Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Osamu Dazai was a leading member of a group of writers called burai-ha, or decadents. He wrote about the underside of urban Japan, his life on the fringes of polite society. Dazai rejected the values of society, devoting himself to drink and other excesses that destroyed his health. His lack of a vision or political philosophy—although he was interested in communism—led to an intense ennui and periodic depression, and he made his first suicide attempt while still a university student. His flamboyant lifestyle and his troubled search for meaning have appealed to several generations of young Japanese in the way that J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) has continued to find a readership among young Americans.

“Eight Views of Tokyo” touches on many of Dazai’s recurring themes, but the central focus of the story is his vocation: how he became a writer, and the place of writing in his life. The theme of the artist finding his vocation has been treated countless times from countless perspectives; even so, Dazai’s version is unusual. For Dazai, quite literally, to keep on living meant to keep on writing. His first stories, he says, were written as a “last will and testament,” and it is true that after finishing them he attempted suicide, but as long as he was writing he was deferring death. Later, having recovered from drug addiction and having made for the first time a commitment to a writer’s career, he says explicitly that he was “writing in order to live”—and so he did, until his fifth (and finally successful) suicide attempt, in 1948.

It is interesting that Dazai provides no explanation for the decision he made, in the mid-1930’s, after several abortive suicide attempts, to go on living; indeed, he makes a point of rejecting “explanations for a man’s turning point. . . . Many times,” he concludes, “a man simply finds himself walking in a different field before he realizes it.”