“Kappa was born out of my disgust with many things, especially with myself” – Ryunosuke Akutagawa
In Japanese folklore, the kappa is a water sprite described as being the size of a small child, yellow-green in colour, with a sharply-pointed beak and with fish scales instead of skin. They are mischievous creatures that are said to kidnap and eat children and in some stories even rape women.
Akutagawa was very interested in mythical creatures during his life, including the kappa. He started drawing sketches of them around the time his first son was born in 1920. 7 years later, the same year he committed suicide, he wrote the novella Kappa.
When he wrote this story, Ryunosuke’s mental health was declining more and more. He was afraid he was going mad just as his biological mother did, and he eventually decided to take his own life when he was only 35.
Kappa is both an autobiography and a social satire of the Japanese society of the early 20th century. It tells the adventures of a mental patient, Patient No. 23, who spends a few months living among the kappa in Kappaland.
While hiking along the River Azusa on his way to Mount Hotaka, our narrator spots a kappa and starts following him until he falls down a hole and reaches Kappaland (just like Alice is following the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland). He finds that even though they are amphibian creatures, the kappa are quite similar to humans. They have personalities and jobs and during his time there he meets all kinds of kappa: a poet, a doctor, a philosopher, a judge and not only. Their society is quite similar to the human one yet the narrator is left totally flabbergasted by their culture and their upside down world:
“The most puzzling of all was the confusing Kappa way of getting everything upside down: where we humans take a thing seriously, the Kappa will tend to be amused; and similarly, what we humans find amusing the Kappa will take in deadly earnest”
The ridiculous ways of the kappa described in the story is clearly Akutagawa’s way of criticizing Japanese society.
Due to mass production, Kappaland suffers from unemployment and the large number of workers left without a job are butchered and their meat sold to other kappa.
“What Gael meant was that we slaughter any worker who loses his job, and we use his flesh as meat”
Besides social satire, Kappa is also an autobiography. We find the melancholic and suicidal Akutagawa in many pages of the novella.
We have one scene in the book describing a she-kappa giving birth. The baby decides not to be born (they can choose in Kappaland if they want to be born or not) afraid he might inherit his mother’s madness (just like Ryunosuke was afraid he was going mad as his mother did):
“I do not wish to be born. In the first place, it makes me shudder to think of all the things that I shall inherit from my father – the insanity alone is enough. And an additional factor is that I maintain that a Kappa’s existence is evil”
In writing Kappa the author seemed to have been trying to look at the world in a different perspective, hoping maybe to find a more encouraging view on life. But judging from the fact that he eventually did commit suicide just a few months after writing this book, he unfortunately didn’t find it.
“Everything seemed so terribly gloomy that I thought I’d have a go at looking at the world the other way up. But it turns out to be just the same, after all.”
Kappa is an examination of morality, religion, legal justice, sex and death and even though it might not have aged very well, it is still a very interesting read, considered by many to be Akutagawa’s masterpiece.
I have to admit I am glad I read the Introduction by G. H. Healey from the beginning of the book as it gives a nice insight in Akutagawa’s life and I believe helped me understand this story much better. In that respect, I do recommend going through that introduction or at least reading a bit about the author’s life before going into this one.
Overall I’m glad I’ve picked this book up and I am very excited to actually read some of Akutagawa’s short stories in the coming future.
Until next time,