Saturday, 6 November 2010

In A Bamboo Grove

"That is true, Your Honour. I am the one who found the body..."

Edition Notes; In A Bamboo Grove, by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, 1922, within Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories translated by Jay Rubin with an introduction by Murakami Haruki, Penguin Classics 2006 - £9.99 ISBN 978-0-14-044970-9

As I may have already mentioned, I am primarily a film buff. My literary education may be lacking but I can spiel off producers and cinematographers and wardrobe mistresses like there's no tomorrow, guess the year of production based on quality of film stock, cinematographic devices and censorship cuts, and other such smug and totally pointless abilities. Thus when the next book on the row turned out to be entitled 'Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories', it immediately sparked a twinge of recognition.

The Testimony of a Woodcutter under Questioning by the Magistrate
The Kurosawa epic Rashomon - which I have heard people claim is one of the greatest films in existence, and I'm not sure I could disprove them - is virtually required viewing for any student of film OR Japanese and seems to hold roughly the same ponderous weight, dignity and influence in Japan as Citizen Kane combined with Gone With The Wind would do in the study of Hollywood cinema. I'm reliably informed that the ability to talk about Kurosawa movies in Japanese will ensure you never have to buy a drink on your travels through Japan. The film is a classic and the director is a genius. I don't even like it very much and I'll admit that.

The Testimony of a Travelling Priest under Questioning by the Magistrate
It's equally important to understand that one of the reasons the film is so lauded is because the story - or rather stories - it's based on are a massive cornerstone of Japanese literature. Japanese school children are routinely required to read Akutagawa in class (A status not extended to almost any other popular Japanese writer you can think of) and have been for a while now. They may not like it, they may not remember it, they may not ever read anything else by him - but you'll get at the very least a vague recollection from almost anyone you ask. Many Japanese writers are massive fans (Including Murakami Haruki - the more famous Murakami, author of Kafka on the Shore and a dozen or so others - who wrote the introduction to this volume) and I'm pretty sure there are many others who hate every single word, but either way, it's a huge shared cultural experience.

The Testimony of a Policeman under Questioning by the Magistrate
Have you ever thought about how shared cultural experiences, especially ones at a young age, shape us? I know a whole generation of people (Almost, but not quite, exclusively in their twenties and British due to the times and places the film in question was turning up on televisions) who will forever be slightly disturbed on a fundamental level by the song 'Bright Eyes' thanks to the weirdest scene in the animated movie of Watership Down. Watching it as an adult is not the same. Watching it as an adult, you can process this information logically and remember the framework it comes with - logically the scene is some kind of vision or near-death experience. Most British children in the 90's were not equipped to process a near-death experience in an animated movie. Thus remembering watching the film as a child, all most people recall is 'Bright Eyes' and a surreal swirl of vaguely unpleasant tribalesque images. It was one of the most hauntingly weird experiences of a weird childhood for me, and what's more, it was for lots of other people who watched that film at around that time. Sometimes, all I need to do is start humming the tune to elicit a shared memory of bewildered horror.

The Testimony of an Old Woman under Questioning by the Magistrate
I made the rule that I was going to read the most popular or famous story by each writer, unless of course I had already read that one. Rashomon the film was based on two stories by Akutagawa - Rashomon, which gave the setting (A gate in Kyoto which sadly no longer exists, although if you hunt there is a rather unimpressive sign entirely in Japanese that attests to it's existence. Plenty of other Japanese gates are lurking around should you choose to go hunting) and In A Bamboo Grove which gave the characters and the plot. I had already read Rashomon whilst in Japan, thus I moved on to In A Bamboo Grove. I could have decided to read the whole book, but I found I had enough to say on the back of one short story.

Tajomaru's Confession
Speaking of shared experiences, thanks to schools the world over, English speakers have one major shared experience - Shakespeare. Everyone's read or seen a Shakespeare play at some point. Well, almost everyone. And what are Shakespeare plays like? Loud, rough, sensational - full of sex and violence and tension and action, and at the end everyone dies horribly or gets married and is happy forever after. I could be broadly describing the yearly output of all the Hollywood studios combined for the last eighty years (Yes, even the Haynes Code years - there was still sex and violence, it was just coded differently). For a long time, most people have been exposed to Shakespeare very young. Logically, this must have some kind of an effect. Maybe the effect is that most people in the English speaking world understand the way a Shakespeare play is written to be the way a story is meant to work.

God only knows what will happen when literary works start appearing from my generation and the one immediately after it, where the single greatest shared literary experience at an early age in the English speaking world is either Harry Potter or Twilight. It's either going to be dire or fabulous.

Penitent Confession of a Woman in Kiyomizu Temple
I've been to Kiyomizu-dera several times. It's beautiful. I highly recommend it.

I sometimes think that Japanese writers are the masters of the short story - at least, that I've discovered so far - just because it's what they do. Every classical Japanese writer I've encountered writes short stories. Many pop writers write only short stories. The great epics, like Genji Monogatari and even The Wind Up Bird Chronicles, are written episodically in several to many smaller volumes. The average length of fiction mass-consumed in Japan is roughly that of a novella, often as part of a series. Large books are often split up into many parts once translated (Twilight, I believe, became six or seven books) whereas in Britain at least English language writers of short stories get delivered in massive hard cover compendiums - it's not enough to have a trilogy or worse, a series of tiny, individually bound novellas, everything has to be compiled into a single volume that could be used for ballast. I often wonder if it's the desire for shorter stories because smaller books work better in Japan ('Light Novels', as they're called, are the perfect size to go in a pocket or a handbag, last you around four to eight average train journeys - or, for my bad grasp of kanji, about twenty - and don't take up much space in cramped Japanese accommodation. They're just so neat) that has lead to Japanese writers becoming excellent at them, or if it's the excellent short stories that has lead to the desire of more of same.

Ultimately, many English and Japanese writers started off at roughly the same place around the Victorian and pre-War years - writing short stories for magazines and newspapers - but I do wonder why I can get Akutagawa stories in more or less individual volumes in Japanese, but Poe and Lovecraft only come to me in massive collections of their entire works in English. I think this is more about modern cultural reading habits than anything else, but it does intrigue me.

The Testimony of the Dead Man's Spirit Told through a Medium
In A Bamboo Grove is a story about stories. There are three conflicting first person accounts of an event, none of which quite match up to the testimonies of any other partial witnesses. It's a story about truth that seems to conclude there is no such thing - a story about an individual's view of the world which seems to conclude primarily that any one person's view of the world is ultimately flawed. It is brutal and unkind and does not shy away from the horrific. It treats the supernatural as valid and the testimony of a dead man's ghost as not only obtainable but of equal weight to that of the living. And it has no conclusion.

If you are a fan of Japanese story telling - of any kind, be it films or manga or novels or anime or television dramas - then it may well feel like I've summed up some of the major tropes of narrative that are considered to be particularly prevalent in Japan. And now you understand what all that shared cultural experience stuff was all about.

I'm not trying to claim that Akutagawa is Japan's Shakespeare, but if someone else was to claim it, I wouldn't disagree.

Edition Notes
The only alternative to this volume in my bookshop was somewhat shoddily bound, it has to be said - I am abusive to my books, if the paperbacks do not have decently weighted covers that aren't going to start curling then they just don't survive very long - and didn't actually have In A Bamboo Grove in it. I am quite pleased with the Penguin Classics version - the selection is good, the translation is good (I prefer the translation of yabu no naka to In A Bamboo Grove rather than In A Grove because the second title, as a native English speaker, immediately starts me thinking of trees which yabu does not) and  it has a generous portion of notes, most of which are actually useful. The paragraph on Japanese names and naming is brief and informative and the chronology is concisely handy. The translator's notes are a little less to the point than I would like. Murakami's introduction - which I read after writing the body of this post - picks up a lot of the same themes I've been bouncing around here and is thus vaguely embarrassing in a fun way. The end notes are obnoxious but end notes always are (Footnotes, ladies and gentlemen, scuffling around at the end of the book is no fun and breaks up the flow of the story something terrible).

For the hardcore/absurdly talented among you, you can read the story in Japanese for free, here.

This one came a little late to the party, didn't it? A whole week, my goodness. I haven't actually decided/figured out/found whatever I'm going to be reading next (Maybe it's time to give the poetry a go? Or something from early literature?) but I am going to be back in a week's time with a bright, informative, and above all also late post about horror, chocolate, staying up late at night, All Hallow's Read, and why Neil Gaiman is like a pumpkin lantern.

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