Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Study Guide: Akutagawa Ryūnosuke “Hell Screen” (1918)

Study Guide: Akutagawa Ryūnosuke “Hell Screen” (1918)

Original: “Jigokuhen” 地獄変(1918).
Translation: “Hell Screen” (tr. Jay Rubin; in his Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories (Penguin Classics, 2006).

Akutagawa Ryūnosuke 芥川龍之介 (1892-1927): see Wikipedia entry. Click here for Aozora Bunko texts.

1.      Identity the point of view. Who is the narrator? What is his relation to the setting, the Lord of Horikawa, and the other characters and events? How reliable is he? Describe his narrative style and method, noting difference between plot and story. What are his sources? Does he employ flashbacks or foreshadowing? Why does he defend the Lordship so adamantly?
2.      Create appropriate titles for each of the twenty sections of the work (e.g., Section 13: “Yuzuki’s Near Rape”; Section 14: “Yoshihide’s Final Request”; etc.)
3.      Describe the setting and the era. Can you find any anachronisms in the story?
4.      Describe the Lord of Horikawa (his position, reputation, personality, interest in Yuzuki, etc.). How does he discover Yuzuki? Does he have ulterior motives in making her his “junior lady-in-waiting”? Why does he commission the hell painting and then decide to send Yuzuki to her death? Also discuss similarities between him and Emperor Xuanzong of Tang.
5.      Describe Yoshihide (his appearance, reputation, worldview, personality, “one tender side,” aesthetic view, painting method, etc. What modern view of art does he represent? Give specific examples.
6.      Describe Yuzuki (her appearance, personality, various virtues, her feelings toward the Lordship, etc.). Discuss similarities between her and the famed Yang Guifei of Tang Dynasty.
7.      Discuss similarities between Akutagawa’s story and the Legend of Yang Guifei (see my previous study guide for reference). Be specific.
8.      Describe the hell painting and the scene of the burning carriage. How is this painting different from previous examples of the genre? How and why does Yoshihide’s reaction to the burning carriage change in the course of the scene? Why does Yoshihide kill himself after it is completed? Explain.
9.      Some critics have read this work in the I-novel mode, i.e., as a thinly disguised autobiography or self-portrait in which Yoshihide corresponds to Akutagawa himself. Based on what you know of Akutagawa’s life and his penchant for “aestheticism” (tanbi-ha) and “diabolism” (akumashugi), do you think such a reading is valid? Explain.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Study Guide: Sakaguchi Ango “The Idiot” (1946)

Study Guide: Sakaguchi Ango “The Idiot” (1946)

Original:  “Hakuchi”「白痴」(1946). Click here to read in the original.
Translation: “The Idiot” (tr. George Saito 1962; included in Modern Japanese Stories: An Anthology (ed. Ivan Morris)

Sakaguchi Ango 坂口安吾 (1906-1955): Novelist. Born in Niigata, Sakaguchi was one of a group of young Japanese writers to rise to prominence in the years immediately following Japan’s defeat in World War Two. In 1946 he wrote his most famous essay, titled “Darakuron” (“On Decadence”), which examined the role of bushidō during the war. Click here for Aozora Bunko texts.

1.      Describe point of view, focalization point, tone, interior monologue, and the various literary techniques used (some consciously modernist and experimental). Are there any flashbacks (analepsis) or flashforwards (prolepsis)? Or is the story told chronologically? What I-novel elements do you detect? Explain.
2.      Discuss the setting (i.e., the people, their environment, their state of living, moral condition, and historical circumstances) as described in the first few pages. Is the war the main cause for the people’s “fallen” condition? Or something else? Why do you think Sakaguchi goes into such detail in these opening pages, before the main plotline begins?
3.      Who are the so-called buraiha (libertine) writers? What are the characteristics of this group? Donald Keene describes their writings as “sometimes farcical” and “sometimes nihilistic.” What is “farcical” or “nihilistic” about Sakaguchi’s story? How does the theme of daraku (fallen-ness, moral or social degradation) appear in this story? Explain.
4.      Numerous binary oppositions appear in this work. Make a list of them. In each binary, which opposite has a positive valence and which has a negative valence? (For example: positive “individual” versus negative “the herd”; or, positive nikutai versus negative kokutai.) Explain.
5.      Sakaguchi studied Eastern/Indian philosophy while an undergraduate at Tōyō University in the 1920s. Buddhist elements/ideas frequently appear in his works. Can you identity any such elements/ideas in this work? Explain. (Hint: nothingness, emptiness, “absolute solitude,” attachment, etc.).
6.      Discuss Izawa (his job, worldview, view of self, view of others, circumstances, daily concerns, his view of art, his attitude toward the war, etc.).
7.      Discuss the “feeble-minded” woman. What metaphors/similes are used to describe her? Is she a symbol for something? If so, what?
8.      Sakaguchi’s description of the 1945 Tokyo firebombings is one of the best descriptions of urban aerial bombardment in all modern literature. Donald Keene has said there are “few comparable accounts of what it meant both physically and spiritually to live through the bombing of Tokyo in 1945” (Keene 1999, 1078). Discuss the firebombing scene, its effects, and Izawa’s response to it. What literary techniques are used to convey the experience?

9.      Discuss the ending. Why does Sakaguchi refer to the “destructiveness of war” as a “gigantic love” which “would pass impartial judgment upon everything”? What do you think will happen to Izawa and the woman after the war ends? Write a short sequel to the story.