DOWN BY THE WATER
After I finished Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which I absolutely adored, I decided to go in for a thinner volume. On a trip to the Sylvia Beach Hotel—an inn on the Oregon coast with rooms named after and decorated for authors; we stayed in the Hemingway and there were antlers over the bed—my friend Rebecca bought me a book at a tiny coastal bookstore. It’s by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the author of Rashomon, and it’s called Kappa. I can’t recall for sure, but I might have reacted to it since I had heard of it from Usagi Yojimbo, and I believe there was a use of this demon from Japanese folklore in Hellboy, as well.
The book was written in 1927, the same year that Ryunosuke killed himself. According to the extensive biography at the front of this edition (printed in 1970), it is believed now that the author had some form of schizophrenia or other mental disease. His mother had suffered from schizophrenia, and Ryunosuke had feared his whole life that he would inherit her madness. In her altered states, she would draw pictures of people, but they would all have fox heads. Ryunosuke picked up a similar habit, but he’d always draw Kappas—a scaly creature with a face of a tiger, but with long beaks and saucers imbedded into the tops of their heads. Interestingly, the conceit of Kappa is that the story was told to the author by a mental patient.
A satire of Japanese society, this tale of a man who tumbles into the underground city of mythical creatures is both funny and bizarre. Its narrative is written in a very casual, natural style that I have seen in other Japanese novels, including much later work like The Setting Sun by Osamu Dazai. It runs the gamut of religion, sex, capitalism, and art, all skewered by the strange Kappa’s completely absurd approach to life. It also tackles suicide, as the Kappa poet Tok ends up being a stand-in for the author himself.
The book is wonderfully strange. The scenarios in Kappaland are deliciously over-the-top. I particularly like that she-Kappa’s chase down he-Kappas and tackle them, forcing them into sex and husbandly service. Family members all get involved in the hunt when the woman sets her sites on a man, and even if the man escapes the chase, he usually ends up sick and bedridden. The style with which this is all presented is so matter-of-fact, it’s addicting. I found myself sneaking a few more pages every chance I got.
The mental struggles of Ryunosuke Akutagawa is also something I can identify with, having my own anxiety over the subject, due to some maternal incongruities. Let’s hope they don’t take me over, too. Keep an eye out, and if I start doodling raccoon people, take action. Then again, I might get a cool book about tanuki out of it.
Noodled around tonight on some more concrete ideas regarding the possible graphic novel thing I hinted at earlier. Sent it off to the possible artist for opinions.
Current Soundtrack: Primal Scream, Dirty Hits remix CD