Modern writers of Japan
(1867-1916), a novelist widely regarded as being the one of the greatest writers of modern Japan. Often regarded as one of the country’s representative “national authors” — a man whose face adorned the ¥1,000 note between 1984 and 2004, and whose works have been a staple of school textbooks for decades — Soseki has come to symbolize Japan’s past struggles with modernization and Westernization. Under intense government pressure to become Japan’s preeminent expert in English literature and imbued with a self-defined mission to produce a revolutionary “theory of literature,” Soseki succumbed to paranoia and anxiety in his mid to late 30s. He later wrote that the entire Japanese nation was being forced into the collective equivalent of a nervous breakdown by having to assimilate several centuries of Western civilization in the course of a few short decades.
Yet certain aspects of Soseki’s writings remain enigmatic. Why, for example, was Soseki so obsessed with the relationship between fine art and literature that he incorporated visual images or ideas taken from paintings into his early novels, but then suddenly stopped doing so mid-career? Or how can we explain a shift halfway through Soseki’s writing career — from “And Then” (1909) onwards — to write novels about “love triangles” when Soseki himself was — as far as we know — never involved in such a relationship?
Or perhaps there is the greatest mystery of all: Why was it that this most naturally gifted writer hardly wrote a word of fiction before suddenly surging into activity at the age of 37 in 1904?
Ryünosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) is one of Japan’s foremost stylists – a modernist master whose short stories are marked by highly original imagery, cynicism, beauty and wild humour. ‘Rashömon’ and ‘In a Bamboo Grove’ inspired Kurosawa’s magnificent film and depict a past in which morality is turned upside down, while tales such as ‘The Nose’, ‘O-Gin’ and ‘Loyalty’ paint a rich and imaginative picture of a medieval Japan peopled by Shoguns and priests, vagrants and peasants. And in later works such as ‘Death Register’, ‘The Life of a Stupid Man’ and ‘Spinning Gears’, Akutagawa drew from his own life to devastating effect, revealing his intense melancholy and terror of madness in exquisitely moving impressionistic stories.
“Nowadays, Akutagawa is becoming popular in many more parts of the world, … because people are living in a time of anxiety in which they cannot tell the future. Akutagawa lived in an age that was similar to today, during which there was an economic downturn and natural disasters, including major earthquakes and tsunamis, happened.”