January in Japan: Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

Osamu Dazai: Self Portraits: Tales from the life of Japan’s great decadent romantic, transl. and introduced by Ralph F. McCarthy, Kodansha International, 1991.

Once I reconnected with my old flame, Dazai Osamu, it was difficult to stop at just the new translation of his final novel Ningen Shikkaku. One of my book blogging friends, whom you might know as @Kaggsy59 from Twitter, mentioned that she had a collection of his autobiographical stories in roughly chronological order, with sympathetic introductions to each story by McCarthy. Somehow, I did not manage to get my hands on this book back in the 1990s and it is now out of print and prohibitively expensive. So maybe I shouldn’t recommend it to you. But if you can get hold of it, it is probably the best introduction to Dazai’s work, as there is great variety and much more humour here than in some of his better-known work.

As the translator says, some of the stories are clearly more fictional than others, and there is a tendency to exaggerate for effect. Let’s not forget that most of these were stories for magazines, published during the writer’s lifetime, and that he had to produce work to earn a living. He injects humour into situations, often at his own expense, but also has the ability to turn from comedy to tragedy within the same paragraph, even the same sentence. This style – and the more domestic stories – remind me of Shirley Jackson’s family-inspired stories collected in Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Except that Shirley Jackson does not mention directly her fury at her husband’s affairs, or her agoraphobia or her many health problems, while Dazai has no such qualms.

Dazai at around the time of the first double suicide attempt.

In his quite experimental story written in dialogue form ‘Mesu ni tsuite’ (translated here as Female, elsewhere as Of Women), we initially seem to witnessing one of those games that old friends might play late at night, after a bout of drinking. The narrator and his friend vie with each other to describe the ideal woman, in terms of looks, occupation, clothes, behaviour and speech. This may come across as crude masculine banter, but they then go on to create the scenario of a spa break. Yet even in this best of all possible imaginary worlds, things don’t go according to plan and the romantic dinner for two becomes increasingly awkward. The man seems to avoid intimacy by pretending he’s got a writing deadline, but then spends endless minutes copying out the Iroha poem repeatedly (used as a kind of alphabet ordering for the Japanese syllabary). It seems that even in his imagination, the narrator cannot rid himself of his fears and complexes. It all seems quite funny in a very ‘cringe comedy’ sort of way (which makes Dazai so modern, to my mind), but then both the friend and the reader realise, to their horror, that the story takes a sinister turn (apologies for spoiling the ending for you, but then, if you’ve read my previous post about Dazai’s life, you will know that only one ending is possible):

‘I heard a sound like water flowing behind me. It was only a faint sound, but a chill ran down my spine. The woman had quietly turned over in bed.’

‘What happened?’

‘”Let’s die,” I said. She too…’

‘Stop right there. You’re not just making this up.’

He was right. The following afternoon the woman and I attempted suicide. She was neither a geisha nor a painter. She was a girl from a poor background who’d been a maid in my home. She was killed simply because she turned over in bed. I didn’t die. Seven years have passed and I’m still alive.

Dazai does not come out well from most of these stories, as you might expect, but he can also be quite cutting about the people closest to him for comedic effect. For example, in the story ‘Trains’ he feels sorry for a country girl who has been spurned by one of his friends and impulsively decides to say goodbye to her as she leaves from Tokyo Ueno station. He takes his wife along for moral support, believing that she might have more social skills than him. As you might expect, however, everyone just hangs around, looking and sounding very awkward.

Three minutes or so still remained before departure time. I couldn’t stand it… nothing is more confounding than those last three minutes. You’ve said all there is to say and can do nothing but gaze helplessly at each other. And in this case it was even worse, because I hadn’t been able to come up with a single thing to say in the first place. If my wife had been a bit more competent, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but look at her: standing there with her mouth clamped shut and a sullen look on her face.

Yet each story has layers: beneath the comedy there is something much more serious. While they are at the station, they also see ‘an ashen-faced fellow leaning out a window of the third class coach, bidding a faltering farewell’ and we realise that it is a young man being mobilised during the war. In ‘Female’, reference is made to a failed coup in 1936 (the so-called February 26 Incident) to reinstate the power and glory of the Emperor – an attempt that Mishima admired and Dazai completely despised.

Dazai was emphatically against the war, but, given his arrest because of his involvement with the Communist Party, he is careful not to upset the censors and only mentions war in passing in his work of the 1930s. His downbeat, fatalistic stories were increasingly frowned upon by the censors, so he reverted mostly to retellings of Japanese folk tale or older stories during the war.

Yet, for all his appreciation of traditional Japanese literature and history, he stubbornly refused to accept the established narratives or clichés. In a very funny scene in his story ‘One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji’, he and one elderly woman are the only ones in a bus full of tourists who steadfastly refuse to crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the mythical mountain, but look in the opposite direction.

Perhaps Dazai is at his best when he focuses on others rather than on himself. He has a great eye for detail and proves a good observer of people and situations. There is much warmth and humanity in his descriptions, even when he almost churlishly tries to undermine his own kind impulses, as if afraid that he might be accused of sentimentalism. The tenderness and hope of spring and marital love in a story like ‘A Promise Fulfilled’. The way he keeps assuring readers that he hates dogs, yet takes in a stray puppy in the comical tale ‘Canis familiaris’. Believing a rose-seller is an imposter and yet nevertheless buying the roses from her in ‘Thinking of Zenso’. The affection and admiration with which he describes his older brothers, who all had some literary talent (even though he clearly had a troubled relationship with them). In ‘Two Little Words’ he helps an old man fill in the withdrawal slip from his saving passbook and finds out that it is in the name of his daughter who died in the air raids. When sent by journalists for a photo feature with the vagrants in Ueno Park, he is able to relate to them and treat them like real human beings, observing much more within a few minutes of walking there than any of the reporters who accompany him. Perhaps most touchingly, in ‘Seascape with Figures in Gold’, he feels guilty about the way he used to treat one of the family maids, yet years later, when she comes to visit him with her family, she remembers things very differently and he ends up being almost envious of her peaceful, serene life.

In one of the last stories he ever wrote, ‘Cherries’, we are participating in an evening meal with his family and Dazai says something that reminds us of the main character in Ningen Shikkaku:

When I’m at home, I’m forever making jokes. Let’s say it’s a case of needing to wear Dante’s mask of merriment precisely because there are so many things that trigger the anguish in the heart… Whenever I’m with people, no matter how great my mental or physical suffering, I try desperately to create a happy atmosphere. It’s only after parting with company that I stagger away exhausted to think about money and morality and suicide.

I don’t know if I’ve managed to convey the flavour of this author without making you feel he is too self-indulgent. Mishima described him as ‘an invalid who does not wish to recover’ and therefore does not qualify as a true invalid. The thing with Dazai is that you cannot hate or criticise him more than he does himself. You have the feeling that it was not a pose. He handled the fame that came along after the publication of The Setting Sun just as badly as he had handled poverty and obscurity in his youth. He was ever the one to rebel against rules, and the tyranny of ‘should’, decrying what he perceived to be the hypocrisy and opportunism of the Japanese society during and after the war. His is a manifesto of constantly inspecting, never accepting at face value, opposing any facile answers: ‘I’m a libertine – buraiha [the so-called Decadent School in Japanese arts and literature]. I rebel against constraints. I jeer at the opportunists.’ He refused to join any clique and could be quite spiteful about what he perceived as arrogance in others. But for those who were truly poor, downtrodden, outcast or sad, he had endless compassion. He was always able to forgive weaknesses in others (probably because of all the weaknesses he could see in himself).

In the academic study I was reading in parallel with this, The Suicidal Narrative in Modern Japan: The Case of Dazai Osamu, the scholar Alan Wolfe argues that Dazai does not really fall into the romantic suicidal hero vein. Dazai is ‘simultaneously victim and victimizer’, and his texts resist our interpretation of him. Dazai becomes slippery, impossible to pin down to a single interpretation, teasing readers from beyond the grave. He constantly casts doubt on the veracity and consistency of the narrator – a technique that Mishima also uses in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Dazai would never be content with a final narrative, a theory set in stone, any effort to enclose thought once and for all. Everything is fluid, and the real meaning of things escapes us, or is only briefly glimpsed in the corner of one’s eye.

I can live with that.

11 thoughts on “January in Japan: Falling Down the Rabbit Hole”

  1. Confession time: I’ve never heard of Osamu, but clearly I have to read at least something by him! Fascinating post.

    1. I think he’s really worth your while. Depending on your current mood, you may want to start with some of his short stories, as in either the Crackling Mountain or Blue Bamboo collections.

  2. So glad you got a copy of this while you could, Marina Sofia. It does sound like a fine introduction to his work. And every once in a while, a rabbit hole leads to some good places…

    1. It has been an absolute delight and privilege to be able to rediscover my old passion for Japanese literature and spend nearly all month with it. It’s a struggle to move on, but I have no doubt I will continue revisiting periodically.

Do share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.