115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Adaptation in a Time of Crisis: Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s Rashōmon and Kim Sa-ryang’s "Kishi Forest"

Alexandra Strudwick Yan, University of California, Irvine

Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s “Rashōmon” (1915) adapts an ancient folk story in order to negotiate Japan’s post-1868 Westernization. Kim Sa-ryang, a colonial Korean-Japanese author, also adapted a Korean epic into his story, “The Forest of Kishi” (1940), in an attempt to survive Japanese colonization. This paper discusses the techniques of adaptation used by these authors as a means for combating colonial domination and destructive modernity.


One of many possible functions of adaptation in literature is the preservation and renewal of old traditions and cultural elements, particularly in the face of destructive hegemonic forces. Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892-1927), a Japanese author who worked mainly during the Taishō period (1912-1926), keenly felt the rapidly advancing modernization and Westernization of Japan after it was forcibly opened to the West in the 1860s. Akutagawa regarded the historical moment immediately after the arrival of the American black ships that demanded access to Japan as a strange but safe time period, one when the cultural line between Japan and the West was, although often crossed, very distinct. By the Taishō period, however, Japan had become a grotesque mix of cultures which was unaware of the shape or limits of its own body. Nevertheless, Akutagawa himself contributed to this grotesque body through his adaptation of Japanese folktales into modern-style short stories. One such piece, arguably his most famous work, is the short story “Rashōmon” (1915), which was adapted from an anthology of folk stories assembled in the Heian period (794-1185) called the Konjaku Monogatari. His prolific output displays an urgency to preserve this history, which was being erased by a shift toward the dominance of Western literary styles, and yet its new form serves many more purposes than mere preservation. As he struggled to resist the cultural colonization of Japan by the West, Akutagawa created a new genre of psychological horror whose influence remains powerful even in contemporary Japan, thus employing the tools of the West in order to produce texts that could negotiate this cultural crisis.

Similarly, Kim Sa-ryang (1914-1950), a Korean-Japanese author born in colonial Korea and who was active in the early Showa period (1926-1989), created an adaptation of a traditional Korean pansori (epic song), called Simcheongga, in the form of a modern short story titled “The Forest of Kishi” (1940). In “The Forest of Kishi,” Kim incisively critiques multiple levels of modernity in colonial Korea, both on the imperial Japanese side as well as on the Korean side, through his re-telling of the ancient, heavily Confucian epic in a modern framework.  Kim was deeply concerned with the erasure of Korean-ness and Korean culture beneath the rule of the Japanese Empire but lent little credence to the idea that cultural preservation was either possible or even necessary. Instead, Kim emphasized the creation of a new culture, one that could rightfully be called a cosmopolitan Korean modernity instead of clinging to a nationalist idea of an essential Korean culture that needed to be defended from Japan. For Kim, this meant embracing some aspects of Japanese colonialism while vociferously opposing its widespread cultural and physical destruction.

In the following paper, I will compare Akutagawa and Kim’s literary adaptation techniques and motivations as strategies to preserve and re-invent cultural identity in the face of the totalizing, destructive forces of colonialism and modernization. Both works revolve around a struggle against erasure, and defeat it through literary transformation, however the differing positionality of the two authors vis-à-vis the colonizer figures significantly into their respective strategies. While Akutagawa’s text negotiates between Japan and a putative West, Kim Sa-ryang necessarily finds himself engaged in a battle against the monumental historical shift of modernity as inflicted upon Korea by the tripartite axis of Korea itself, Japan, and the West.

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