The year before last I was expelled from my family and,
reduced to poverty overnight, was left to wander the streets,
begging help for various quarters, barely managing to stay alive
from one day to the next, and just when I'd begun to think I
might be able to support myself with my writing, I came down
with a serious illness. Thanks to the compassion of others,
I was able to rent a small house in Funabashi, Chiba, next to
the muddy sea, and spent the summer there alone, convalescing.
Though battling an illness that each and every night left my
robe literally drenched with sweat, I had no choice but to
press ahead with my work. The cold half pint of milk I drank
each morning was the only thing that gave me a certain peculiar
sense of the joy in life; my mental anguish and exhaustion
were such that the oleanders blooming in one corner of the
garden appeared to me merely flicking tongues of flame...
Osamu Dazai, "Seascape with Figures in Gold" (1939)
Osamu DAZAI (太宰治, 1909-1948) was the enfant terrible
, an outcast
in a rigidly conformist
a hero among Japanese youth to this day. Not that there was
much that could be called heroic
in life, as he careened
from self-inflicted disaster to another, shattering
the lives of others as he went... and writing about it all,
shamelessly recounting the sordid details and at the same time
harshly criticizing his own actions.
Dazai was born Shuji Tsushima, the eighth surviving child
of a wealthy landowner in Tsugaru, a remote corner of Japan
hidden at the northern tip of Tohoku. An excellent student
at school and an able writer even then, his life only started to
change when his idol writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa committed
suicide in 1927. Shuji started to neglect his studies,
spending his allowance on clothes, booze and geisha and
dabbling with Marxism, at the time heavily suppressed by the
government. On December 10, 1929, the night before year-end
exams that he had no hopes of passing, Shuji attempted to commit
suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills, but he
survived and managed to graduate next year.
Shuji enrolled in the French Literature Department of the
University of Tokyo and promptly stopped studying again.
In October, he ran away with geisha Hatsuyo Oyama, and
was formally expelled from the family. Nine days after the
expulsion, Shuji attempted suicide with sleeping pills
again with another woman,
19-year-old waitress Shimeko Tanabe. Shimeko died, but Shuji lived. Shocked by the events, Shuji's family
intervened to drop a police investigation, his allowance was
reinstated and in December Shuji and Hatsuyo were married.
This moderately happy state of affairs didn't last long,
as Shuji was arrested for his involvement with the banned
Communist Party and, upon learning this, his elder
brother Bunji promptly cut off his allowance again. Shuji went into hiding, but Bunji managed to get word to him that charges would
be dropped and the allowance reinstated yet again if
he solemnly promised to graduate and swear off any
involvement with the party, and Shuji took up the offer.
In what was probably a surprise to all parties concerned,
Shuji kept his promise and managed to settle down a bit.
The next few years were productive, Shuji wrote at a feverish
pace and used the pen name "Osamu Dazai" for the first time
in a short story called "Train" (1933), his first experiment
with the first-person autobiographical style that later
became his trademark. But in 1935, it started to become
clear that Dazai could not graduate, and he failed an
entrance exam at a Tokyo newspaper as well. He finished
The Final Years, intended to be his farewell to
the world, and tried to hang himself on March 19, 1935 --
failing yet again.
Worse was yet to come, as less than three weeks after his
third suicide attempt Dazai developed acute appendicitis
and was hospitalized, during which time he become addicted to
Pabinal, a morphine-based painkiller. After fighting
the addiction for a year, in October 1936 he was taken
to a mental institution, locked in a room and forced to
quite cold turkey. The "treatment" lasted over a month,
during which time Dazai's wife Hatsuyo committed adultery
with his best friend Zenshiro Kodate. This eventually
came to light and Dazai, mortified, divorced Hatsuyo
and married Michiko Ishihara. Their first daughter,
Sonoko, was born in June 1941.
Japan entered the Pacific War in December, but Dazai was
excused from the draft because of his chronic chest problems.
The censors became more reluctant to accept Dazai's offbeat
work, but he managed to publish quite a bit anyway, remaining
one of the very few authors who managed to turn out
interesting material in those years. His house was
firebombed twice, but Dazai's family escaped unscathed,
with a son, Masaki, born in 1944. His third child, daughter
Satoko (who later became famous writer Yuko Tsushima),
was born in May 1947.
In July 1947 Dazai's best-known work, The Setting Sun
was published, propelling an already popular writer into
a celebrity. Not that this seemed to help Dazai much:
always a heavy drinker, he was turning into an actual alcoholic, he had already
fathered a child out of wedlock with a fan, and his health
was also rapidly deteriorating. At this time Dazai met
Tomie Yamazaki, a beautician and war widow who had
lost her husband after 10 days of married life.
Dazai effectively abandoned his wife and children and
moved in with Tomie, writing his quasi-autobiography Ningen Shikkaku
(人間失格, usually translated "No Longer Human" but perhaps
closer in meaning to "Disqualified from Humanity") at the
hot-spring resort Atami. On June 13, 1948, Dazai and
Tomie finally succeeded, drowning themselves in the Tamagawa Canal.
As noted above, Dazai's most characteristic style is
first-person and autobiographical, his tales thinly disguised and painfully factual
stories of what has happened to him, or perhaps more
what he has done to himself.
At his best these can be both poetic and
wrenching, although all too often Dazai veers off the knife's edge
into being either embarassingly explicit or merely whining pathetically.
The overall tone is distinctly downbeat, occasionally outright
suicidal, although in some works there is quite a bit of black humor as well.
His original Japanese has a tendency to feature
jawbreaker sentences several pages long, but fortunately these
have mostly been made more reasonable in translation.
Titles given also in English if the novel or story collection in
question has been translated.
1935: Doke no Hana
1937: Nijusseiki Kishu; Kyoko no Hoko
1939: Ai to Bi ni Tsuite; Joseito; Bannen (The Twilight Years)
1940: Onna no Ketto
1941: Shin Hamuretto (The New Hamlet)
1942: Seigi to Bisho
1943: Udaijin Sanetomo
1945: Otogi Zoshi (Fairy Tales); Sekibetsu; Shin Shokokubanashi
1946: Pandora no Hako; Fuyu no Hanabi
1947: Kyoshin no Kami; Shayo (Setting Sun); Biyon no Tsuma; Tokatonton
1948: Nyoze Gabun; Ningen Shikkaku (No Longer Human); Goodbye
Dazai, Osamu. Self Portraits: Stories. Kodansha 1992.