Like Borges, Ryunosuke Akutagawa only ever wrote short stories and like Borges he often took traditional stories and cultural reference points and looked at them with a modern eye. However, unlike the Argentinian, Akutagawa's career lasted only 12 years. He committed suicide at the age of 35.
He is best known for two stories, Rashomon and In A Bamboo Grove, which were conflated by Akira Kurosawa into the film Rashomon. Those two open the first section of this book, which collects stories set in Japan's classical era. Though the stories in this section are all excellent, the highlight is Hell Screen, the story of "the greatest painter in the land" who is commissioned to paint a picture of hell. With wonderfully measured prose, the story builds to a dark, inevitable conclusion.
The second set of stories, which take place in Japan's Tokugawa period, between 1600 and 1868, is less successful. However, Loyalty is notable for its depiction of mental illness that links it to Akutagawa's later stories.
It's the third section, which the narrator has titled Modern Tragicomedy, that is my favourite. Not only are the settings modern but the style is modernist. The word Kafka-esque is over-used but it's certainly true of the amusing and bizarre Horse Legs, in which a man who dies by mistake is returned to life with the legs of a horse because nothing else is available. Meanwhile, in Green Onions, Akutagawa creates an amusingly authentic story of a couple on a date without letting us forget that he's writing the story in a hurry to meet a deadline.
As his mental condition deteriorated, Akutagawa's work became more autobiographical and more harrowing. Some of those stories form the fourth section of this book and they are by far the hardest to read. The final story in the collection is a horror story about an author who fears he is losing his mind. However, nothing in the story, published posthumously, is as disturbing as its postscript: "I don't have the strength to keep writing this. To go on living with this feeling is painful beyond description. Isn't there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep?"
Akutagawa killed himself later that year.