I first encountered Ryunosuke Akutagawa last December when I read the story Hell Screen as part of my story-a-day advent challenge. Encouraged to explore his work further, I somehow managed to avoid the most obvious path (acquiring one of the many collections of his short stories available in English) and turned to his short novel Kappa. Kappa has been described as “Japan’s first full-blown dystopian novel” and certainly shows the influence of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Ryunosuke wrote it shortly before his suicide in 1927, saying, “Kappa was born out of my disgust with many things, especially with myself.” The story is presented as told to the author by a patient in an asylum, a narrative framework which had personal resonance for Ryunosuke given his mother’s mental health issues and his own resultant fear of insanity.

Patient No. 23’s story begins when he catches sight of a Kappa when out walking one day. (A Kappa is demon or imp of Japanese mythology, describe by translator G. H. Healey in his introduction as “a scaly creature the size of a small child, with a face like a tiger’s and a sharply pointed beak”). He chases the Kappa but, as he catches him, finds himself plunging into a hole:

“I was just getting the tips of my fingers on his glassy, slippery back when I suddenly found myself toppling headlong, deep into a pitch black abyss.”

His fall takes him into Kappaland where he spend the rest of the novel learning about Kappa society. Kappaland, of course, provides a skewed mirror image of Japan:

“Where we humans take a thing seriously, the Kappa will tend to be amused; and, similarly, what we humans find amusing the Kappa will take in deadly earnest.”

Ryunosuke uses the satire to work through what we would now call ‘personal issues’. Take, example, his description of Kappa relationships where it is the She-Kappa who chases the male:

“A she-Kappa sets eyes of a he-Kappa and thinks to herself, Yes – he’s the one. And from that moment on, she’ll go to any lengths to make him hers, using every trick of the trade in the process. The most artless and forthright method is for the she-Kappa simply to make a mad dash for the luckless male of her choice. I’ve actually seen a pursuit of this sort – with a she-Kappa, looking quite out of her mind, dashing pell-mell after the male.”

Ryunosuke also mocks himself in the shape of Tok the poet, ridiculing the way in which artists see themselves as above the ordinary population – “super-Kappas” – “transcending all notions of good and evil.” In an eerie foreshadowing of his own life, Tok commits suicide, and the self-obsession of the artist can be seen in the reaction of the composer, Krabach, who, with “the stench if Tok’s blood” in his nostrils declares,

“I’ve got it! I’ve just thought of an absolutely perfect funeral dirge!”

Of Tok himself, it is said:

“One’s bound to feel sorry for anyone who’s made a home around a man as self-centred as Tok.”

Tok returns later in the novel as a ghost; when asked why, he answers:

“Because I wish to know what reputation I have gained since my death.”

The novel is not entirely a form of self-harm, however, with Ryunosuke also attacking other aspects of Japanese society, including capitalism. Another Kappa we meet, Gael, is described as “the capitalist to end all capitalists.” It is through Gael that the narrator visits a book manufacturing plant, an incident Ryunosuke uses to object to the commodification of art. A machine produces books of all shapes and sizes from “paper, ink and a grey-looking powder” – the grey-looking powder is “ass-brain.” Things take a more sinister turn when we discover what happens to workers who are made redundant by mechanisation:

“…we slaughter any worker who loses his job and we use his flesh as meat… ‘This month’s figure for newly unemployed reached 64,769; the price of meat has fallen in proportion.’”

Kappa is the work of an imagination both wild and fierce. (Take for example, his description of Kappa birth where the unborn Kappa in the womb is asked if he or she wishes to be born). While Ryunosuke’s short stories will no doubt remain his most famous work, this is a fascinating foot-note.


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4 Responses to “Kappa”

  1. tonymess12 Says:

    Nice one Grant, I have read the collection of short stories “Mandarins” that Archipelago published back in 2010, you’ve brought the memories of that book flooding back and have given me another to hunt down.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I recall you reviewing this author as part of your advent calendar – it’s good to see you returning to some of your discoveries from that project. This sounds somewhat different from other J-lit of this period, more critical of Japanese society perhaps?

    • 1streading Says:

      I haven’t read enough Japanese literature to know, I’m afraid. But I am enjoying getting reacquainted with writers I discovered last year, with more to come.

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