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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 776

Dazai Osamu 1909–-1948

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(Born Tsushima Shuji) Japanese short story writer, novelist, and essayist.

Dazai Osamu is considered one of the most important storytellers of postwar Japan. While known primarily as a novelist, Dazai also earned recognition for his numerous short stories, including “Omoide” (“Memories”), “Sarugashima” (“Monkey Island”), and “Ha” (“Leaves”), which were published in Bannen, his first collection of short stories. Like most of his longer fiction, Dazai's short stories are autobiographical and reflect a troubled life marred by alcoholism, drug addiction, and several suicide attempts. Nevertheless, Dazai's fiction showcases his artistic imagination and unique confessional narrative technique.

Biographical Information

Dazai was born the youngest of ten children in Kanagi, a small town in northern Japan, to one of the wealthiest families in the region. While Dazai's later years were turbulent, he grew up a sensitive child in comfortable surroundings. Later in his life, however, his wealthy background led to self-consciousness, contributing to a nagging sense of isolation that is an undercurrent throughout his fiction. Dazai underwent his apprenticeship in writing during the 1920s while attending secondary schools in Aomori and Hirosaki and published many of his early stories in magazines founded and run by aspiring young authors. By the time he attended Hirosaki Higher School, however, Dazai began to live the unconventional lifestyle that brought him much fame. Despite his widely recognized talent, however, alcoholism, drug addiction, affairs with geishas, suicide attempts, and frequent psychological traumas plagued him the rest of his life. In 1930, Dazai enrolled in the Department of French Literature at Tokyo University, but by the end of his first year, he ceased attending classes. Instead, Dazai became involved with left-wing politics, caroused, and renewed his relationship with a geisha he met while attending Hirosaki Higher School. His family disapproved of this relationship, leading to one of Dazai's suicide attempts. He attempted to take his own life on at least three other occasions and finally succeeded in a double suicide with a young war widow in 1948. This episode, among several instances of double suicide in Dazai's fiction, is retold in his widely acclaimed novel, No Longer Human.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Dazai's highly autobiographical fiction first garnered popular and critical attention after the publication of his first collection, Bannen (The Final Years). The first and most significant of these stories is “Omoide”(“Memories”). With its highly personal tone, “Memories” reveals a common narrative technique in Dazai's writing. Revealing his childhood and adolescent traumas, as well as his need for companionship and love, Dazai's first-person narrative attracts the reader's sympathy while raising doubts about the authenticity of the narration because of exaggerated rhetoric. “Gangu” (“Toys”), another tale in Bannen, illustrates Dazai's playfulness. In this tale, the narrator—after briefly relating his financial troubles—details his plans to concoct a tale recounting the memories of an infant. While these and other early pieces exemplify the personal tone of much of Dazai's work, another group of tales shows his talent for imaginative storytelling. Two tales—“Gyofukuki,” translated as “Metamorphosis,” and “Sarugashima,” translated as “Monkey Island”—provide good examples of this. In place of the Dazai-like protagonist present throughout most of his other short fiction, “Metamorphosis” is about a peasant girl who, on the verge of puberty, takes on the appearance and identity of a fish. “Monkey Island” presents two humanoid monkeys as its protagonists. In astonishment, one of the monkeys soon realizes they are the objects of attention, rather than the spectators, of the humans walking through the zoo. In his final years, he composed a series of stories that evince his interest in domestic issues, as titles such as “Villon's Wife,” “Father,” and “Family Happiness”—suggest. As critics have remarked, the stories of these collections are among the few works of artistic value produced by a Japanese author under the strict government censorship during World War II.

Critical Reception

While famous in Japan and avidly read—especially by the younger generation—Dazai has not achieved the international stature of Japanese writers such as Natsume Sseki, Kawabata Yasunari, Mishima Yukio, and End Shusaku. This is partly due to problems with translating Dazai's highly personal style. Yet Dazai has earned himself a position in modern Japanese letters more or less comparable to that of an F. Scott Fitzgerald, as opposed to a William Faulkner, in modern American literature. Donald Keene, Dazai's principal English translator, has described him as a Japanese writer “who emerged at the end of World War II as the literary voice of his time.” While Dazai's body of work is sometimes criticized for its narrow scope, many critics maintain that his fiction contains some of the most beautiful prose in modern Japanese literature.

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