by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke
Volume 20, Issue 1 (Translation 1 in 2020). First published in ejcjs on 14 April 2020.
While the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies focuses on scholarly, analytical writing about Japan from the perspectives of the Humanities and the Social Sciences, we have admiration for those working in the field of translation, always a labour of love and a striving for the artistic bridging of boundaries and codes. This short translation is one of an occasional series which we hope will bring enjoyment to our readers.
Insanity weaves a constant thread in the works of Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892-1927), a writer of immense creative force and brilliance in the establishment of mood and character. This thread manifests itself in numerous ways, with characters either experiencing or observing madness in themselves, others, or the world around them; considering the historical shifts through which Akutagawa himself lived, during a period of intense transition from the Meiji, Taishō, and very early Shōwa periods, madness is perhaps the most appropriate mechanism for describing a reality apparently intent on transforming itself into a nightmare. We see madness very clearly here, as both violence and suspicion against the other, and, more importantly, the self.
The characters in this short work are not accidentally a Chinese man and a Japanese woman, husband and wife though distrustful of each other and on the verge of insanity as a result. By the time of this work's publication, July 14th, 1920, Japan had acquired Taiwan as a colony, annexed Korea, and established significant territorial holdings in northeast China, Siberia, and along China's eastern coast, primarily by seizing former German territories. Domestically, Japan was ostensibly a democracy, with already at least a thirty year history as such, although universal suffrage was still far off. Japan was itself split, as, on the one hand, a modern, industrial, militarily colonial nation with an urban landscape which exhibited strong western influence and features (electric lighting, street cars, stone buildings, automobiles, western clothing styles, and so on), but on the other hand, still a country with two thousand years of roots within the sphere of China's cultural, ideological, and political influence, filtered through a Japanese interpretation and essentialised into something Japanese, especially during the sakoku years of the Tokugawa Era (1603-1868).
That the characters here exhibit a split—in themselves, in their relationship, in their nationalities, in their attitudes to their own domestic life—allows this work to be a critical comment on Japan's historical situation, as a nation wedded to a moment in time fraught with suspicion, tension, and the demonstrated reality of ongoing violence. The ending of the story, an attempt to dismiss the work as possibly the hallucination of the narrator, simply incorporates the madness of history into the body of the observer, frustrating the possibility of a resolution which preserves distance between the self and danger: danger, the ending tells us, is already within the self as the potential for madness, at the very least, and self-destructive violence, at most. That the narrator shares his confusion with an unnamed woman, only to see her dismiss it, points to a further opportunity for suspicion and mistrust, from the narrative out into the world—but a world that remains within the confines of a narrative of distrust and dismissal.
Today, too, the owner of the Japan-China Trading Company, Mr. Sai Chin, with his elbows on his desk and an unlit cigarette held in his mouth, focused his harried eyes on the heap of business documents.
As ever, the stifling, lingering summer heat dominated the solitude of this room, hung with printed curtains. Only the faint sound of typing which from time to time could be heard from the other side of the door, which gave off an odour of varnish, broke the solitude.
After he’d arranged the papers into a mountain-like pile, Chin, as if he’d suddenly recalled something, put the receiver of his desk phone to his ear.
“Would you call my home.”
The words which escaped from Chin’s lips were in strangely powerful Japanese.
“Who’s this? Nanny? Would you put my wife on? Fusako? Since I’m going to Tokyo tonight… Well, I’ll stay over there. Can’t I come back? No, I doubt I’ll make the train… Well, if you don’t mind… What’s that? The doctor came by? That’s just nervous exhaustion, I’m sure. I’m glad. Well, then…”
Chin put the receiver back; his face wore a clouded expression. His plump fingers struck a match, and he began to smoke his cigarette.
… Cigarette smoke, the scent of plants, the sounds of knives and forks clinking on plates, Carmen, out of tune, coming from the corner of the room… Chin had a beer in front of him, vacantly resting his elbows on the table in the midst of all this commotion. The customers, the waitresses, even the electric fans—there was nothing that wasn’t moving busily. Chin’s gaze, however, was firmly fixed on the woman behind the counter.
The woman seemed to be not even twenty years old. She stood in front of the wall-mirror, her pen moving constantly, busily writing up bills. Her hair was curled around her forehead; her cheeks were slightly rouged; her dress was an earthy green.
When Chin finished his beer, he slowly raised up his big body and walked to the counter.
“Chin-san. When are you going to buy me a ring?”
The woman’s pen kept right on writing while she asked him this.
“When you no longer have that one.”
Chin indicated the woman’s finger while he searched for some small change. There, a gold-plated engagement ring had been placed two years earlier.
“Then buy me one tonight.”
The woman suddenly took off the ring and flung it before him, together with his bill.
“This was for self-defense, you know.”
A cool, spring-night breeze flowed along the asphalt outside of the cafe. As Chin crossed the street, he looked up at the stars in the sky above the town. Those stars, too, were all, just for tonight…
The sound of someone knocking on the door brought Chin back to the present, one year later on.
Before his words had even faded away, the door, smelling of varnish, opened, and Chin’s pale-faced secretary, Imanishi, came in—so quietly it disturbed him.
“A letter has come.”
There was displeasure on Chin’s face as he nodded silently. He said not a word. Imanishi gave a cold nod, and leaving the single envelope behind, returned as silently as he had come to the room on the other side of the door.
When the door closed behind Imanishi, Chin put out his cigarette in the ashtray and picked up the envelope. It was a plain white, western-styled envelope, on which the address had been type-written; there was not the least difference between it and a typical business letter. And yet an indescribably bad expression appeared on Chin’s face as he picked it up.
Chin clucked his tongue in annoyance, his heavy eyebrows knitted together in a frown. Still, he put his feet up on his desk and leaned back in his swivel chair till he was almost reclining; he ripped open the envelope without using a letter opener.
“Sir, this is your third warning that your wife is not defending her chastity… To this very day you have taken no decisive measures… Your wife thus passes her days and nights with her former lovers… Your wife, Fusako, who, although she is a Japanese, had been a coffee shop waitress… She feels no sympathy for you, a Chinese… If you do not divorce her now, after this… You shall become a laughing stock for all… Please don’t misunderstand her true feelings… I remain your faithful friend…”
Chin let the letter slip weakly from his hand.
… Chin, coming near the table, was looking at a woman’s wrist-watch in the evening light spilling through the lace curtains. The initials engraved on the back of the watch did not seem to be Fusako’s.
Fusako, his new bride of but a few days, was standing beside a western-styled cabinet; she turned her smiling face towards her husband.
“Tanaka-san gave me that. Don’t you know him? From that company in Kamakura…”
After that, two ring boxes appeared on the table. Opening the white velvet boxes, he found one pearl, and one turquoise ring.
“From Kume-san and Nomura-san.”
Next a coral hair clip appeared.
“That’s old-fashioned, isn’t it? It’s from Kubota-san.”
And after that—as he didn’t know what came next, Chin simply said this to his wife, as if he were deep in thought, gazing at her face.
“All of these things are your bounty. You must look after them carefully.”
Fusako laughed once more, charmingly, in the evening light.
“You should look after your bounty, too.”
He’d been happy then, but now…
Chin shook himself once, and took his feet down from the desk. The ringing of his desk phone had startled him.
“It’s me… Fine… Put him through.”
Facing the phone, he wiped the sweat from his forehead, apparently annoyed.
“Who’s this?… Yes, I know it’s the Satomi Detective Agency. But who exactly is this?… Oh, Yoshii-kun?… Fine. And your report?… Did anyone come by?… The doctor?… And then?… Well, that may be… Well, can you come to the train station, then… No, I’ll be going back by the last train.… See that you do. Good-bye.”
Sai Chin sat in absent-minded silence for a while after he’d hung up the receiver. At length though he glanced at the wall clock, and almost mechanically pushed his call-button.
His secretary, Imanishi, responded to the ring. His thin body came in through the opened door.
“Imanishi-kun. Tell Tei-kun that he has to go to Tokyo tonight instead of me.”
Chin’s voice had at some point lost its powerful tone.
Nonetheless Imanishi gave his usual cold nod, and soon disappeared behind the door.
The setting sun, which had gradually come to shine through the printed-cloth window curtains, gave a dull-red glow to the light in the room. At the same time a large fly flew in from somewhere; the dull buzz of its wings described an irregular circle around Chin, vacantly resting his head on his hands…
The setting late-summer sun had reached as far as the guest room, hung with lace curtains, in Sai Chin’s home. And yet the oleander, still in full bloom and hazy in the setting sun just outside of the window, gave a pleasant light to this lonely room.
Fusako, reclining in a rattan chair near the wall, and stroking a calico cat in her lap, gazed with a melancholy expression at that oleander.
“Will the master not be coming tonight, as well?” asked her old maid, clearing away the tea things from the table beside her.
“No, tonight, too, will be a lonely one.”
“But at least Madam isn’t ill, and that’s reassuring…”
“Well, as for that, you know, the doctor today said my illness was just nervous exhaustion. If I could just sleep well for two or three days—Oh!”
The old maid turned startled eyes towards her mistress. There, on Fusako’s childlike face, a fear she had never known before was plain to see.
“Mistress? Has something happened?”
“No, it’s nothing. It’s nothing, but still…”
Fusako laughed for no reason.
“Someone, from over there at that window, into this room…”
But when, just a moment later, the old maid had looked out through the window, all she could see was the garden, completely empty, beyond the oleander, rustling in the breeze.
“How awful! Surely it was the neighbour’s boy playing pranks again.”
“No, it wasn’t the neighbour’s boy, or anyone like him. I have the feeling I’d seen him before… Yes, I have the feeling it was that young man, wearing the cap, who follows us whenever you and I go to Hase. But even so, it may just have been my nerves…”
Fusako said these last words slowly, as if she were thinking of something.
“If it were that man, what shall we do? Master won’t be coming home—shall I send the butler to the police to report him?”
“No, you’re just being timid. I wouldn’t be the least bit afraid if he or anyone else were to come. But if… if it really were just my nerves…”
The maid blinked uneasily.
“If it were my nerves, I could easily go insane.”
“Mistress, you’re just teasing…”
The maid began putting away the tea things, smiling relaxedly.
“No, you just don’t understand. When I’m alone these days, I feel as if there’s definitely someone standing behind me. As if there’s someone standing there, staring at me…”
Fusako seemed to be pulled along by her words as she spoke, and a melancholy look suddenly came over her.
… A faint scent of perfume spread out in the unlit bedroom on the second floor. The moon gave a vague lustre to the window, its curtain left undrawn. Fusako, bathed in that light, stood alone beside the window, gazing down at the pine thicket beneath her.
Her husband would not be home this night, too. The servants had already gone to bed. Even the moon-lit garden she could see was still. The dull sound she could even now hear faintly in the distance seemed to be the roar of the ocean.
Fusako continued to stand for a while. Gradually an odd feeling awoke within her. She felt as if someone were standing behind her, concentrating his gaze on her.
But there was no reason for anyone other than her to be in the bedroom. If there were anyone… but no, before she’d gone to bed she had carefully locked the door. But then the cause of this feeling… That was it. Without a doubt, her nerves were exhausted. Looking down at the dim thicket, she told herself this over and over. And yet no matter how hard she tried to shake off the feeling that someone was watching her, it gradually grew stronger and stronger.
Fusako suddenly turned to look behind her in fear. And yet there was nothing to be seen in the bedroom but her friendly calico cat. After all her feeling that there was someone in the room was the workings of her sick nerves—but Fusako thought this for only a moment, and was soon feeling again that there was some invisible thing lurking somewhere in this dark room. However this time her feeling was all the more unbearable—the gaze of this thing was burning straight into Fusako, standing with the window behind her.
Fighting against the trembling of her whole body, Fusako stretched out her hand and flipped the light switch. Her room flew back to trustworthy reality, the darkness and moonlight all swept away. The bed, her night-stand, the mosquito net—everything floated cheerfully in the brightness of noon. Everything was exactly as it had been one year earlier when she and Chin were married. Looking at such happy surroundings, however evil a phantom—no, somehow, some strange something, unafraid of even the dazzling electric light, was concentrating its unflagging, suspicious gaze on Fusako’s face. She tried to hide her face behind her hands, and in a trance tried to scream—but why could she make no sound? A fear greater than any she’d ever experienced filled her…
As she sighed, Fusako was released from her recollections of one week earlier. The calico cat jumped down from her lap, in rhythm with her breathing, and arching its beautiful back, yawned contentedly.
“Anyone would feel that way, you know. Why, every time the butler takes his shears out to the pines in the garden, he says that he hears a whole crowd of children laughing away—even at high noon! But even so that hardly makes him crazy—isn’t he just making small talk when he’s got a break in his work?”
The maid, as she was picking up the tea tray, said this as if she were soothing a child. When she heard this, for the first time something like the shadow of a smile appeared on Fusako’s cheeks.
“Without a doubt that was just the neighbour’s boy making mischief. To be startled by something like that, well, even the butler is a bit timid after all, isn’t he? Oh, while we were talking the sun has gone down. Since the master won’t be back tonight, I should do what I like… How’s the bath, Nanny?”
“I think it should still be fine. Shall I check on it, though?”
“That’s okay. I’ll be going in soon.”
At length Fusako got up from the rattan chair along the wall, apparently in good spirits.
“I wonder if the boy next door will set off fireworks tonight, too.”
After the maid had quietly followed Fusako out, only the dark, empty room remained. Even the oleander was invisible now. The calico cat, forgotten by the two of them, suddenly jumped towards the door, as if it had spotted something. It then started acting exactly as if it were rubbing its body against someone’s legs. And yet other than the cat’s two eyes, giving off an odd glow in the spreading darkness of the room, there was not the least trace that anyone else was there…
Imanishi, the secretary, who was spending the night on the couch in the night-duty room at the Japan-China Trading Company, had a new magazine spread out beneath a none-too-bright light. At length though he flung the magazine down on a nearby table with a thud, and carefully took out a single photograph from the pocket of his robe. A happy smile floated on his pale face all the while he was looking at it.
The photograph was a half-body portrait of Sai Chin’s wife, Fusako, her hair done in a momoware style.
When the whistle of the last train sounded and rose up to the stars and moon in the sky, Sai Chin, coming out of the ticket booth, was the last person remaining on the platform. He looked around the lonely place. A tall, broad-shouldered man who had been sitting on the bench along the dark wall stood and approached Chin, carrying a thick rattan cane with him. He politely took off his cap, and greeted Chin in a low voice.
“You’re Chin-san, aren’t you? I’m Yoshii.”
Chin looked into this man’s face almost expressionlessly.
“Thank you for your troubles today.”
“I called you earlier…”
“There was nothing after that, was there?”
There was a force in Chin’s speech that seemed to repel the other man’s words.
“No, there was nothing. After the doctor left your wife was talking with the maid about something. After that she bathed and ate, and then listened to the gramophone till about ten.”
“There wasn’t a single guest?”
“No, not a one.”
“And you stopped your surveillance at when?”
“Twenty past eleven.”
Yoshii’s words were businesslike.
“After that there were no more trains till that last one, weren’t there.”
“None. In either direction.”
“Well then, thanks. When you get back please give my regards to Satomi-kun.”
Chin raised his hand to the brim of his straw-hat, but he didn’t even notice that Yoshii took off his cap. He strode quickly out onto the gravel outside of the platform. Yoshii watched him go; perhaps there had been too little reserve in the other man’s demeanour. Yoshii shrugged his shoulders. But soon he himself, as if he weren’t about to waste any more time on Chin, walked off towards the waiting room in front of the station, whistling to himself and carrying his rattan cane.
One hour later, Chin found himself with his ear pressed—like a thief—against the door to the bedroom he and his wife shared, carefully spying on what was going on. Darkness so dark it seemed to stop one’s breathing covered the entire area of the porch outside of the bedroom. Only one faint point of light was visible in that darkness: the light from the other side of the door spilling through the keyhole.
Chin concentrated his whole attention on the ear pressed tight against the door. His heart pounded as if it were about to burst. But he could hear not a single voice from the bedroom. The silence was an even more unendurable torture to Chin. In the darkness before him, he felt as if he could clearly see once again the unexpected event that had occurred to him along the way from the station to his home.
… The narrow, dew-dampened gravel path continued along beneath the pines, their branches intertwined. Even the light from the innumerable stars in the sky only rarely made its way through the overlapping branches. And yet, because the sea was near, the salty breeze coming up along the sparse pampas grass sounded out clearly. Chin was alone on this road, smelling the scent of the pine sap which had grown strong in the night; he walked with deep concentration in the lonely darkness.
Chin suddenly stopped and peered uneasily into the darkness before him. He did this not just because the brick fence around his home had appeared blackly only a few steps ahead. He stopped because he’d heard stealthy footsteps coming from the area of the old-fashioned fence concealed by the kizuta bushes there.
But no matter how he stared, he couldn’t make out the shape he was looking for through the darkness of the pines and the pampas. All he could discern was that the footsteps were not coming towards him, but rather seemed to be moving off in the other direction.
“Fool, I’m not the only one with reason to be walking along this road.”
Chin told himself this quickly to banish the feelings of doubts that had assailed him. But this road came out to the rear of his own home, and led to nowhere else. If that were so—but as he thought this, the sound of his own back gate opening came faintly to his ear, borne along with the salt breeze from around the bend.
“That’s strange. I’m sure that gate was locked this morning when I checked it.”
Chin, thinking this to himself, walked cautiously towards the back gate, like a terrier who’s found his prey. The gate was closed. He pushed against it with all his strength, but it showed not the least sign of budging. It seemed to have locked itself again. Chin, amid the pampas grass that came up to his knees, stood for a while lost in thought.
“I guess hearing the gate open was just my ears playing a trick on me.”
But the footsteps were now nowhere to be heard. Over the fence shrouded by the kizuta bushes, his house, in which not even the fire was lit, rose quietly towards the starry sky. Sadness rose up suddenly in Chin’s heart. He himself did not know what was so sad. But, standing there, hearing the occasional sounds of insects, tears began of their own accord to flow coldly down his cheeks.
Almost as if he were groaning, Chin called out his dear wife’s name.
At just that moment, an unexpected light burst forth from a room high up on the second floor.
“That window, that’s…”
Chin held his breath, and clutching the trunk of a nearby pine, he stared up at the second floor window, as if he were standing on the tips of his toes. He could see into the bright room beyond its opened glass doors. The light which spilled out from there set the tops of the pines growing inside the fence floating vaguely in the dark sky.
But that was not all that was strange. The vague silhouette of someone who seemed to be gazing out toward Chin appeared in the window. Unfortunately because the light was behind the figure, Chin couldn’t make out who it was. Nonetheless it was certain that the figure was not a woman. Chin unconsciously clutched the kizuta near the fence, and supported himself; he was close to falling over as his broken voice escaped him, painfully.
“That letter… how could it be… Even Fusako…”
A moment later Chin had easily scaled the fence; he threaded his way through the pines in the garden and had come to the window of the guest room directly below the second floor. There stood a clump of oleander, the flowers and leaves wet with dew…
Chin stood in the absolute darkness of the outer porch, and biting his dry lips, listened with even more jealous ears. He’d heard the same purposeful footsteps from earlier ring out two or three times on the floor on the other side of the door.
The footsteps soon stopped. To Chin’s excited nerves the sound of the window closing seemed to tear his ear drums. After that—there was another long silence.
That silence, just as if it were an oil-press, caused a cold sweat to break out on Chin’s colourless face. With trembling hands he sought out the door knob. He soon discovered though that the door was locked.
Next he heard the sound of a comb or hair-pin fall with a clatter. Yet no matter how he strained to do so, why could he not hear the sound of someone picking it up?
These sounds one by one literally struck Chin’s beating heart. But nonetheless he pressed his ear stubbornly against the door. And yet it was clear from the insane glances he occasionally flung around him that his excitement had reached its limit.
After several painful seconds had passed, the sound of someone panting came faintly from the other side of the door. At once someone seemed to have sat calmly upon the bed.
If that situation had continued for even a minute longer, Chin might have passed out standing before the door. But the dim light spilling like a spider’s thread from the door caught his eye like a revelation. Chin quickly dropped to the floor, and gazed through the keyhole into the room.
At that instant, a scene to be damned for all eternity opened up before Chin’s eyes…
The secretary, Imanishi, transferred Fusako’s photograph back to his inner pocket, and calmly stood up from the couch. He then entered the darkened room next door, in his usual, soundless way.
The next-door room brightened together with the sound of a switch being flipped. The light from the desk lamp illuminated Imanishi’s figure, seated, as if he’d always been there, at the typewriter.
Imanishi’s fingers moved with a dazzling speed. As the typewriter rang out without a break, a sheet of paper, covered with line upon line of type, began to emerge.
“Sir, there is now no longer any necessity to inform you that your wife is not defending her chastity. Nonetheless the weakness of your affections…”
At that moment Imanishi’s face was a mask of Evil itself.
The door to Chin’s bedroom was broken in. And yet everything—the bed, the mosquito net, the night-stand—everything was exactly as it had been just a moment earlier.
Chin stood in the corner of the bedroom, gazing at the two overlapping figures at the foot of the bed. One of them was Fusako. Or rather, one of them was a “thing” that had been Fusako till but a moment before. This purple-faced “thing,” its tongue half protruding, was gazing up vacantly at the ceiling. The other figure was Sai Chin. A Sai Chin not the least bit different from the Sai Chin standing in the corner of the room. Standing over top of the “thing” that was once Fusako, he had both of his hands buried in her throat so deeply that his nails were no longer visible. His head—Chin couldn’t tell if he was dead or alive—rested atop her exposed breasts.
After several minutes of silence had passed, the Chin crouching on the floor slowly raised his fat body, again panting painfully. Yet as soon as he’d stood, he sat again as if he were collapsing into the chair beside him.
Just then the Sai Chin who had been standing in the corner of the room quietly walked near to the “thing” which had been Fusako. He turned an infinitely sad gaze toward that purple, swollen face.
As if he’d just noticed that someone else was in the room, the Sai Chin who’d been sitting jumped up from the chair as if he were insane. In his face, in his bloodshot eyes, a dreadful, murderous intent flashed. Yet with but a glance into the face of this other person, that murderous intent turned at once into an indescribable fear.
“Who are you?”
He spoke in a choked voice, standing there before the chair.
“You were the one walking through the pine thicket… you were the one who snuck up from the back gate… You were the one standing in the window looking out… And my wife… Fusako…”
He paused, and then spoke again in a rough, hoarse voice.
“It’s you… But who are you?”
The other Sai Chin did not reply. Instead he raised his eyes and looked sadly into Sai Chin’s face. Then the Sai Chin standing before the chair opened his own eyes wide, and, as if he had been struck by that gaze, walked back towards the wall. His lips, as if they were repeating, “Who are you? Who are you?” kept moving voicelessly.
While he did so, the other Sai Chin crouched beside the “thing” that had been Fusako, and gently put his hand on her thin neck. He then placed his lips on the cruel finger-marks that remained there.
At length the sound of a ceaselessly-crying voice could be heard in the brightly-lit bedroom, more still than even the grave. The two Sai Chins there, the one standing against the wall, and the one crouching on the floor, had both buried their faces in their hands…
When the film The Shadow abruptly came to an end, I found myself sitting alone with a woman in a box in a certain motion-picture theatre.
“I wonder if the film has ended.”
The woman turned melancholy eyes toward me. Those eyes reminded me of Fusako’s eyes, from the film The Shadow.
“Just now. The one called The Shadow.”
Without a word, the woman handed me the program that was atop her knee. But no matter where I searched for it, though, I could find no sign of the title The Shadow.
“But then I must have been dreaming. But isn’t it odd? I don’t recall sleeping. At least the film The Shadow was a strange one…”
I briefly described its plot.
“That was the film? I’ve seen that one, too.”
When I’d finished talking, the woman, with just the trace of a smile moving deep within her lonely eyes, replied, in an almost inaudible voice, “But let’s just pay no attention to The Shadow or anything like it at all, okay?”
—July, Taishō 9 (1920)
Article copyright Timothy Iles.