Dazai Osamu Criticism - Essay

James A. O'Brien (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The War Years (1941–1945),” in Japan, edited by Roy E. Teele, Twayne Publishers, 1975, pp. 91–118, 166–69.

[In the following essay, O'Brien discusses Dazai's writings during the war years (1941–1945), focusing on his retelling of both fairy tales and the writings of Ihara Saikakau.]


Although the title of this work is based on Ihara Saikaku's Tales from the Provinces, a collection of thirty-five stories published in 1685, only one of Dazai's twelve tales, “Stubborn in Poverty,” is based on this particular Saikaku collection. The remainder are scattered throughout such other works by Saikaku as The Eternal Storehouse of Japan and Tales of Warriors and Duty.

The stories in A Retelling of the Tales from the Provinces were initially published in various magazines from January to November, 1944. The following January the entire collection was brought out under its present title by the Seikatsusha Publishing Company. In a short preface Dazai claimed that his works were not translations of Saikaku into modern Japanese—something he called a “meaningless exercise.” Nevertheless, the adaptations from Saikaku are closer to the originals than the Collection of Fairy Tales he was to retell shortly. Okuno Tateo has conjectured that Dazai, who calls Saikaku in his preface the “world's greatest writer,” was probably constrained by his great respect for Saikaku.

This relative fidelity on Dazai's part results in a preservation of much of Saikaku's quality. Dazai successfully incorporates the social background and value clashes of the earlier stories, and even manages to capture something of Saikaku's quick wit and deft character typing.


The range of Dazai's selection suggests a wide acquaintance with Saikaku's work. His stated purpose in writing raises the question of why he chose these particular twelve stories out of such a great number—one story, for example, out of a total of thirty-five from Saikaku's Tales from the Provinces. “Stubborn in Poverty,” the one selection from Tales from the Provinces, affords ample material for a comparative study between Dazai and his source. After giving a comparative analysis of these two tales, it will be well to briefly describe each tale, concentrating especially on those features of the narrative that might have prompted Dazai to choose it.

“Stubborn in Poverty,” the first story in Dazai's collection, centers on a New Year's party given for his friends by a poor ronin, or masterless samurai, named Harada Naisuke. His samurai guests, as poor as he, have been invited to celebrate Harada's good fortune in receiving a gift of ten ryo from his brother-in-law, a doctor living near the Kanda Myojin shrine. At first Naisuke's seven guests are downcast. One of them confesses that he has gone so long without sake that he has forgotten how to drink; the others confess that they have forgotten how to get drunk. Nonetheless, once the guests understand that Naisuke has come into a windfall and will not charge them for the sake, they set about drinking with gusto. Once the party has livened up, Naisuke passes around the ten coins he has received. When they come back Naisuke finds one missing, but he is too timid to issue a challenge. After he finally reveals that one coin is missing, everyone, with a single exception, disrobes to prove that he has not stolen the coin. Eventually two coins turn up; the men discover one by the lamp stand, and Harada's wife finds another in the kitchen, stuck to the lid of a bowl from which the guests have been served. Naisuke is furious at this unexpected turn of events—he will not, despite his poverty, accept charity from his friends nor will he be made a fool of. When no one will admit to planting the extra coin, Naisuke works out a scheme whereby the owner may pick up his coin at the front door unseen.

Saikaku's original story, entitled “A New Year's Reckoning That Didn't Figure,” is less elaborate than Dazai's retelling. Harada's brother-in-law, a doctor, sends a witty prescription in hopes of curing a case of poverty. Finding himself the recipient of ten ryo, a “marvelous medicine” for curing countless ills, Harada invites seven of his samurai cronies to celebrate the windfall. After they arrive Harada passes the coins around, and finds one missing when they are returned to him. Two of the guests remove their sashes to show they have no money, but a third balks at putting himself to the test. Having just sold some goods he happens to have one ryo and some change on his person. He is on the verge of disemboweling himself when the missing coin is suddenly discovered in the shadow of the lamp stand. The appearance of the wife announcing the discovery of a second coin and Harada's stratagem for allowing the anonymous donor to get his ryo back without revealing his identity are basically the same in Saikaku's original as in Dazai's retelling.

Saikaku spins his yarn with characteristic brevity. He gives only an occasional glimpse of the characters he is portraying. The four or five opening lines of the tale suffice to tell the reader the basic facts of Harada Naisuke's existence: his lack of the necessities of life, his disheveled appearance, his threatening look as he makes an appeal to a rice-shop clerk. Harada the ronin has had to borrow a sword from the clerk, and he asks why he cannot keep it past the New Year into spring.

Saikaku packs his narrative tightly with brief details and shifts the focus of his tale from Harada to the brother-in-law to the seven friends and back to Harada with his customary speed and dexterity. Dazai, by contrast, is more concerned than Saikaku that the reader develop a definite conception of Naisuke. Dazai takes the poverty of Saikaku's Harada as an invitation to portray situations and responses recalling aspects of his own life. Describing the gift by the brother-in-law, he borrows Saikaku's witty pun, but—no doubt mindful of his own benefactors—he adds a touch of hauteur to the relatively benign figure of the brother-in-law in Saikaku. With Harada feigning insanity at the approach of New Year's Eve with its obligation to pay off all debts, his wife appeals to her doctor brother. The doctor's prescription, a “dose” of money, seems in the Dazai version a rather poor joke. Dazai implies that penurious souls like Harada (and himself) can readily be made fools of by their affluent relatives.

Harada, though, is not simply portrayed as the victim of his poverty. Departing radically from his source story, Dazai describes Harada refusing at first to accept charity. And, once he does accept, Harada feels an obligation to share his bounty with friends. No doubt Saikaku's Harada Naisuke is moved by similar feelings. Dazai, however, takes pains to make this feeling of obligation very explicit in his narrative.

Saikaku, after briefly describing Harada's character, sets the plot moving and proceeds to the end without any delaying commentary. Dazai, on the contrary, is constantly tampering with Harada. As usual, Dazai is interested in the tale for its moral. Harada stands forth as the victim required by circumstances to accept charity, and as the plucky underdog who, within the limits possible to him, insists on his honor and dignity.

Despite the serious note, “Stubborn in Poverty” is very much a comic story. To read it in conjunction with Saikaku's tale provides insights into certain of Dazai's comic techniques. The economy of Saikaku's narrative style afforded Dazai a number of opportunities to rewrite or expand the original. In several instances Dazai, more conscious than Saikaku of the possibilities and demands of realism, creates in his characters a range of response wider than did Saikaku. Once the extra coin is discovered, the guests in Dazai's version bring forth the very plausible suggestion that Harada's brother-in-law might have added the extra coin just for fun. In Saikaku, on the other hand, the guests are silent on this question.

Again Dazai spells out meanings that are only implicit in the Saikaku narrative. In Saikaku, once it becomes clear that the owner of the extra coin will not reveal himself, Harada simply says that he will place a measuring box with the coin inside on the garden wash basin. The guests are to leave one by one; thus, the owner of the coin will be able to pick it up in private.

In his closing scene, Dazai is very explicit about making it difficult for the other six guests to gather any hints in leaving as to who the owner of the coin might be. Dazai's Harada says: “If we put the coin at the edge of the step in the darkest place, no one will be able to see whether or not it's there. The owner of the coin alone is to feel around with his hand, then go out as if nothing were amiss.”

The interesting aspect of this is not the idle question of which version is more effective or foolproof. Rather, the reader should simply be aware of the double irony involved in Dazai's reordering of Saikaku. For Saikaku himself had taken similar liberties as an author, writing parodies of earlier Japanese literature with such titles as Nise Monogatari and The “Gay” Tale of the Heike. Saikaku even tampered with the best of classical Japanese fiction. The fifty-four chapters of The Man Who Spent His Life in Love parallel the fifty-four chapters of The Tale of Genji; the multiple sordid adventures of Saikaku's hero Yonosuke parody the Genji tradition of high romance.

Dazai's intentions, then, in writing “Stubborn in Poverty” involve certain aspects of his own life and the possibilities he saw in the Saikaku original for the application of comic techniques of style. That he wrote about the ronin so soon after describing Minamoto Sanetomo in his historical novel, Sanetomo, Minister of the Right, reveals Dazai's continued interest in the relation of the samurai ethic to life.

Dazai could also have been drawn to the original tale by the ambiguity inherent in Saikaku's narrative method. Readers of the several excellent English translations of Saikaku's koshokubon, or erotic works, will realize the difficulty of determining the author's attitude toward events and characters he describes. In Five Women Who Loved Love, for example, Saikaku's characters often fall in love in ways that violate social law and custom only to meet “justice” ultimately on the execution ground. In these cases, Saikaku appears to sanction the harsh penalties of the Tokugawa code; at the same time, he describes the illicit love affair with such gusto that no reader can believe he is absolutely condemning his lovers.

A similar ambiguity exists in Saikaku's “New Year's Reckoning That Didn't Figure.” The subject of Saikaku's work is listed as giri, or obligation. But the reader, having finished the tale, is less than certain of Saikaku's feelings. “In the quick wit of the host, the behavior of his familiar guests, indeed in many ways the relations among the samurai are different [i.e., from those of the townsmen],” Saikaku declares, ending his tale. But, as so often happens in Saikaku, the final moral comment can hardly obliterate the import of the narrative. One feels with Saikaku that the samurai are rather foolish in their insistence on dignity. Why should the mere sum of one ryo create such havoc? Why should a man under suspicion by his friends for a petty crime ready his sword to take his life? Surely the merchants and townsmen who read Saikaku found such behavior strange.

Shortly before he began his Retelling of the Tales from the Provinces, Dazai had expressed his admiration for the samurai virtues in Sanetomo Minister of the Right. In “Stubborn in Poverty” he examines the lives of ronin at the very bottom of the samurai class. If the shogun Sanetomo represents an ideal, the ronin in “Stubborn in Poverty” perhaps represent what is amiss with the ethic of the warrior. Or, rather, they represent attitudes and behavior of noble samurai diminished (perhaps to the point of absurdity) by the poverty in which these men now find themselves. As usual, the reader of Dazai finds it difficult to pin down his elusive, ironic author. Surely Dazai saw something noble in the samurai virtues; perhaps he felt that these were the sole virtues that could survive the war. Regardless of whether he looked foolish or pompous, a man ought to cling to such a heritage.


The second tale, a thin piece entitled “Great Strength” and taken from Saikaku's Twenty-four Instances of Unfilial Conduct in Our Country, details the feats of a sumo wrestler, Saibei. An uncouth youth given to beating up other people, Saibei is urged by his father to try his hand at other sports, football, for example, or even flower arrangement. His mother, hoping to plant in him the seeds of compassion, persuades him to take a bride. Unfortunately, as Saibei reveals to his wife on their wedding night, he has taken a vow to the god Marishiten never to touch a woman. The story ends abruptly when Waniguchi, Saibei's old wrestling tutor, defeats his ex-pupil in a wrestling match by a clever stratagem. Dazai was prompted to retell the story, one might imagine, to capitalize on the opportunities for wit and humor it afforded at a number of points.


The third tale, “The Monkey's Grave,” is drawn from The Inkstone of Nostalgia and is clearly Dazai's kind of story. As in the case of “Great Strength,” Dazai was doubtless intrigued by the comic potential of “The Monkey's Grave.” Jiroemon dispatches a friend to talk to the father of his beloved Oran about arranging a marriage. The father is anxious that Oran, brought up in the Nichiren Buddhist sect, marry a fellow believer, and he immediately traps the hapless go-between into admitting ignorance of Jiroemon's religion. Then, to make matters worse, the go-between blurts out that this makes no difference; Jiroemon, regardless of his present beliefs, can always convert to Nichiren. Condemning this opportunism, Oran's father reveals that he has already betrothed her to another, a firm Nichiren believer.

Oran and Jiroemon, taking matters into their own hands, decide to elope. At this point in the story enters Dazai's favorite animal, a monkey.

This monkey, named Kichibei, was so attached to Oran it hobbled off in pursuit the night she ran away with a strange man. When Jiroemon and Oran had covered about three miles, the girl noticed her pet. Though she scolded and pelted him with stones, the monkey limped along after her. Finally, Jiroemon took pity. “He's followed you this far. Let him join us.”

“Here boy,” Oran beckoned and the monkey came bounding. As she hugged him the monkey looked mournfully at his two companions and blinked his eyes.

After Oran and Jiroemon settle in a humble cottage, Kichibei helps about the house. With the birth of a son, Kikunosuke, the monkey becomes a baby-sitter.

The story comes to a tragic end, though, just as Oran and Jiroemon are laying plans to return to society to give Kikunosuke the advantages of a respectable upbringing. They leave Kichibei to tend the baby while they go off to discuss a business deal with a neighboring farmer.

In a little while Kichibei recalled it was time for the infant's bath. So he lit a fire under the stove to boil some water—precisely, he recalled, as Oran always did.

When bubbles started to rise Kichibei poured the steaming water into a basin to the very rim. Without bothering to test the water he stripped the child naked, lifted him, and—peering into his face in imitation of Oran—gently dipped the child two or three times in the basin.

“Waa!” The parents, hearing the shrill cry of the scalded baby, glanced at each other and came running back to the house. The stunned Kichibei stood transfixed as the baby floated about the basin. Oran, lifting the corpse, could scarcely bear the sight of this “broiled lobster.”

The hysterical Oran tries to kill Kichibei, but Jiroemon intervenes to save the monkey.

One hundred days after the infant's death, Kichibei, standing on the new grave, takes his own life in atonement. Oran and Jiroemon bury him sadly; they have forgiven him the crime he committed in his animal innocence and have come to realize that, after the baby's death, Kichibei is the only thing they have.

Kichibei, then, is one of a considerable group of symbolic monkeys in Dazai's works. Kichibei represents a Dazai ideal: unselfish service to the interest of another. At the same time, his innocence causes him to blunder in such a way that his ideals, like the author's, bring destruction and sorrow.


The following tale, taken from Saikaku's A Record of Traditions of the Warrior's Way, is entitled “Mermaid Sea.” Like Sanetomo, Minister of the Right, “Mermaid Sea” is an expression of certain samurai virtues.

A boat encounters a freak storm on the ocean. Everyone aboard gradually loses consciousness, with the exception of the virtuous samurai Chudo Konnai. When a mermaid appears in the waves, he shoots her with an arrow. She sinks, the storm subsides, and Chudo's companions regain consciousness.

When a report of this feat is made to the regional lord, one of the samurai in attendance expresses disbelief. Aozaki, the samurai in question, is described by Dazai as a good-for-nothing who holds a high official position only by virtue of the exploits of his father. But so forcefully does Aozaki express his contempt toward wondrous events that the other samurai present at the occasion become utterly bewildered. Chudo, in true samurai fashion, will not rest with his word called into question. He organizes a search of the area of the sea where the slaying occurred. Yet, when a thorough search uncovers no evidence of his feat, he begins himself to doubt the event.

At this point, the narrative switches to Chudo's house, where his daughter and her attendant are growing restless and concerned over his safety. Finally, they set out in search, only to find his corpse on the beach wrapped in seaweed. A samurai follower of Chudo's arrives on horseback. He dismisses the entire question of the truth or falsity of Chudo's account and charges the daughter to avenge her father by killing Aozaki. The latter is guilty of slandering and sending him to his death. The daughter kills Aozaki and marries a young samuari, who takes the name Chudo in order to carry on the dead man's family name. Finally, for good measure, the skeleton of a mermaid, with Chudo's arrowhead embedded in the shoulder blade, is washed ashore.


In paying deference to Saikaku in his preface to A Retelling of the Tales from the Provinces, Dazai added the caveat that, for him, Saikaku's series of erotic stories were not to his taste. But, of course, this was Saikaku's métier, and most Japanese readers today, as well as Westerners who have read him in translation, associate Saikaku with this series of works.

The next two stories, “Bankruptcy” and “Naked in the River,” deal with another important concern of Saikaku—money. “Bankruptcy” comes from the collection treating the crafty practices of the Osaka merchant, The Eternal Storehouse of Japan. “River of the Naked,” along with the next tale, “Obligation,” is taken from Tales of the Knightly Code of Honor.

“Bankruptcy” slyly narrates the downfall of the prosperous house of Yorozuya. The owner of the family business is a self-made man of nearly fanatical thrift. Fearing for the future of the business, he disinherits his effeminate son and adopts in his stead a young man whose thrifty habits appear to guarantee continued prosperity for the house. With admirable foresight the adopted son recommends that a jealous woman be found for him to marry. The hard opposition of a shrew will protect him from the temptation so common among the merchants of Tokugawa Japan of squandering the family fortune in the pleasure quarter.

Unfortunately the wife proves to be such a killjoy that her husband is soon looking for relief. When his foster parents die, he leaves for Kyoto and squanders his fortune in a year. Returning home he sets to work rebuilding the family business in hopes of returning to Kyoto for another round of fun. Concealing his actual penury, he operates a thriving brokerage simply on the appearance of wealth. Before he can recoup his fortune, an accident upsets his well-laid plans. One New Year's Eve, the night for clearing all debts, a poor ronin enters his office demanding change to pay off a trifling debt. The broker does not have the money to make the transaction, and so small is the amount that he cannot plead that he is short of ready cash. The poor ronin's cry of surprise informs the neighbors that the apparently prosperous business is in fact bankrupt.


The opening scene of “River of the Naked” shows an official of the Kamakura Bakufu named Aotosaemon transporting government funds across a river. Opening the money pouch, he accidentally drops eleven coins into the river. Although the loss represents a small sum, Aotosaemon hires at considerable expense to himself a group of peasants who search the river for the missing coins.

One of the searchers, a scoundrel named Asada, has hired on simply to share in the reward. Bored with the search and aware that the subsidy from Aotosaemon greatly exceeds the value of the lost coins, Asada decides to conclude matters by pretending to find the coins. Deceiving his companions, he pretends to probe the river bottom with his foot as he surreptitiously slips the requisite coins from his own sash.

While the peasants celebrate the find with a banquet, Aotosaemon returns home and happily reports to his family the details of the incident. Suddenly he is taken aback by a remark of his daughter. She reminds him that he was carrying two coins fewer than usual, and thus his original calculation that eleven coins had fallen into the river must be revised.

Enraged, Aotosaemon returns to the river and compels Asada to search alone for the money, insisting that he stay in the river until every missing coin is recovered. Asada emerges on the ninety-seventh day, having turned up, in addition to the coins, numerous articles people have lost or discarded in the river over the years. His task finished, Asada unabashedly demands from Aotosaemon the eleven “counterfeit” coins.


In his next selection from Saikaku, [“Obligation”], Dazai again portrays a man willing to carry out unhesitatingly an action imposed on him by the dictates of a feudal society. In this instance Dazai's protagonist is a samurai compelled by obligation to sacrifice his innocent son.

The villains and heroes are clearly marked in this work. Muramaro, the son of an important...

(The entire section is 9777 words.)

Makoto Ueda (essay date 1976)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dazai Osamu,” in Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature, Stanford University Press, 1976, pp. 145–72.

[In the following essay, Ueda maintains that Dazai, while saying little about his own works, used the autobiographical tone of his stories and novels to present his thoughts and ideas on the novel and the role and responsibilities of the writer and artist.]

It may at first seem strange that Dazai Osamu (1909–48), noted for his garrulity, said little about literature or about his own works in his essays and letters. One should recall, however, that he was basically a very shy person who could not bear talking much about himself in an open...

(The entire section is 11111 words.)

Phyllis I. Lyons (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Fatal Success,” in The Saga of Dazai Osamu: A Critical Study with Translations, Stanford University Press, 1985, pp. 149–77.

[In the following essay, Lyons explores parallels between Dazai's work and life.]

I returned to Tokyo [from Tsugaru] feeling something akin to confidence in the pure Tsugaru character that flowed in my blood. In other words, it was rejuvenating to discover that in Tsugaru there was no such thing as “culture,” and accordingly, I, a Tsugaru man, was not in the slightest a “man of culture.” My work after that seemed to change somewhat. … I thought to myself that even if I died at that point, I could be...

(The entire section is 14865 words.)

James M. Vardaman, Jr. (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dazai Osamu's ‘Run, Moerus!’ and Friedrich Schiller's ‘Die Burgschaft,’” in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 24, No. 3, 1987, pp. 243–50.

[In the following essay, Vardaman compares Dazai's short story “Run, Melos!” with Friedrich Schiller's ballad “Die Bürgschaft.”]

Dazai Osamu (1909–48) is perhaps best known for his novels Shayō (The Setting Sun) and Ningen Shikaku (No Longer Human). As a result, he is usually viewed as a writer of gloom and decadence. However, there is a lighter, more optimistic side of Dazai which is visible in lesser-known works such as Otogi Zōshi (A Collection of Fairy...

(The entire section is 2903 words.)

Frank Tuohy (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “At the Edge of Existence,” in The Times Literary Supplement, November 16, 1990, p. 1233.

[In the following essay, Tuohy praises Dazai's earlier works but looks less favorably upon the collection Crackling Mountain and Other Stories.]

Osamu Dazai was one of the most prominent Japanese novelists to be introduced to Western readers in the post-war period. His career had culminated in 1948: an obsession with suicide, not rare among his compatriots, had ended in a love-pact with one of his mistresses, according to the traditional pattern: pairs of shoes placed together, the bodies tied with a red cord.

Dazai's best-known novels, The Setting...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

Alan Wolfe (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dying Twice: Allegories of Impossibility,” in Suicidal Narrative in Modern Japan: The Case of Dazai Osamu, Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 121–43, 237–39.

[In the following essay, Wolfe examines suicidal narratives, focusing on Dazai's “Metamorphosis” and “Reminiscences.”]

Allegories are always allegories of metaphor and,
as such, they are always allegories of the
impossibility of reading.

—Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading

[W]hen the imagination of death fails you on some
primary level, its commonplace or stereotypical
representations need to be repeated, worked through,
and exhausted by a...

(The entire section is 11819 words.)

Sanroku Yoshida (review date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Japan,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 3, Summer, 1990, p. 530.

[In the following review, Yoshida praises the faithful translation of Crackling Mountain and Other Stories, which includes ten of Dazai's eleven major representative works written before 1945.]

One of the misconceptions about Osamu Dazai (1909–48) is that he is a postwar writer. This probably resulted from his sudden visibility in the early postwar period, notably through his tremendously successful novel Shayō (1947; Eng. The Setting Sun, 1956). Most of his fifteen-year literary career, however, spanned the prewar and war period. The bulk of his writing in...

(The entire section is 564 words.)