January in Japan: Dazai Osamu

Osamu Dazai: A Shameful Life (No Longer Human), transl. Mark Gibeau, Stone Bridge Press, 2018.

Zoe’s surprisingly enthusiastic reaction to this book – it had the effect of catnip on her!

Biographical background

Mishima may have captivated me in my late teens, but my absolute favourite Japanese author of the modern era is Dazai Osamu. He is not as much read or appreciated abroad, but in Japan he has achieved cult status, even appearing as a suicide maniac detective in a manga and anime series called Bungo Stray Dogs. He is often seen as the epitome of the romantic decadent scoundrel – a Lord Byron with less of a penchant for wild animals or ability to buy his way out of trouble. To me, he continues my long line of infatuation with literary bad boys: a slightly less manipulative Rimbaud, a less cynical Baudelaire. N.B. This did not translate into liking American bad boys like Jack Kerouac, Bukowski or Norman Mailer. But clearly, the myth of the genius creator who is terminally depressed and incapable of relating well to people is still powerful when it comes to authors who died before I was born.

Osamu in a bar, photographed by Tadahiko Hayashi, who was not aware at the time who was in the picture.

Superficially, there are quite a few biographical similarities between Mishima and Dazai, even though they were born sixteen years apart. Both were younger sons of quite wealthy landowners, who spent a significant part of their childhood years away from their family (raised by aunts, grandmothers or servants). Both of them were academically gifted and went to the prestigious Tokyo University (although Dazai dropped out and Mishima never practiced law) and both showed early promise in their writing. Both were shattered by their country’s experience of war (although neither of them served on the front because they were diagnosed with tuberculosis – mistakenly, in Mishima’s case).

Above all, both of them had tortured psyches, were over-sensitive and self-critical, and had destructive tendencies. But this is where their differences start. Dazai directed all that hatred inwards, bent on destroying himself, while Mishima turned it onto the outer world, bemoaning the loss of Japanese pride and ancient code of values. The world crushes Dazai, while Mishima sets out to crush the world.

Politically, of course, they could not be further apart: Dazai was a lukewarm member of the Communist Party in the early 1930s (which was banned at that time in Japan), while Mishima created his own private right-wing militia in the 1960s. Both of them had problems with their love lives: Mishima, for all his macho posturing, clearly had gay tendencies which he (and his family, posthumously) vigorously denied, while Dazai, for all of his more effeminate, unhealthy looks, was an inveterate womaniser. Mishima started publishing his stories and his first full novel (Confessions of a Mask) just as Dazai was ending his career by committing suicide. They had one single awkward in-person meeting. Apparently, Mishima had previously expressed some admiration for Dazai’s writing, but when they met, with Dazai very much the fêted established writer surrounded by courtiers and Mishima the unknown student, the younger man was tongue-tied, felt his ego was somewhat bruised and declared that he found Dazai too weak and that he despised his tendency towards self-dramatizing. (Pot calling the kettle black!)

What was truly problematic about Dazai of course was that his alcoholism, addiction to painkillers, adultery and suicidal tendencies did not just impact him, but also others. I have already mentioned how it impacted his children and will mention it again in my next review of Yuko Tsushima. He attempted a double ‘love’ suicide several times (a much more popular pastime in Japan than over here, with many notable examples in literature), before he finally achieved it successfully, and in one instance the consequences were fatal to the woman involved although he survived.

Novel or memoir?

The reason I insist upon all of these unsavoury biographical details is because they heavily influence Dazai’s work, particularly his last completed novel Ningen Shikkaku, translated by Donald Keene in 1958 quite literally as No Longer Human, while the new translation has opted for A Shameful Life. This new title (a bold decision, if I might say so) refers to the quote below (I will use Keene’s version here, which I feel captures the gravitas of the statement slightly better):

Mine has been a life of much shame. I can’t even guess myself what it must be to live the life of a human being.

To summarise the story as succinctly as possible, the ‘author/narrator’ is handed three notebooks (the first one opens with the quote above) and three photographs by an old lady, a former bar- and now coffee-shop-owner, who knew the writer of the notebooks many years ago. She thinks it might inspire the narrator to write a novel. The narrator is intrigued by the appearance of the man in the photos, reads the notebooks and concludes that this story of physical and mental destruction sounds ‘a bit exaggerated here and there’ (Dazai ever ready to poke some self-depecratory fun at himself), and that he too might have been tempted to lock him up in an asylum if he’d encountered the man.

The failed love suicide, the addictions to morphine and alcohol, the involvement in a banned political group – all of these biographical details are present in the novel, but it would be simplistic to believe that they are just pages from Dazai’s diaries. In this age of blogging and extreme sharing via social media, we have seen that unedited ranting, vast outpourings of feelings of anger or despair are actually not all that readable.

The book may be one of the best descriptions of general despair, deep depression and alienation that I have ever read, but this is not achieved by unmediated access to the author’s thoughts. Although the bleakness with which Yozo regards life is probably very similar to the author’s own outlook, there is great craft in giving us that feeling of ‘nothingness’, no exit, in deliberately unadorned ‘honest’ prose. Authenticity is a lot harder to write than it looks – what Dazai leaves out is as interesting as what he puts in.

Dazai Osamu with his two older children (Yuko Tsushima’s sister and brother), showing that there must have been happy times in his life too.

The autobiographical novel – shishōsetsu or I-novel – is a staple of modern Japanese literature – but I would argue it was there long before the 20th century. Although it is most often associated with the confessional, naturalistic style popular from the 1920s onwards, there are earlier examples of what one might call ‘creative non-fiction’ (with a huge emphasis on ‘creative’) in the ‘zuihitsu’ (random jottings/ personal essays) genre of the 13th and 14th century Japan. There is almost what one might call a ‘myth of sincerity’ in the I-novel: some of the thoughts may well reflect the author’s own preoccupations, but ultimately we are being misled – or rather, led precisely in the direction where the author wants us to go.

Last but not least, this is not just the story of an individual – it is also the story of a generation of Japanese who have had to come to terms with being perceived as monsters in a long and cruel war, and who find themselves utterly vanquished, unconditionally surrendered, and having lost everything they ever believed in (including the innate goodness of their fellow countrymen).

Translation Comparison

Overall, Mark Gibeau’s translation tries to create a more contemporary feel to the book. He is at pains to point out that this is by no means a criticism of Keene’s translation, but his choices are substantially different from those of his predecessor. I believe he is trying to be more immediate, to really convey the protagonist Yozo’s voice in all its weary cynicism and self-hatred, his sense of alienation from the world of humans as if we are there going through it with him, while Keene tries to make the horror more palatable by keeping it somewhat detached.

That doesn’t mean that the original translation is too cold, but it is now over sixty years old and can feel a little bit dated or too formal at times. However, although this new translation is lively and easy to read, at times I feel it gets the register of suffering just a little bit wrong. Here, for example, is how the narrator of the framing device describes the pictures of Yozo, which come together with the notebooks:

I think that even a death mask would hold more of an expression, leave more of a memory. That effigy suggests nothing so much as a human body to which a horse’s head has been attached. Something ineffable makes the beholder shudder in distaste. I have never seen such an inscrutable face on a man.

Donald Keene’s translation

Even the face of someone slipping into death holds some kind of expression, leaves some kind of mark. But this, maybe this is what it would be like if the head of a carthorse were sewn onto a human body. In any case, a vague sense of revulsion shivers up my spine. Never in my life have I seen a man with such a peculiar face.

Mark Gibeau’s translation

That word ‘peculiar’ just doesn’t seem to do Yozo sufficient justice, almost brings in a tone of levity. There are also several occasions when Keene has Yozo wondering if trustfulness or non-resistance is a sin, while Gibeau’s Yozo wonders if these things are crimes. I feel that some of the profundity of the original gets sacrificed for the sake of appealing to modern audiences. Perhaps there is a reason why Kafka and Camus (two near-contemporaries of Dazai’s) chose to write about similar themes – but few publishers or translators seem to feel the need to modernise them. They continue to speak to us directly.

However, in other instances, Gibeau sounds spot-on. Here is Dazai voicing universal concerns about hiding your true self, about living behind a mask and attempting to fit in at all costs, which Yozo decides to do early on in life, and which results in tremendous personal pain and disconnection from other people:

I lived in quivering terror of people, and since I had no confidence whatsoever in my ability to speak or behave like a human being, I gathered up all of my fears and anxieties and concealed them in a box, deep inside my breast. I took enormous pains to conceal my melancholy and nervousness, and devoted myself instead to cultivating an air of innocent good cheer. Thus, little by little, I was transformed into an eccentric clown.

Mark Gibeau

I have always shook with fright before human beings. Unable as I was to feel the least particle of confidence in my ability to speak or act like a human being, I kept my solitary agonies locked in my breast. I kept my melancholy and my agitation hidden, careful lest any trace should be left exposed. I feigned an innocent optimism; I gradually perfected myself in the role of the farcical eccentric.

Donald Keene

Here I feel that the more elegant, stylised language of Keene keeps us at arm’s length from Yozo’s suffering.

But are we in fact supposed to take Yozo’s suffering that seriously? Is this a person who is crushed by life or someone who has disengaged and fled? We never find out if he is still alive or not, if he committed suicide, or if all of those notebooks that he sent to the former bartender were performative pieces, cries for help, or even… fiction. Or could it be that he was being far too hard on himself, that he never really fully understood his own effect on others? After all, the book ends on the words of this old woman, who knew Yozo in real life, and who disbelieves pretty much everything she read in those notebooks:

‘It’s all his father’s fault,’ she said absently. ‘The Yo-chan I knew was kind and so gentle. If only he didn’t drink – no, even when he did drink… He was such a good boy. An angel.’

27 thoughts on “January in Japan: Dazai Osamu”

  1. Such an engaging introduction and superb review, the comparison of Mishima and Dazai is fascinating, how similar certain circumstances in their lives and divergent in their political affiliations.

    The catch 22 of translations, the merits in both, and I think you are also able to read in the original, is that right?

    1. I have fallen down a bit of a Dazai Osamu rabbit hole – it all started with reading his daughter Yuko Tsushima recently, and then I remembered how much I loved him, and so… I may sneak in another post before the end of January. Yes, I have read Dazai in the original as well – back in the days when my written/reading comprehension of Japanese was a little more fluent.

      1. Oh please do, and especially while many are reading Japanese literature this quarter, I’m beginning to think I ought to go there too, it’s always seemed so vast, their literary continent, not quite knowing where and who to enter with, to get a feel for the style.

  2. The comparison you draw between the two authors is fascinating, Marina Sofia! Interesting how similar they are in some ways, despite their different politics, etc.. I was struck, too, at some of the things you discuss in Dazai Osamu’s writing. I’ve seen the same themes of loneliness, loss of hope and identity, and that feeling of betrayal by society in the post-war Japanese crime fiction I’ve read. Perhaps it’s something that’s woven through a lot of Japanese writing of the time?

    1. Yes, I do detect this sense of loss of identity, betrayal and nihilism in a lot of Japanese literature of the time (and in the 1950s). At the same time, the official discourse was upbeat, talking constantly about turning over a new page, democracy and rebuilding and Americanisation. It must have been hard not to become cynical when you contrasted that with what was happening in reality. You see that contrast in the films of Ozu and last night I saw Kurosawa’s Ikiru for the first time, and that describes even more clearly the gap between theory and practice.

  3. I wasn’t familiar with this author, but am intrigued by your engaging post about this novel. Maybe for a later, post-Covid time, when I’m better equipped to deal with Kafkaesque angst in fiction…

  4. Thank you for this very informative post.
    The first time I heard of Dazai Osamu was…last week, so your review is very welcome.

  5. Thanks for such a wonderful post, Marina – particularly the comparison between the two authors as I’ve read both (but more Mishima). And the translation comparison was very interesting – I completely agree with the point about Camus and Kafka still speaking to us and not needing to be updated. I’m not really a fan of bringing an older author into a translation with modern idioms – my point being that for example Tolstoy was contemporary with Dickens, and I wouldn’t want my Dickens in a modern vernacular any more than I want Tolstoy brought up to date! But that’s just me I guess. I shall probably stick to my versions which are the Keene ones. As for disappearing down those author rabbit holes – keep going, I have done the same and it can be such fun. Plus I look forward to hearing whatever else you choose to write about this intriguing author!

    1. The only problem with the rabbit holes is that they don’t always lead to books I already have on my shelves but to very expensive specialist purchases.

  6. So interesting to read the two versions! Thanks for putting them together like that. Am such a big Yuko Tsushima fan that my feelings towards her father might have already been swayed quite a bit, but this makes me want to give him another chance…

    1. Yes, I suppose it did help that I read no Tsushima before reading him. Now that I’ve read her memories of childhood and the impact her father’s death had on all of their lives, I’m having second thoughts.

  7. Like many others here, I too found your introductory comments about Dazai (and the comparisons with Mishima) particularly fascinating. Both writers have been on my radar for a while, although I’ve yet to read either. Nevertheless, Dazai is calling me, not least because of my interest in Yuko Tsushima’s work. The autobiographical nature of this novel makes it all the more intriguing. Maybe the recent trend for autofiction is not quite as contemporary as we might think. Thanks again for such an interesting piece!

    1. Goodness no, autofiction has been around in Japanese literature for centuries! And not just Japanese literature: what about The Compleat Angler or Sterne’s Sentimental Journey or Montaigne or Rousseau?

    1. And did your son read it, what did he make of it? I ask, because I know the problems you have had with your son and fear this book might have been a little too close to the bone. To me it is on a par with Kafka (another favourite).

      1. He says he did read it and enjoyed it. (It would have been a number of years ago.) He’s not quite sure where it is though. Thomas has always been a Japanophile. He even made a Japanese tofu dish for dinner tonight.

  8. I’ve so enjoyed reading this post on Dazai Marina Sofia, your comparison of Mishima and Dazai and the differences between them, and the excellent point about how Dazai used his life in his work and the depth of the shock of the war, but spun it into literature. I also appreciated the comparison between the two translations and it was helpful to see examples of the different approaches.

    I’m becoming more convinced that you could take your deep interest in Dazai and Tsushima’s work to write an in-depth article or study for English-speaking fans.

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