Book Review: Kappa by Akutagawa Ryunosuke

I love Japanese literature. I’ve gone through the motions of taking all the Japanese literature classes in college, and while some professors were sub-par, there were some amazing instructors who helped me fall in love with it. The first novel that comes to mind is Akutagawa’s Kappa. It made me laugh out loud. It made me ponder. It even stimulated a surprisingly insightful conversation with my usually quiet father. The overarching message of a ruined society is cleverly disguised in satire, and the radical and seemingly far-fetched “Kappaland” masks it in gaiety and absurdity.

Let’s talk about the close connection between Japan and literature. The literacy rate of the citizens in Japan is amazingly close to 100%. Learning how to read and write so many different characters at such a young age is an essential part of this statistic. It is not surprising, then, that people can often be seen reading long after they’re out of school. It is not shocking that Japan has graced the world with dozens of fantastic authors, and Akutagawa Ryunosuke (芥川 龍之介, 1 March 1892 – 24 July 1927) is no exception. Primarily active during the Taisho era, he is regarded as the Father of Japanese Short Story. The coveted Akutagawa Prize is named for this eccentric writer shortly after his death.

Akutagawa wrote Kappa not long after translating C.S. Lewis’s Alice in Wonderland. There are plenty of elements that reminded me of the classic tale, though it is usually compared to Gulliver’s Travels. It is not a very large book: the actual story doesn’t begin until about forty pages past the lengthy introduction. However, this does not mean that it’s a simple book. Akutagawa’s writing style is filled with dry, satiric humour that reads easily. It will make the brain begin a long score of pondering, because each chapter presents issues that were relevant in the 1920s, and are still highly relevant today. A critical look at the whole of humanity, Kappa is a grotesque and intriguing reflection of society, and Akutagawa makes it rather clear that he is not pleased with what it has become.

The narrator is a psychiatric patient, simply called Patient 23, who recalls his time spent in Kappaland, an underground world where all its inhabitants are mythical creatures called kappa. The man had literally stumbled upon the place: he fell onto his head, got knocked out, and woke up in Kappaland. He found that everything was essentially the same as it was in his own world, except that everyone was a kappa, and instead of Japanese, they spoke Kappanese. In fact, every aspect of their society mimicked his own; the notable differences Patient 23 observes makes him think that perhaps his own world isn’t as grand as he had hoped. Instead of finding a way to get home, he finds pleasure in camaraderie with the locals.

Akutagawa makes little effort to hide the idea that Kappaland is, in his mind, the Japan he is forced to live in. A few touchy topics could land Akutagawa prison time: for example, he makes light of the subject of prohibition, but as the narrator begins to lend his opinion to his kappa friend, he is knocked out by a bottle. In that sense, he was unable to speak. Ah, that Akutagawa was clever when choosing his words (and I don’t believe he got in trouble for that). That aside, Patient 23 also happens to witness birth in a kappa hospital…or, rather, the lack of a birth. The Kappanese doctor asks whether the baby kappa wants to be born or not, and the baby kappa responds negatively. Yes. The baby kappa is speaking from the mother’s womb as she’s on the table giving birth. This is the kind of absurdity that I enjoy.

I cannot stress the importance of reading up on the author’s background. As I mentioned before, the story doesn’t start until the fortieth page, but the introduction is crucial to understanding the novel. Without a relatively good grasp on the author’s perspectives as he was writing, it is impossible to appreciate this gem of a book. On the very surface, Kappa is intended to be a pitiful reflection of Japanese society of the 1920s. However, it also acts as a scope into Akutagawa’s troubled mind.

Akutagawa did not have a pleasant childhood. His mother had succumbed to mental illness shortly after he was born, and he was relocated to his uncle’s home. (My professor assured us that being with his uncle was no better, but I don’t recall him going into detail about it.) Always a perfectionist, he would bring stress upon himself as he worked tirelessly to make his short stories flawless. His health began to decline in his thirties, and much of his literary work would take the form of short autobiographies. Kappa is one of these books. During the production of his final works, Akutagawa began to experience hallucinations and paranoia, afraid that he had inherited his mother’s mental illness. Like many of the Japanese literary giants, he extinguished his own life.

When reading this type of literature, keep in mind that Japanese culture may be very different from your own. I find that reading almost any piece of Japanese literature on your own is a challenging experience, especially if you don’t possess enough knowledge of Japan’s history. To truly appreciate Kappa (and any piece of Japanese literature), remember to humble yourself if you don’t know what’s going on, and read with someone! You might be surprised at the responses you receive. Happy reading!

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2 Responses to “Book Review: Kappa by Akutagawa Ryunosuke”

  1. Jackie says:

    I’m always looking for reading recommendations. Thanks! What’s even better, is it’s on Aozora. http://www.aozora.gr.jp/cards/000879/card69.html

    • Robbin says:

      Whoa! This is sort of the best thing ever! I’ll make sure to see if Aozora has any of the other book reviews I have in store from now on. Thanks! Woo-hoo, now my post is relevant to kanji!

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