I’ve recently been keeping up with Meg Sorick’s series on drinking adventurously (trying the alcoholic offerings of far-flung lands and describing them for your pleasure). Drawing inspiration from her, I thought I’d bring you a taste of something different which you might not have encountered before. Not having the stomach for exotic spirits, however, I bring you a sample of the unique flavour that is Japanese literature.
We can begin with the author, Ryunosuke Akutagawa. He wrote Kappa in 1927 as a social commentary, making clear his negative view of corruption in Japanese society. One feature which made him stand out as an author was his willingness to blend western and Japanese influences in his fiction.
Akutagawa committed suicide by overdose in the same year Kappa was published, believing he had inherited a mental illness from his mother and fearing he would lose his mind. This casts a shadow over the tale which makes its meaning more powerful.
The kappa is not something Akutagawa invented for his own literary purposes. It is a creature in Japanese mythology whose name roughly translates to “river child”.
They can be described as child-sized and having similar appearance to lizards, a cautionary tale for children fond of playing by rivers or lakes. Some folklore tales link kappa to violent or depraved acts against unwary humans.
It is the story of a psychiatric patient who becomes lost in the Japanese countryside. Somehow, he finds himself in the world of the kappa and discovers much about their society which makes it superior to his own human world.
One of the most memorable parts of the story concerns kappa’s treatment of their infants. An unborn kappa is asked while still in the womb if it would like to be born. If the foetal kappa refuses, it is aborted.
This at first seems barbaric, but Akutagawa spins the story so that it appears to be a more humane practice than that of the protagonist’s homeland. Each kappa has absolute control over its own destiny, even before death.
Here we have a hint of the special something which makes Japanese literature worth at least a brief investigation by western readers (in translation, I can’t read a word of the original language).
Remember that Japan was closed to western influences until the mid-19th century. The product of this isolation was not stagnation, but the development of a culture almost untouched by our own. Admittedly, earlier Japanese fiction such as The Tale of Genji can be a struggle for western readers (but still readable even though it was written in the 11th century!).
But combined with the integration of outside influences by authors such as Akutagawa you are left with approachable stories such as Kappa which provide insights which are uniquely Japanese, with no true equivalent in western fiction.
I will not go so far as to say Kappa is better than 20th century western fiction. In my opinion, they exist on entirely different planes. You cannot get the feeling you get reading Kappa from works such as To Kill A Mockingbird, but the same is also true in reverse.
I’d recommend it purely as a way to get an insight into an unfamiliar form of fiction.
You can find Kappa here on Amazon.com. Have you read any exotic or unusual fiction? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!