Today we bring you three enigmatic pieces by “the father of the Japanese short story.” You probably know Ryūnosuke Akutagawa without realizing it—one of his short stories served as the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashōmon. Each of these tales brings a quick punch of emotion, leaving an impression on the reader not unlike that of microfiction.
There was once a sennin who worked as a jurist in O Town near Lake Biwa. His favorite pastime, more than anything else, was collecting gourds. Stored inside a giant closet on the upper floor of his rented home was his vast collection hanging from nails hammered into the posts and lintels.
Three years had gone by, when, one day, the sennin received a notice of transfer from the government. He was to relocate forthwith to his new post in H City. He made arrangements for all of his furniture and belongings except for his gourds, of which he had amassed over two hundred. He had no idea how to go about moving them, and he refused to part with a single one.
“The trains won’t do, and a carriage won’t either. The gourds are sure to break.”
After carefully weighing his options, the sennin decided to tie the gourds together into a boat he could float across the lake, using for its keel a bunch of roots he had dug up long ago at the Wandering Willow tree. On the day of his departure, as fortune would have it, the sky was clear and there was no wind. The sennin boarded his boat of gourds, and, with his wooden pole, pushed himself quietly across the surface of the lake.
It is known that, in ancient times, the sennin had discovered the secret to eternal life, and thus had never died. This sennin, however, was really rather ordinary, gradually aging, and, eventually, succumbing to cancer of the stomach. On the eve of his death, it is said, he raised his withered arms high toward the ceiling and cried out, “Tomorrow will be my lucky day. Let us celebrate!” However, the next day, instead of being an occasion for celebration, it became apparent upon his death that the sennin had tendered a will that was far more eccentric than those of average mortal men. Therefore, his surviving family, it seems, somewhat understandably, did not honor his will, even though the sennin had left behind no shortage of capable disciples who could paint his gourds in the nanga style precisely as he had instructed. By the first anniversary of the sennin’s death, the more than two hundred gourds that he had cherished had been dispersed throughout the land, with no record of where they had gone.
On an overcast winter day, I was riding the Chuō train out west, staring at the mountain range framed in the window of my cart. The mountains were enveloped in a singular white that resembled a coat of rocky skin. As I continued to stare at the drifting peaks, a peculiar scene from my past came to mind.
It was four or five years ago, on a similarly overcast winter day. I was visiting a painter friend at his studio, heated by a brittle cast-iron stove in the corner near the door. I was conversing with him and one of his models, who happened to be there sitting for a portrait. The walls of my friend’s studio were furnished discreetly with a sprinkling of his oils, nothing more. The model was very beautiful, and seemed almost to have a touch of foreign blood in her veins, a feature her bob-cut accented. She chain-smoked cigarettes that she rolled on the table that held our coffee. At one point, through the clouds of smoke, I noticed that her lashes had all been recently tweezed, and a lightly swollen fringe was left on each of her eyelids.
When our conversation shifted to the unusually severe cold of that winter, my friend began elaborating on how the soil in his garden changes character from season to season, how it feels throughout the year, particularly in the winter.
“…and so, what I mean to say, essentially, is that the soil is a living creature too, no different from you, no different from me.”
Upon finishing his lecture, my friend filled his pipe with loose tobacco and tamped it with his thumb while studying our faces. I had nothing to add; I blankly took a sip of my coffee, which had gone lukewarm and lost its scent. My friend’s words, however, seemed to have impressed the girl, who was sitting now with her reddened eyelids arched high in thought, a smoke ring sailing from her lips. Looking cryptically off into the distance she said, “It’s the same as skin. I used to have beautiful skin before I got into this line of work. Now every year my skin only gets more wrinkled.”
On that overcast winter day, riding the Chuō train out west, I stared at the mountain range framed in the window of my cart. The mountains were enveloped in a singular white that resembled coarsened human skin. Staring at those drifting peaks, I remembered the words of the beautiful Japanese model with a touch of foreign blood in her veins, and not a single eyelash to her name.
One afternoon in early summer I was in Kanda book browsing with the novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, who was dressed, of all things, in a jet-black suit with a sharp red tie knotted tight around his neck, the mark of a Romantic temperament. Everyone we passed in the streets, man and woman alike, couldn’t help but stare. It was obvious I was not alone in my distaste, but whenever I pointed this out, the bellicose Tanizaki denied it.
“They’re looking at you,” he growled. “Why are you wearing that thing anyway?”
Instead of my light summer coat, I had on my father’s traditional frock, the same kind a priest or a chadō teacher would wear over their kimono. Tanizaki was the one, not me, who was attracting all the stares with his singular tie that looked like a crimson rose. But my arguments with him were in vain, for he was afflicted like me with the poet’s malaise and had little patience for truths that offended his aesthetic sense.
Eventually, more from talking than anything else, we grew thirsty and settled into a café on the back streets of Jinbōchō where we ordered a round of cold drinks, then fell into a silence in which I felt my eyes latching once again onto Tanizaki’s tie, that beacon of Romantic zealotry. As the waitress approached with our order I could see in our cups the dance of bubbles on the water, gleaming with the clarity of revealed truth, and, till this day, I remember precisely what the waitress said to Tanizaki, setting our cups down one by one, hovering with her hand pressed to the table, her face powder smeared in spots and her eyes firmly bewitched.
“I can’t stop staring at your tie, the color is so striking! I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
Then, ten minutes later, as we were getting up to leave I took a fifty sen bill out of my wallet to tip the waitress with, and, not surprisingly, Tanizaki, who was opposed to all forms of tipping (in the fashion of a true Tokyoite), scoffed.
“Put that away,” he said, pushing the bill toward me; “she only did what she’s supposed to, and she’s already being paid.”
In the past, by habit, I would have deferred to Tanizaki, owing to his seniority, but this time around I did not oblige and left the crumpled bill on the table. I couldn’t have disagreed with him more about tipping than in this case. Not only did our waitress bring our drinks, but she confirmed, once and for all, the truth of the tie’s grossness that Tanizaki had refused to see.
Even now, years on, I hold in high esteem the memory of this crumpled bill, which I rank, easily, as the most merited tip I’ve ever given.
 Figure in Japanese mythology, variously translated as wizard, sage, genie, mage, hermit. Sennin is a loanword from Middle Chinese. It is pronounced “sen-neen.”
Translated from the Japanese by Ryan C. K. Choi
Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), born in Tokyo, Japan, is regarded as the “Father of the Japanese short story.” Japan’s premier literary award for emerging writers, the Akutagawa Prize, is named after him.
Ryan C. K. Choi’s work appears or is forthcoming in BOMB, The Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, The Yale Review, New York Tyrant, jubilat, Poetry Northwest, Harvard Review, Epoch, and elsewhere. A composer and musician, he lives in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, where he was born and raised.
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