Some of the stories hinge on a central event or scene, but this is never the central focus, rather the catalyst for changing or revealing inner thoughts — sometimes only to the narrator or reader. In the title story "Mandarins", for example, a simple act by a fellow train passenger profoundly changes the mood of the first person narrator. And "O'er a Withered Moor" is set at the deathbed of the poet Bashō, but probes the wildly differing thoughts of those present, unexpressed and at variance with their outward demeanours.
Many of the stories are stories-within-stories, often with quite heavy frames: this allows for indirect commentary and the maintenance of an emotional distance. Several are historical or based on folk tales. In "Fortune", adapted from a folktale collection and set in the late Heian period, an old potter tells a passer-by a fable about Lady Kannon and a poor woman on a pilgrimage. Set in the same period, "Kesa and Morito" is a reworking of a later story about ill-fated lovers. And "Death of a Disciple" is set in the Christian community in Nagasaki in the late sixteenth century.
Other stories highlight the stresses of 1920s Japan. "An Enlightened Husband" and "Autumn" involve unhappy relationships and modern women. "Winter" describes a visit to a relative in prison. And in "The Villa of the Black Crane" a dying man's alienated family engage in psychological warfare with one another.
The Japanese feeling for places and landscapes also shows, most notably in "At the Seashore" and "The Garden", where the changes in an inn's garden parallel the changing fortunes of the family which owns it.
Several of the stories are autobiographical. "The Life of a Fool" is an autobiography in fifty one fragmentary vignettes, while "Cogwheels" is written from the perspective of a writer on the edge of madness.
At the end of Mandarins De Wolf provides a brief background for each story and notes which explain specific ideas and references.
Mandarins was my first introduction to Akutagawa, who died in 1927 at age thirty five and wrote some 150 short stories. Based on this sample, I definitely want to read more of these.
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