I am not much of a believer in coincidences, but sometimes things overlap in an oddly perfect way. Like this month’s Manga Moveable Feast, hosted by the always interesting Otaku Champloo, being on historical manga just as I was gearing up to finish this autobiography on Ryunosuke Akutagawa. In my head, Khursten and I were somehow momentarily telepathically connected and when I was contemplating the shelf of unread books and what I should read next, her thoughts on history nudged my hand towards Chokodoshujin. Although really, given that Chokodoshujin was sitting between the latest volumes of Natsume Ono’s Tsura Tsura Waraji and Kaoru Mori’s A Bride’s Tale, I suppose it was inevitable that I would read something historical next. But I’m still going to credit this one to psychic powers.
So! Continuing with Naoto Yamakawa’s retelling of famed author Akutagawa’s life and last days! Biographies are such weird things to me. I mean, if you’re interested enough to pick it up, you probably already know the basic story: the subject’s big accomplishments, how/when they died. (Unless you are a person who just browses the biography section and picks out things about people you’ve never heard of? Which seems weird? But also kind of awesome?) You don’t read biographies for the big story, but rather for how it all hangs together, the details in between and around the big events.
And it’s weird too how this narrative gets imposed on a life. Of course, we all tell stories to make sense of our lives and the world around us, but those are our stories. We tell them about ourselves and we change them as we ourselves change. But the biography is someone outside your head, outside of your story usually, deciding on the story of your life, deciding what to tell, what to leave out, from what perspective to tell it. It’s someone else essentially deciding how you will be perceived by everyone who did not (does not) know you. Someone else is deciding what parts of your story were the most important, and what parts of you, what version of you gets to live on.
Thinking too hard about biographies sends me down a very squirrelly rabbit hole of identity, and how the version of you that you have in your head is different from the you that everybody else is carrying around. And then this whole angst thing kicks in, so let’s step back from this broad look at the biography and zoom in on this particular biography before I lose my mind.
Book Two picks up where we left off in Book One, with Akutagawa working too hard, taking too many pills, and getting skinnier and skinnier from lack of sleep and all those pills. He meets with his other writer friends (of course, they, like Akutagawa, are manga artists in this manga-ized biography), talks about manga, holds mini-lectures in his study for aspiring writers and is generally a central figure in the writing community. But this strong community and his loving family cannot stave off his growing fear of himself and his future. Mental illness runs in his family and it is a constant threat that looms larger and larger as time passes. And it doesn’t help that his good friend has a psychotic break, reminding him just how close to the edge he is. With others, he is jovial and charming, but alone, his own anxieties seem to swallow him up and the only way he can keep going is to write.
Yamakawa makes this explicit with the title panel of one of the chapters in the second book, showing Akutagawa literally drawing himself. It’s one of several panels throughout the series that hints at Akutagawa’s unravelling. And the chapters towards the end are devoted to a partial retelling of Akutagawa’s Saiho no Hito, which is itself a retelling of Jesus’s life (meta!). Yamakawa chooses, interestingly, to depict Akutagawa as Jesus in the story. Which I guess brings me back to my earlier point about interpretation.
Writing a biography is on some level a translation of a person’s life, not into another language but into another viewpoint. And like translation, the interpretation of the person writing the biography changes the life being documented. So the depiction of Akutagawa as Christ here is at best what Yamakawa (and admittedly other literary scholars) have read into that story. And here we go down the rabbit hole again.
This question of what is Yamakawa and what is Akutagawa makes me want to read other biographies of the man to try and pin him down. Especially since Yamakawa takes certain liberties that cast doubt on the veracity of other events. Like plopping a computer on his desk when Akutagawa is having trouble colouring a manga story. In 1927. So when on his lecture tour with fellow author Ton Satomi, he whips out a guitar and starts rocking the house, you’re not sure if you should believe the Akutagawa was a punk rocker or not.
But Yamakawa’s checked his facts for the historical narratives that he weaves in, and it is fascinating to read about the effect that the 1923 earthquake had on the publishing industry, as well as the rise of socialism and anti-government activity after the Russian revolution. I also learned about the origins of the ubiquitous bunkobon book, so in terms of history, you are getting your money’s worth here.
And of course, both books are filled with Yamakawa’s intricate lines and busy, busy panels, his warped horizons curving up, and an incredible number of names (this many names is not typical Yamakawa. It just really annoyed me since he is not even considerate enough to give furigana most of the time, which are basically essential for reading Japanese names). He even manages to cram into one page what seems like every demon haunting Akutagawa for handy reference.
I surprised myself by tearing up at the end when you know, (historical spoiler), bringing me back to how weird biographies are. I knew what was going to happen, I knew from the first page, but when it actually happened, I felt so sad. Even if a biography can never be truth, can never show us the actual person how that person saw themselves, maybe its importance lies in being able to make that person real to us anyway, to make history meaningful and personal. Maybe a good biographer can make us cry over a person we never met.