I breezed through Dazai Osamu’s once immensely popular novel, The Setting Sun (published in 1947 as Shayo). For an insider account of the decline of the aristocracy, I prefer Lampedusa’s The Leopard. I can’t quite understand Donald Keene’s introduction of the novel as “an exact picture of what life is like in Japan today” (p. xviii) before stressing that it is a powerful and beautiful novel, not a sociological document. As a chronicle, it is much thinner than the stories in Self Portraits. Clearly Naoji is a self-portrait: Dazai was well aware of the pain his dissolute lifestyle, particularly his drug addiction and alcoholism caused his own family.
More astonishing is his impression of who the three main characters of the novel are: “We may even obtain the impression that all three main characters—the girl Kazuko [who narrates], her dissolute brother Naoji, and the [debauched] novelist Uehara—represent no more than different aspects of the author” (1971[1964:187). About the first two I agree. I think Uehara had other models, and that the mother is a far more important character than he is. She is the last aristocrat, dying with dignity in reduced circumstances and a kind of internal exile. I wish, as probably Dazai himself did, that Dazai was more like Kazuko, who adapts to her changing world.
I don’t see any suggestion from Dazai that the child Kazuko is carrying at the end of the novel “is likely to live in a better world than the one against which she struggles” (p. 201). Kazuko is a survivor, but I do not see any indication she or the author believe in progress or redemption or even resolution of any of Kazuko’s inner turmoil. She sees her whole family as “victims of a transitional period of morality,” though she is prepared to fight the persisting old morality (“like the sun”, p. 188, i.e., setting sun? an antithesis of the official emblem of Japan as a rising sun). (There are recurrent references to Nietzche in the book, though no confidence of a Super Woman going beyond Good and Evil.)
As for the war, there is another attestation for what many others have ober ed: “I hate talking about the war or listening to other people’s memories” (p. 39).
 In his 1964 essay on Dazai that is reprinted in Landscapes and Portraits, he wrote, “The atmosphere of Tokyo at the time is best suggested by ‘Villon’s Wife,’ though The Setting Sun seemed to its first readers the literary embodiment of the changing society” (pp. 200-1).
©2016, Stephen O. Murray