his short stories that come out every two months. With a little self convincing, he eventually brings himself to write the eulogy in less than no time. Something thrown together so mindlessly would have to be the sacrifice Yasukichi made in order to have the time to continue his creation of his latest short story. Upon the delivery of the eulogy at the funeral, he is awed that there was such an uprising of emotions from the family of Lieutenant Honda’s family. For once he had accomplished the goal of any author, to bring out pure feelings from the audience. The idea behind this is that it would be nearly impossible to be unable to arise emotions from an audience at a place like a funeral. No half-hearted human being would ever criticize a eulogy with regards the the devastating circumstances. Following an even greater confidence boost than the one from the Captain, Yasukichi reads a devastating review of his latest short story from a well respected critic. This is crushing news, as the realization comes to him that even when things look to be going well, someone will ensure failure upon him: “His eulogies worked, his stories failed miserably: it was funny for everyone but Yasukichi himself. When would Fate be kind enough to ring down the curtain on this sad comedy?” (171). The quote itself describes perfectly how no matter what Yasukichi tries to accomplish, there is always a seemingly unmovable road block in the way. This acts as almost a final stand as Yasukichi is calling upon the same fate to rescue him that has supposedly been ruining his life. Failure is the only attainable status as a result.
The emotional hardships that follow those on a vision quest will eventually lead to some sort of demise. Yasukichi experienced this in the sense that his will to continue on slowly diminished. From the beginning of the text, the reader is thrust into a somewhat depressing scene. The thought of death is immediately brought up and Yasukichi’s response is even more troublesome as he merely dismisses it and is more concerned about how is now forced to write another eulogy. As he contemplates what to do, he realizes he has no inner drive to write something meaningful and claims he slips into a state of melancholy. Writing about the death of man he hardly knew is a somewhat numbing task. Simply the thought of death is enough to send someone into a spiraling frenzy, but it was different for Yasukichi. He lost the passion that he once spoke of for literature. The simple distraction of an unwanted task was enough to change his course as his mental state began to change. When mentioning the eulogy and lack of thought that went into it the text quotes “It contained nothing of which he need to feel ashamed. Such sensitivities had been scraped away from him long ago, like the surface of an old razor strop” (169). The thought of having such a normal emotion taken away from Yasukichi’s head is frightening to say the least. Nothing good can come from having simple human feelings ground away over time for the only reason of struggle. This idea goes back to the fact that his only success has come from writing eulogies. This entails the concept of hardship and the darkest of realities. As Yasukichi writes his eulogies, he is speaking from within himself and how as his emotions have been scraped away, he can relate to the death like occurrences. Yasukichi continuously failed to cope with his short comings time after time. This ate at him and by the end it was just too much for one person to handle. “Yasukichi discovered that the sun was too far down for him to see his own stream” (171). This quotes goes farther than a simple sun set, but should be interpreted as the metaphorical sun going down from Yasukichi’s life. He had failed one too many times and the sad reality in which he found himself was unbearable. While it may just start out as a simple thought of doubt in the back of one’s head, it can lead to an utterly bitter end.
Living the dream or sayings like it are so frequently used in today’s world. The only problem with that is the sad notion that the odds that one can actually live the dream are minimal at best. Yasukichi wanted nothing more than to become a force in the literary world. Simply to touch the hearts of his readers would mean more to him that life itself. As he tried time and time again to achieve this goal, the only accomplishment that came about were his eulogies which meant less than nothing to him. This became even more of a discouraging fact as he only experienced any success in an area he had no interest being involved in. The next step is to look at the reasons behind that and that leads to the conclusion that society is simply not fit to let just anyone reach their goals. Yasukichi was labeled with the title of a Navy school teacher and there was no way he could become anything more or less than that. The invisible chains keeping him back endured all attempts at escape. This led Yasukichi to new territory as he struggled with his mental strength and the relentless attacks of criticism. “All unknowing, he had tramped with muddy feet into the sacred recesses of the human heart” (170). The realization for Yasukichi hits him harder and faster than ever before as it is clear how he had made devastating news with the death of Lieutenant Honda, that much more difficult to cope with following his eulogy. Each and every written word has the power to break one’s soul and little thought ever goes into that. The hope at the beginning of the text slowly faded with each event as it became more and more clear that society itself will never change and there are truly no exceptions.
As much as Yasukichi hoped to be, reality eventually struck and it struck harder than ever before. The reader watched as his every hope and dream was crushed in a tragic end. One can hope for change, but “The Writer’s Craft” is just another example that the societal bounds will never be a good thing as they continue to tarnish hopes and dreams.
When Loyalties Collide: Familial and Religious Alliances in “Dr. Ogata, a Memorandum” and “O-Gin”
Loyalty is a character trait which is held in high esteem throughout the world, and even people who do not explicitly value loyalty still have loyalty to certain ideas. Whether it is to people, ideas, religions, or objects, most people carry numerous loyalties to things that they care about. However, occasionally two loyalties collide with each other and become mutually exclusive with one another. This is the case in two of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short stories. In both “Dr. Ogata, a Memorandum” and “O-Gin”, characters are forced to choose between their loyalty to beliefs and loyalty to their family. Although the stories are different, by examining the similarities and differences between them such as the situation the protagonist is faced with and the bias of the narrator, one can discern Akutagawa’s beliefs on whether loyalty to people or loyalty to religion is more important.
“Dr. Ogata, a Memorandum” follows a woman named Shino who is a believer in the “Kirishitan”, or Christian faith and is told from the village Doctor Ogato’s point of view. Following the death of Shino’s husband, she converted from the traditional faith system to a new faith, Christianity, much to the chagrin of those around her. She took her faith very seriously and “She and daughter Sato worshiped each day before a tutelary image called a ‘kurusu’ [cross],” however, because it was contrary to the popular belief at the time, “soon she was disowned by her relatives and the village officials were said to be meeting frequently to discuss formally banishing her from the village”. Aside from the scorn she received from her peers, Shino’s different beliefs did not seem to cause her any significant issues until her daughter got sick. One day she approaches the narrator, Dr. Ogata, and asks him to do a pulse diagnosis on her daughter, Sato, who is extremely sick. However, he refuses her, saying that her “behavior of late is truly offensive. In particular, I have heard that you often vilify the people of our village,-including me; you say that our worship of the gods and Buddha is an act of heresy…If you want me to perform a pulse diagnosis, you must first renounce your faith in the Kirishitan sect”. Ogata will not help Shino or her daughter because he disagrees with their faith system. Shino then refuses him and somberly returns home to her sick daughter. However, the next day she returns to the doctor and pleads with him again to save Sato, which he again refuses unless she denounces her faith. This time, she accepts and renounces her faith, which she proved when she “took one of those kurusu things out of the breast of her kimono, laid it on the entryway step, and silently trod upon it three times”.
Shino was extremely loyal to her religion, however, she was also very loyal to her daughter. Therefore, when the two began to clash, she was forced to choose between the two. She chose the latter, sacrificing her religion in order to potentially save her daughter. However, when the doctor goes to help Sato, he discovers that she is too sick for him to be able to help her. He leaves, much to Shino’s dismay, and Sato dies shortly after. Following this, Dr. Ogata goes past Shino’s house to discover that Sato has been brought back to life by a Christian figure from a neighboring town.
The story of Ogata is not the only story concerning Christianity that Akutagawa wrote. His other story that discusses Christianity is “O-gin”, the story of a young Christian girl named O-Gin, who lived and practiced her religion during a time in which “As soon as a person was discovered to be following the teachings of the heavenly lord, he was either burned at the stake or impaled on the rack” (82). O-Gin’s parents died when she was an infant, at which point she was taken in by a Christian couple. She was then raised in this religion and was very pious. Despite it being illegal, “Many times O-Gin would stand in the shade of the fig tree by the well, looking up at the large crescent moon and praying with her whole heart”. However, one day she and her family were caught practicing their religion, and thus they were thrown in jail, tortured, and sentenced to be burnt at the stake. The entire time that they were being tortured, they stayed true to their religion, until they were tied to posts, about to be burned at the stake. They were given one last chance to denounce their religion, and after a pause, O-Gin decrees that she will give up her religion because her “parents do not know the teachings of Our Heavenly Lord, and by now they must have fallen down into inherno [hell]. It would be unforgivable of me to enter the gates of Haraiso [Heaven] without them”. Her adoptive mother then tells her husband that she will burn to death “not because I want to go to Haraiso, but because I want to be with you.” They both then fall from grace so that they can all go to hell together.
These stories obviously have many similarities. In both stories, a person is faced with a situation in which they must decide between their religion and those that are close to them. For Shino, if she did not give up her religion then she would lose her daughter. O-Gin was put in a very similar position, wherein she was forced to either follow her religion and go to heaven but be separated from her deceased parents, or go to hell and be with her family. In both situations, they were forced to either be loyal to their religion and beliefs or to their family, they could not do both. Not only is the situation similar in both stories, but the outcome is as well. Both O-Gin and Shino choose their family over their religion, and they both have a somewhat happy ending. Therefore, if they both chose their family over their religion and it turns out relatively well for both, the stories indicate that choosing family over religion is a better choice, and thus family is more important than religion.
Although the stories are remarkably similar, there are slight differences between the two, and one such difference is the bias of the narrator. O-Gin’s story is narrated by a character who is not directly involved in the story and it is not very clear what their view on Christianity is. However, although it is not easy to discern the narrator’s view on Christianity, it is not impossible. At the beginning of the story, the narrator is discussing the prophet of the traditional religion, Shakyamuni, and says that “his teachings were obviously a pack of lies, and just as obvious was the enormous evil of Shakyamuni himself.” In addition to this, while discussing O-Gin’s parents who followed the traditional religion at the time, he says that they never had the “opportunity to learn these truths” because they died still believing in Shakyamuni’s teachings. Additionally, the narrator continually refers to the officials who persecute O-Gin and her family as Satan, which indicates that they not only believe in Satan, who is a Christian figure, but they believe those who block others from following Christianity to be evil. At the conclusion of the story, the narrator is discussing the outcome of the story when he says that in one account of this story, “Satan, overjoyed at the way things turned out, changed himself into a huge book and flew around the execution ground all night. The author of this present tale is highly skeptical: was it so great a victory for Satan as to prompt such excessive celebration?” This shows that the narrator is the author, who himself is skeptical if this story truly was a victory for Satan. This means that he does not believe that this story, in which loyalty to people is prioritized above loyalty to religion, is “bad” in the Christian religion. Therefore, the author does not believe that choosing family over religion is wrong.
In contrast to O-Gin’s story which is narrated by a character who appears to be favorable of the Christian faith, Dr. Ogata, the narrator of the first story, is vehemently opposed to Christianity. The proof of his disdain of Christianity is the fact that he refuses to treat a potential very sick patient, Sato, who will die without his aid because he disagrees with their religion. His disapproval of the religion is also shown by his reaction to Sato’s resurrection. While observing this scene, he noted that “the spring shower produced intense thunder just as the bateran was entering this village. I take this to mean that heaven was showing its abhorrence for him”. The narrator is opposed to religion and paints this exchange in a negative light, despite the fact that he “had never heard of a case like Sato’s, in which a person who has died from cold damage disorder regains his soul”. Ogata was educated enough to be a doctor, and yet he had never heard of a situation similar to Sato’s in which someone came back to life after dying from her disease. Therefore, it can be surmised that there is no scientific reasoning for Sato’s resurrection, meaning that her resurrection occurred due to her faith. Therefore, this would seem to indicate that within the canon of this story, their religion, Christianity, is correct. Additionally, despite the fact that Shino sacrificed her religion to save Sato, her religion still helped her and saved her daughter. This means that even though Shino chose her daughter over her religion, Christianity did not forsake her for it. Therefore, Christianity, would not punish Shino for sacrificing her religion to save her daughter.
When viewed separately, both of these stories stand alone as interesting explorations of family and religion. However, when compared to one another, themes arise that can be used to discern the author’s opinion on certain issues, such as loyalty to family and religion. In both stories, the protagonist is forced to choose between their religion and their family. Both choose their family, and both stories work out to their favor. Additionally, the different perspective of the two narrators reveals that the decision made by the women to prioritize their family was right. Therefore, by comparing the two stories, one can see that the author, Akutagawa, believes loyalty to family to be more important than loyalty to religion.