KAPPA by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Translated by Alliison Mackham-Powell and Lisa Hosmann-Kuroda
Ryūnosuke Akutagawa is one of those authors whose influence has seeped so deeply into what we think of as popular or literary culture that even if you don’t know his name, you undoubtedly feel his presence. Most famous for In a Grove, the short story that exploded the possibilities of narrative, and was filmed, somewhat confusingly as Rashōmon (the title of another of Akutagawa’s stories), he churned out quite the oeuvre in his brief 35 years. Kappa, the novella he published shortly before his death, is arguably his most peculiar work.
In the vein of Gulliver’s Travels or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (via War With the Newts), it’s a work of pointed social critique masquerading as social anthropology. A patient in a mental institution recounts his travels to the world of the Kappa, a mythological Japanese water sprite that looks a bit like a frog, with a beak and shell-like skull plate. With its weird social structure and often disturbing rituals (foetuses are invited into the world and can refuse, the unemployed are killed and fed to the “productive”), kappa society holds a confronting mirror to early 20th century Japan. It’s all rather funny and disturbing and thoroughly misanthropic. Splendid!
Kappa by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (Tr. by Alliison Mackham-Powell and Lisa Hosmann-Kuroda)
New Directions, 2023 (First published 1927)