By Sam Nallen Copley
Probably no one who attempts suicide… is fully aware of all his motives, which are usually too complex. At least in my case it is prompted by a vague sense of anxiety, a vague sense of anxiety about my own future.
Next week will mark the 120th anniversary of a pivotal event in Asian literature. On 1 March 1892, the increasingly unstable Fuku Niihara gave birth to her third child and only son. Being the year, month, day and hour of the dragon, she called him “Ryūnosuke”, a bold and auspicious name—”Son of The Dragon”. Nine months later, Niihara’s mental condition deteriorated beyond repair, a breakdown that plagued Ryūnosuke until his suicide thirty-five years later. Growing up under the roof of his maternal uncle, Dōshō Akutagawa, Ryūnosuke focused his attention towards literature, both Asian and Western, a distinction he grappled with throughout his short life. After studying English literature at Tokyo Imperial University, he briefly taught English at a Naval College—a fleeting flirtation on account of his abundant creative energy. As Japan entered the Taisho Period (1912–1926), Akutagawa embraced his true calling and started to write.
His legacy in Japan is considerable. Primarily remembered as a master of the short story, his name is honoured via Japan’s most prestigious literary award, the Akutagawa Prize. Throughout his vast repertoire—“Rashomon” (1914) and “In a Grove” (1922) perhaps being his best known works—Akutagawa addresses a colossal range of themes, often with an unearthly dark supernatural quality that stands in stark contrast to the naturalistic “I-Novel” genre popularised by many of his contemporaries. Stylistically, he is renowned for his use of a withdrawn, even ironic narration, detached from the action and providing little overt judgement. In his last year however, his writing became far more personal, typified in ‘Kappa’, his most famous story from 1927. This was not however his final work.
In July 1927, Akutagawa wrote “A Note to a Certain Old Friend” to his university classmate and fellow writer Masao Kume:
Over the last two years or so I have thought only of death, and with special interest read a remarkable account of the process of death… As a sort of springboard I, as Kleist…had done…having grown confident of myself, I decided to go ahead alone.
Akutagawa’s infatuation with the 19th Century European greats—Wilde, Nietzsche, Baudelaire being among his favourites—led him to a profound conviction in the power of “expression”. Beauty took precedence over everything—a notion shared by many other Taisho writers, perhaps most notably Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. Killing oneself can be both painful and ugly, and Akutagawa’s resolution to poison himself is both a practical and aesthetic decision. Alluding to Heinrich von Kleist, the German dramatist who took his own life in 1811, the “process” appears to be a means of obtaining a legendary status. The sense here is not of loss but of attainment:
We humans, being human animals, do have an animal fear of death. The so-called vitality is but another name for animal strength. I myself am one of these human animals. And this animal strength, it seems, has gradually drained out of my system, judging by the fact that I am left with little appetite for food and women.
Akutagawa had failed to commit suicide earlier that year. With the onset of horrendous hallucinations—famously his food being infested with maggots—he voiced concerns about the prospect of inheriting his mother’s crippling mental disorder. With the loss of physical joy, his fear of death too subsided—this boundary removed, his prospect was either to descend below the state of “human animal” or bow out early. On 24 July 1927, aged just 35, Akutagawa acquired a packet of barbital and killed himself. In his dying words, he simply claimed he felt a “vague insecurity” about the future. It was the second year of the Showa Period, an era that saw an ultranationalist totalitarian Japan enter into the Second World War as an aggressor and face atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As a writer so consumed by the insanity of human evil and the uncertainty of modernism, it is perhaps comforting that Akutagawa’s early departure spared him the nightmare that was to follow.
The world I am now in is one of diseased nerves, lucid as ice. Such voluntary death must give us peace, if not happiness. Now that I am ready, I find nature more beautiful than ever, paradoxical as this may sound. I have seen, loved, and understood more than others. In this at least I have a measure of satisfaction, despite all the pain I have thus far had to endure.
Sam Nallen Copley was born in Cambridge in 1988, and became a chorister for King’s College at the age of eight. He later studied at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Waseda University in Tokyo, while working as a translator for Cambridge Mechatronics. He went on to complete a master’s degree from Oxford University, and currently lives in Paris. His interests include literature, art, politics, music, the martial arts and film. He writes for Global Politics, New Business Ethiopia, the 1847 Press, the Somaliland Sun and Malawi Voice. Contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org