#JanuaryInJapan: Dazai Osamu Rewriting Fairytales

Dazai Osamu: Otogizoshi: The Fairy Tale Book of Dazai Osamu, transl. Ralf F. McCarthy, Kurodahan Press, 2011.

How can I have a January in Japan/Japanese Literature Challenge 16 without sneaking in at least one book by my favourite Japanese author Dazai Osamu? I may have mentioned him once or twice before… Anyway, this year I dug out this slim volume of ‘retold’ fairy tales by Dazai, which was pretty much the only way that he could publish during the Second World War. In1945, as the air raids were destroying much of Tokyo (including his own house), he played around with four of the best-known Japanese folk tales, retelling them not just for children, but particularly for grown ups.

There aren’t any overt criticisms of the Japanese war strategy, or even much mention of the dire situation the country was in by that point. However, the war is included, because the stories start off with a short prologue in which the author/narrator (always a tricky matter to distinguish the two with Dazai) starts telling stories to his children while they are seeking refuge in an air raid shelter. Additionally, the narrator keeps interrupting the flow of his narrative to comment that he cannot ascertain a particular detail because he doesn’t have a dictionary or encyclopedia handy, or that he cannot recount the most famous story of them all Momotaro (which had been used for propaganda purposes by the Japanese government), because ‘an author who has never been number one in Japan – or even number two or three – can hardly be expected to produce an adequate picture of Japan’s foremost young man’. His sarcasm extends to samurai warriors and their ideology, to landed gentry (such as his own family) and the heroic interpretations of Japanese history.

Traditional representations of Urashima Taro.

For example, here he is having a pop at Urashima Tarō, who is rewarded for rescuing a turtle by being taken to the Dragon Palace deep underneath the sea and meeting the Sea Princess, and generally having a great time there. When he returns on land, he discovers he has been away for a hundred years. The story is so well known that it has been a set text for elementary school in Japan for over a hundred years. Urashima Tarō is generally portrayed as a simple fisherman devoted to his mother, but in Dazai’s eponymous story he becomes the eldest son of an old and respected family with many servants.

Among second and third sons one often finds that variety of prodigal who overindulges in liquor and pursues women of lowly birth, muddying his own family’s name in the process, but the number one son… comes naturally to acquire a certain steadfast stodginess…

You can’t help but feel he is remembering some of his altercations with his older brothers! His rather cynical views of married life and suffocating families also find their way in other tales, such as the farcical ‘The Stolen Wen’ (aka ‘How an old man lost his wen/boil/lump’). The old man in the folktale is not a drunkard, but Dazai was, so he can’t resist giving him this trait.

In short, this family of Oji-san is nothing if not respectable and upstanding. And yet the fact remains that he is depressed. He wants to be considerate of his family but feels he cannot help but drink.

Throughout, there are a few digs at people’s behaviour, uttered by some of the characters, for instance, the tendency to gossip about one’s neighbors (which I can imagine a lot of people had been doing about Dazai all his life). Here is another husband complaining to his wife in ‘The sparrow who lost her tongue’:

Who do you think made me such a taciturn man chatting and laughing about what over dinner? I’ll tell you what – their neighbors. Criticizing. Tearing others down. Nothing but backbiting, malicious gossip…The only thing people like you can see is other people’s faults and you’re oblivious to the horror in your own hearts. You people terrify me.

It’s hard to demonstrate Dazai’s humour unless you know the original folk tales, for he takes great pleasure in subverting them, adding a running commentary as the storyteller. His Oni ogres are anything but terrifying, and he makes the link with the literary world of his time:

We use the word [Oni] to describe hateful people, murderers and even vampire, and one might therefore feel safe in assuming that these beings possess, in general, fairly despicable personality traits. But then one spies in the New Books column of the newspaper a headline reading ‘The Latest Masterpiece from the Ogre-like Genius of So-and-So-sensei’ and one is perplexed. One wonders if the article is an attempt to alert the public to So-and-So-sensei’s wicked influence or evil machinations… One would think that the great sensei himself would react angrily to being called such nasty and insulting names, but apparently that isn’t the case. One even hears rumors to the effect that he secretly encourages their use…

‘Monstre sacre’ indeed, as the French would say!

If you want to discover the lighter side of Dazai Osamu, the brilliant conversationalist he undoubtedly was (despite donning the mantle of grumpiness whenever it suited him), then I would recommend starting with his short stories, and these retold folk tales fall into that category, showing how much he could achieve even working within formal constraints. It’s not easy to find though…