Post Road Magazine #26

On Akutagawa's KAPPA

Hugh Sheehy

Out with some other writers recently, I was surprised to learn they had not heard of Akutagawa Ryunosuke's short novel Kappa. I don't mean "surprised" in the nose-thumbing sense that they, as fellow self-respecting practitioners of craft who pride themselves on grokking a narrative tradition, should now probably go home and hang themselves, but in the more casually solipsistic sense of assuming that the things I'm familiar with are basically boring to other people. So here I am recommending it (apologies if someone else got you first), because lately there's been this revival of interest in literary fantasy surrounding a few well-known authors without mention of some of their rather important predecessors. If you're interested in literary fantasy in any way (or "spec lit" or whatever it's called wherever and whenever you're looking at this), you should read Kappa.
      The kappa is a water goblin in Japanese folklore. As with any figment of an oral tradition, its appearance mutates across accounts and years. Sometimes it has the head of a tiger or the head of a monkey. Neither is wrong; both can only be representations of the perspectives of the people dreaming them. Some drawings and descriptions imply it wears a tonsure, possibly after Portuguese monks who made landfall in the Sixteenth Century, bearing news of Jesus Christ and his politics of the afterlife. Bodily, the kappa is a combination of monkey and turtle. Tall as a child on the verge of puberty, it walks upright and fluently speaks the language of the people who imagine it. It is amphibious and never wanders too far from a stream or ditch. It has a shallow saucer-shaped indentation in the crown of its head, an impression always filled with water when you, the human passerby, chance to see it in the wild. The fluid in its head is the source of its superhuman strength, and unless you bow to it, forcing it to bow in return and thus spill the water onto the ground, you will surely lose the wrestling match the small monster is bound to propose. If you fail to bow, the kappa will dominate you physically and then plunge a hand through your anus and tear out your liver, killing you dead, and then leave you floating among the reeds. When not chewing on some dead person's vital organ, kappa prefer to eat cucumbers (hence the kappa roll on your nearest sushi menu—kappa like to step out on a weekend, just like you and me).
      The kappa has been put to many uses over the years: the instrument of caution in tales teaching children manners and the danger of rivers and streams, a humorous figure in literary tales from the last few hundred years, and a low-level bad guy in Super Mario Brothers (the koopa troopa), just to name a few. Most interesting, however, is its insertion into Japanese modernist literature by Akutagawa, who is probably best known in the States as the author of the story "Rashoman," adapted in part by Akira Kurosawa to his film of the same name.
      Kappa purports to be the transcription of the story of Patient No. 23, who describes how a surprise encounter with a kappa in the countryside gave way to a chase down a hidden tunnel that brought him to Kappaland or, as it might be translated, Kappan, where kappa reign instead of humans. The kappa have built a city identical to Tokyo and formed a social hierarchy very similar to the one 1920s Japanese readers would have recognized as their own. Western thought and art have had a visible influence on the way the kappa live and perceive themselves, something we learn extensively as the narrator recounts his journey. Like many human guests in previous utopias, he reports having met the major social types of this culture and engaging them in discussions of philosophical ideas (both Japanese and Western, in this case, with a heavy emphasis on Nietzsche, Voltaire, Zola and Naturalism, and visions of existence as absurd) and acts of social observation (subjects considered include but are not limited to the political power of art, abortion, and the uses of religion in modern life). But there is one crucial difference—aside from the obvious anatomical ones—between the kappa and the human, one that gives purpose to Akutagawa's novel: the kappa is more rational than emotional, while the human is more emotional than rational. The result of attempting to see the world in this way is a story of how Patient No. 23's life is forever altered for the tragic, and the ending of this short, satirical, often comical novel is astonishingly sad, so much so that it is no surprise that many critics have strained to identify the supposedly mentally ill narrator's point of view with that of Akutagawa himself, who ended his life shortly after the two-week creative burst that produced Kappa in February 1927.
      Writing this recommendation has led me to revisit bittersweet feelings I experienced while reading, thinking about, and teaching this lovely little book. Plenty of commentators have pointed out the novel's concern with the "evil" inherent in human existence, and the novel addresses this subject at length. The college professor who required me to read the novel when I was an undergraduate chuckled over this and suggested that many writers, including Akutagawa, are "too sensitive." But there is more to say than that. Kappa is an attempt to express something pure through the contaminated medium of common words, by resorting to more mysterious language of the imagination, the first language we learn in life. It would be a shame to think of this book as resting only in the hands of people who cannot read it properly.

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