Osamu Dazai Essay
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Osamu Dazai was one of Japanese novelist and considered one of the most important storytellers of postwar Japan. While known primarily as a novelist, Dazai also earned recognition for his numerous short stories, including “Omoide” (“Memories”), “Sarugashima” (“Monkey Island”), and “Ha” (“Leaves”), which were published in Bannen, his first collection of short stories. Like most of his longer fiction, Dazai’s short stories are autobiographical and reflect a troubled life marred by alcoholism, drug addiction, and several suicide attempts. Nevertheless, Dazai’s fiction showcases his artistic imagination and unique confessional narrative technique.
Dazai was born the youngest of ten children in Kanagi, a small town in northern Japan, to one of the wealthiest families in the region. While Dazai’s later years were turbulent, he grew up a sensitive child in comfortable surroundings. Later in his life, however, his wealthy background led to self-consciousness, contributing to a nagging sense of isolation that is an undercurrent throughout his fiction.
Dazai underwent his apprenticeship in writing during the 1920s while attending secondary schools in Aomori and Hirosaki and published many of his early stories in magazines founded and run by aspiring young authors. By the time he attended Hirosaki Higher School, however, Dazai began to live the unconventional lifestyle that brought him much fame. Despite his widely recognized talent, however, alcoholism, drug addiction, affairs with geishas, suicide attempts, and frequent psychological traumas plagued him the rest of his life. In 1930, Dazai enrolled in the Department of French Literature at Tokyo University, but by the end of his first year, he ceased attending classes. Instead, Dazai became involved with left-wing politics, caroused, and renewed his relationship with a geisha he met while attending Hirosaki Higher School.
His family disapproved of this relationship, leading to one of Dazai’s suicide attempts. He attempted to take his own life on at least three other occasions and finally succeeded in a double suicide with a young war widow in 1948. This episode, among several instances of double suicide in Dazai’s fiction, is retold in his widely acclaimed novel, No Longer Human. Dazai’s highly autobiographical fiction first garnered popular and critical attention after the publication of his first collection, Bannen (The Final Years). The first and most significant of these stories is “Omoide” (“Memories”). With its highly personal tone, “Memories” reveals a common narrative technique in Dazai’s writing. Revealing his childhood and adolescent traumas, as well as his need for companionship and love, Dazai’s first-person narrative attracts the reader’s sympathy while raising doubts about the authenticity of the narration because of exaggerated rhetoric.
“Gangu” (“Toys”), another tale in Bannen, illustrates Dazai’s playfulness. In this tale, the narrator — after briefly relating his financial troubles — details his plans to concoct a tale recounting the memories of an infant. While these and other early pieces exemplify the personal tone of much of Dazai’s work, another group of tales shows his talent for imaginative storytelling. Two tales — “Gyofukuki,” translated as “Metamorphosis,” and “Sarugashima,” translated as “Monkey Island” — provide good examples of this. In place of the Dazai like protagonist present throughout most of his other short fiction; “Metamorphosis” is about a peasant girl who, on the verge of puberty, takes on the appearance and identity of a fish. “Monkey Island” presents two humanoid monkeys as its protagonists. In astonishment, one of the monkeys soon realizes they are the objects of attention, rather than the spectators, of the humans walking through the zoo. In his final years, he composed a series of stories that evince his interest in domestic issues, as titles such as “Villon’s Wife,” “Father,” and “Family Happiness”—suggest.
As critics have remarked, the stories of these collections are among the few works of artistic value produced by a Japanese author under the strict government censorship during World War II. While famous in Japan and avidly read — especially by the younger generation — Dazai has not achieved the international stature of Japanese writers such as Natsume Sseki, Kawabata Yasunari, Mishima Yukio, and End Shusaku. This is partly due to problems with translating Dazai’s highly personal style. Yet Dazai has earned himself a position in modern Japanese letters more or less comparable to that of an F. Scott Fitzgerald, as opposed to a William Faulkner, in modern American literature. Donald Keene, Dazai’s principal English translator, has described him as a Japanese writer “who emerged at the end of World War II as the literary voice of his time.” While Dazai’s body of work is sometimes criticized for its narrow scope, many critics maintain that his fiction contains some of the most beautiful prose in modern Japanese literature.
Dazai became celebrated for two short novels, The Setting Sun and No Longer Human, both translated into English. I read both of them back when I was reading all the Japanese fiction I could get my hands on, but did not care for either, and have not read either again. The Setting Sun was published in 1947, and is set in those years shortly after the end of the war. It was a very popular novel, and the title came to represent Japanese of the upper classes who had fallen because of the war and American occupation. But Dazai was already well known for personal characteristics reflected in the major characters as well–nihilism, drunken dissipation, despair (a kind of model for our hippie generation)–so, although the central character is a young woman, Kazuko, the novel is read as strongly autobiographical.
This is true for No Longer Human, too, which is perhaps even more autobiographical, and, as Donald Keene describes it, is “an attack on the habits and traditions of Japanese society, but above all … a record of his alienation from society.” (1063) I was not attracted to the narcissistic qualities in these two novels, or to the fact that Dazai, after having failed in two previous love suicides (in which the women succeeded) succeeded in a love suicide June 13, 1948 (he and the woman drowned in the Tamagawa Reservoir). I just didn’t much like him or his characters–never used those novels in courses I taught. But I did use one of his short stories, Villon’s Wife, several times, because it was in the anthology I most frequently used in the survey course of Japanese Literature, Donald Keene’s Modern Japanese Literature, and I actually came to like that story very much (sort of like Oe’s The Catch, the exception that proves the rule).
The husband in the story may be the closest self-portrait of all, and the most despicable, in his drunken dissipation, unfaithfulness, and unforgivable treatment of his wife, but the story is told by the wife, who, in her attempts to accommodate herself to all of this comes through as an attractive and courageous character–and you realize that even Dazai, in his more sober moments perhaps, must have appreciated her virtues. Anyway, that’s the one I recommend–then, if you want to read either, or both, of the novels, you will be reading fiction that was very popular in Japan in the decade after the end of the war, and may, indeed, reflect some of the values in flux in that traumatic time, particularly for young Japanese who would have seen themselves as having lost everything. I will be comparing Akutagawa to Edgar Allan Poe next month for their short lives and some of the qualities of their fiction, and it is easy to compare Dazai to Akutagawa (1892-1927), as well. Akutagawa was more of Tanizaki’s generation, but died in his late 30s, as a suicide, as Dazai did. But, I am happy to say, I am very fond of Akutagawa–a highly disciplined literary artist.
“NO LONGER HUMAN”
This book, by Osamu Dazai, is an example of the Japanese genre of shishosetsu, a kind of autobiographical fiction. It’s different from what we think of as autobiography, in that the purpose is not so much to tell a story – there is no real emplotment, beginning, middle, end in the traditional (or Aristotelian) sense, but rather, the text is a sort of rambling exploration of the self. Style is de-prioritized, sincerity and immediacy are tantamount. There is no constrained form, but rather, an attempt to establish a direct link between author and reader, to explain a particular perspective. The book is largely autobiographical, based on events from Dazai’s own life. He was a literary rock star, but a deeply miserable guy, attempting suicide several times before finally succeeding. There’s actually a monument at the spot where he killed himself (along with his mistress), and apparently people gather there on the anniversary of his death every year.
In any case, the book itself is interesting. It makes me want to learn Japanese, for starters, because no matter how great the translator, there’s no getting around the fact that the grammatical structure of Japanese is completely different from that of English, most importantly, for this book perhaps, in that it is entirely possible, and even common, to construct a sentence in Japanese with no subject. Apparently the entire book is written in this form, which would be particularly appropriate to the work itself. Though I wonder if the Japanese reader would really think of this as particularly artful, given that it’s apparently a standard thing to them. But I guess that’s a question for psycho-linguists to answer. The book is the related story of a very unhappy guy who is essentially chronicling his downward spiral. Though it’s hard to say if it’s really a downward spiral – though he does pinpoint a moment at which he ceased to be human, it’s not entirely clear that he was ever really human (by his own definition) to begin with. One question is what it means, in his eyes, to be human.
There is a clear parallel to Notes from the Underground (Dazai was big into Dostoevsky, and the main character refers to Crime and Punishment), in that both are notes from deeply unhappy men who are convinced of their own uniqueness, but there are definitely differences. Dostoevsky’s character is raging against rationality, and the way in which it dehumanizes people, so in a sense, though he calls himself a mouse, etc, he could be seen as claiming that he is really the only human. Dazai’s character, Yozo, sees himself as inhuman, mainly, it seems, because he lacks certain basic human traits. He claims, for instance, that he has never felt hungry. However, there is also a certain issue of domination at play – he is unable to say no to anyone, to turn down anything. In this sense, one could say that he is entirely determined by the outside world.
Despite the fact that he has an inner life, he keeps it hidden from the outside world. In fact, his behavior is entirely, he claims, an act, he “plays the clown” for the amusement of others, refusing to let his own feelings show. But I’m not certain if this is really the case. For instance, he wants to be an artist, and actually disobeys his father in order to pursue his artistic career, and confesses to the other authority figure in his life, Flatfish, that he wants to make art. So it seems as though the masking process is incomplete in this case, and at times he does behave authentically.
I wonder if the same could be said for the Underground Man? I think that it’s slightly different in his case, in that the construction of the Underground Man is such that he can’t behave authentically, because he has no stable self. Yozo, on the other hand, certainly has an inner life, it’s just a rather empty one. He doesn’t seem to have any real will of his own, or rather, the will that he does have is purely towards self-destruction – he can get booze and drugs, and drink himself into a stupor, without any difficulties. But then again, he also seems to have a brief lull of happiness, directly following his marriage. But even there, it’s hard to say if he’s happy. Maybe it’s most accurate to say that he is so constructed as to be incapable of happiness? Hmmm.
There’s more thinking to be done here.
Unfortunately, I seem to like each Dazai Osamu (1909-1948) book less than the previous one. No Longer Human (Ningen Shikkaku, 1948) is more epigrammatic that The Setting Sun (Shayo, 1947), but perhaps I am too old for it (as I was once too young to read Proust) to be much moved for the plaint of a creature too delicate for the world. I can’t muster sociological interest in it as social history of the 30s either, since dissipitation is basically timeless (though the preferred means vary). I read the epilogue differently from translator and longtime Columbia professor Donald Keene: as showing the notebook’s writer was successful at mimicking good nature, not that his widow is right and the writer wrong. (“In the way that most men fail to see their own cruelty, Yozo had not noticed his gentleness and capacity for love”-p. 9; really? a capacity for love? and gentleness? or solipsism mixed with diffidence?) I am not so sure that Keene was right that the Japanese “are certainly much more like Americans than they are like their ancestors of one hundred years ago.
As far as literature is concerned, the break with the Japanese past is almost complete” (p. 7), though this is more credible now than it was six decades ago. Dazai seems very traditionally Japanese to me in many ways, a descendant of Sei Shônagon both in wit and to some degree in aesthetics (Dazai is still plenty delicate and fairly indirect, even about what she would have considered vulgar and even sordid matters, very regretful and very perishable). Would Keene have been moved to translate Dazai, if there was nothing of the Japanese tradition that Keene venerates in Dazai? Let alone, recall translating Dazai “as if I were writing a book of my own,” an experience he only otherwise had with Kenkô’s Essays in Idleness (On Familiar Terms, p. 189). I like Keene’s characterization of Yozo as a man “who is orphaned from his fellows by their refusal to take him seriously” (p. 8, see p. 139), which in turn is a result of his desperate clowning.
Of course, this resonates with my experience of people not believing I could possibly be serious when I am, and feeling I’m not like other people, incapable of “getting by.” And “unusual or extravagant things tempt me” (p. 23). It is interesting that someone who felt himself different from an early age and for whom “it would be no exaggeration to say that my only playmates while I was growing up were girls” (48) became a diffident lady-killer rather than a homosexual. Ōba cannot forget his abuse by a female servant when he was young. In high school, he played the buffoon. At university, he finds bad influence from Horiki and leads a life of debauchery (nonstop smoking, alcohol abuse, promiscuity), culminating in a double suicide (it cannot seriously be billed a “love suicide”) in which the married woman drowns and he survives.
After being expelled from the university, Ōba is “clan and sober” for a time in a relationship with an innocent young woman, but Horki shows up and leads Ōba back into temptation, now adding morphine to alcohol abuse and being incarcerated in a mental asylum, where he is numb rather than violent. As for being zombified by Japan’s defeat, Dazai seems to me to have been as self-destructive and intellectually nihilistic while the Japanese Empire was rising as in the general anomie after Emperor Hirohito renounced divinity and the US occupied the archipelago. (Imamura’s “Pigs and Battleships” show some of this social breakdown and women who were better at surviving it than the men.) The original publication sold more than six million copies in Japan, more than any Japanese novel other than Kokoro (1914) by Sōseki Natsume. A manga version was published in 2009, the centenary of Dasai’s birth, and also filmed.
Attending Meiji Gakuin University from the age 15 to 19, Toson gradually became aware of literature under the influence of unconventional traditions of the school. Toson literature is even said to originate during his days at the university. Toson joined Bungakukai, a literary group, and as a romantic poet, published a collection of poems including Wakanashu. Later, Toson turned a novelist and published Hakai (“The Broken Commandment”) and Haru (“Spring”), and is thus regarded as a prominent naturalist novelist. His other works include, Ie (“Family”), considered to have achieved the highest level in Japanese Naturalism literature, Shinsei (“New life”), a confession of his own incestuous relationship with his niece, Yoakemae (“Before the Dawn”), a historical novel modeled on the life of his father. Altbough he began his serialization of Tohonomon (“The Gate of the East”) in 1943, he died of a stroke at his own home in Oiso, Kanagawa prefecture on 22nd of August.
Dazai, Osamu, and Donald Keene. No Longer Human. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1981. Print.
Lyons, Phyllis I., and Osamu Dazai. The Saga of Dazai Osamu: a Critical Study with Translations. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1985. Print.
Hachimaki, Emi. “人間失格.” 青空文庫 Aozora Bunko. Aozora, 1 Jan. 1999. Web. 15 Nov. 2011. <http://www.aozora.gr.jp/cards/000035/files/301_14912.html>.