Dazai Osamu Self Portraits


Stimulated by Donald Keene’s memoir to read his translation of The Setting Sun by Dazai Osamu (1909-48), I also checked out Self Portraits, a collection of the autobiographical stories that made Dazai‘s reputation in Japan during the 1930s and 40s. Dazai is another instance that a good analysis is only a good analysis, not necessarily a prelude to or means to change. He did not lack for insight into his pathologies, and wrote with considerable wit about his self-defeating and self-destructive patterns (especially parasitism, lack of any ability to associate with others casually, alcoholism, and, for a time, addiction to pain-killer medication). Keene’s colleague Ivan Morris wrote a book about the Japanese veneration of failures. Dazai sounds like a wittier version of the European Romantic artist suffering on the road to suicide, not made for the crass world, but feeling less superior to it than European romantics.

I was pleased to see a statement of one of my theses in Dazai’s (1940) “Eight scenes from Tokyo”: “However closely the explanation seems to fit the facts, there’s always the hint of a gap, a fabrication somewhere. People do not necessarily think and consider in a prescribed way before choosing the path they’ll walk. For the most part they simply wander, at some point, into a different meadow” (p. 167) without ever choosing to leave where they were, let along picking their destination (jobs, locales, and, often, even partners).

Like many, he went to Tokyo. “To this charmless, featureless plain, people from all over Japan roll up in droves to push and shove and sweat, to fight for an inch of ground, to live lives of alternating joy and sorrow, to regard one another with jealous, hostile eyes, females crying out to males, males merely strutting about in a frenzy” (p. 150—though “perennial youth is the realm of the actor; it doesn’t exist in the world of letters,” p. 148).

As boorish as was the figure of himself that he wrote Dazai, and as debunking of many verities, there is still something delicate in his perceptions as in both his resistance to the cult of Mount Fuji and how he is affected by it and by other natural phenomena. “One hundred views of Mount Fuji” and “Eight scenes of Tokyo” are self-lacerating, but not wholly self-absorbed. That is, there are other characters. There is even, in “Early light,” reportage of being on the ground during the incendiary bombings at the end of World War II (lacking in rancor, preoccupied with surviving and taking care of the children). There’s nothing about the Occupation (the US occupation of Japan, or, for that matter, any of Japan’s earlier occupations of other countries).

“The frivolous hypothesis that to be loved is never unpleasant, however unpleasant the one who loves you, simply does not hold up in real life,” he wrote (“Canis familiaris, p. 112). Having been driven to getting a restraining order against someone convinced we were not just an item but a great love, I have strong grounds to concur.

I am puzzled that the same man who could not drown in the ocean because he could swim drowned himself in a narrow ditch (with another partner). This also seems a particularly unpleasant modus operandi (aside from the incomprehensibility to me of the goal).

Translator Ralph M. McCarthy selected the autobiographical stories and placed them in chronological order, making the book into a sort of I-novel, though they were not written or assembled in this way by Dazai. The introduction includes 22 photograph of Dazai and company (wife, suicide partner, et al.).

©2016, Stephen ). Murray

(1928 portrait)

Also see my discussion of Dazai’s two novels: The Setting Sun and No Longer Human


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