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Akutagawa’s magical final work is a short novel with a magic spell all its own—poignant, fantastical, wry, melancholic, and witty
The Kappa is a creature from Japanese folklore known for dragging unwary toddlers to their deaths in rivers: a scaly, child-sized creature, looking something like a frog, but with a sharp, pointed beak and an oval-shaped saucer on top of its head, which hardens with age.
Akutagawa’s Kappa is narrated by Patient No. 23, a madman in a lunatic asylum: he recounts how, while out hiking in Kamikochi, he spots a Kappa. He decides to chase it and, like Alice pursuing the White Rabbit, he tumbles down a hole, out of the human world and into the realm of the Kappas. There he is well looked after, in fact almost made a pet of: as a human, he is a novelty. He makes friends and spends his time learning about their world, exploring the seemingly ridiculous ways of the Kappa, but noting many—not always flattering—parallels to Japanese mores regarding morality, legal justice, economics, and sex. Alas, when the patient eventually returns to the human world, he becomes disgusted by humanity and, like Gulliver missing the Houyhnhnms, he begins to pine for his old friends the Kappas, rather as if he has been forced to take leave of Toad of Toad Hall…
About the Author
Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892–1927) wrote over a hundred short stories and was considered a major author when he committed suicide at the age of thirty-five (just after finishing Kappa): one of Japan’s most prestigious literary awards is named after him. Two of the stories from his collection Rashomon formed the basis of the award-winning film of the same title by Akira Kurosawa.
Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda is a literary translator. Born in Tokyo, raised in Texas, she currently resides in New York City.
Allison Markin Powell is a literary translator, editor, and publishing consultant. She maintains the database japaneseliteratureinenglish.com.
One never tires of reading and re-reading his best works… The flow of his language is the best feature of Akutagawa’s style. Never stagnant, it moves along like a living thing.
— Haruki Murakami
Enchanting and sometimes terrifying—a certain restrained sorrow, a certain preference for the visual, a certain lightness of touch, seem to me essentially Japanese. Extravagance and horror are in his work, but never in his style, which is always crystal clear. Perhaps he was inspired by Swift’s Yahoos [but] halfway through the story, Akutagawa forgets the satiric conventions: it hardly matters to him that the Kappa, who are water imps, turn into humans who talk about Marx, Darwin, or Nietzsche.
— Jorge Luis Borges