Osamu Dazai Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Osamu Dazai’s longer narratives are easier than his stories for Western readers to approach. In the blending of autobiography and fiction, he resembles Marcel Proust and Thomas Wolfe. The protagonist of most of his fiction is perennially the same character, a loser in society who, nevertheless, wins the sympathy of the reader. As such, he has been compared to Tom Sawyer and Holden Caulfield. He has equal resemblance to a stock character in classical Russian fiction, the useless man. Since Dazai knew the work of Ivan Goncharov, who portrayed this type in the novel Oblomov (1859; English translation, 1915), it would not be farfetched to describe Dazai’s perennial persona as a decadent Oblomov. He is, however, a greater misfit in society, and he never succeeds in solving his problems. In No Longer Human, Dazai describes himself as a man “who dreads human beings,” and in reference to city crowds in “Tokyo Hakkei” (“Eight Views of Tokyo”), he is reminded of the question posed by a Western author, “What is love?” and the answer, “To dream of beautiful things and do dirty ones.” He is placed by critic Phyllis I. Lyons in “the school of irresponsibility and decadence.” All this makes him appeal to youth both in Japan and elsewhere. As a rebel against convention, he highlights the antagonism between rich and poor and the clash between parents and children. In his youth, he had frequently acted the part of a buffoon, and he sometimes portrays this aspect of his personality in his fiction. His tone varies between self-dramatization and self-satire. In two of his works based on plots from William Shakespeare and Friedrich Schiller, however, he radically departs from his ostensible autobiographical mold. Although various episodes in Dazai’s fiction treat human debasement, there is nothing prurient in his descriptions, which are frequently laconic or subtle. Occasionally, he resembles Honoré de Balzac with endless references to crude and minor details of life, debts, expenditures, and financial waste.

“An Almanac of Pain”

In one of his stories, “Kuno no nenkan” (“An Almanac of Pain”), he suggests that he does not have thoughts, only likes and dislikes, and that he wants “to record in fragmentary form just those realities I cannot forget.” Because of writing these personal fragments instead of formal history or philosophy, he describes himself in the same work as “a writer of the marketplace.” In Return to Tsugaru, he remarks that “the gods spare no love for a man who goes burdened under the bad karma of having to sell manuscripts filled with details of his family in order to make a living.” One of his themes is the problems of family life, but he frequently maintains that only individuals count. Edward Seidensticker regards Dazai as “a superb comic writer,” but little of this comic genius is apparent in translation. It consists in caricature of himself as well as others and the portrayal of absurd situations rather than satire. Dazai is perhaps the outstanding example in any literature of solipsistic intertextuality or the constant quotation of previous works from his own pen. In Return to Tsugaru, for example, he quotes frequently and extensively from his own stories as well as from histories and guidebooks by other authors. Indeed, key passages from his early stories reappear over and over in his later works.

Despite the wide variety of style and subject matter in Dazai’s short stories, they may be divided into two main categories, fantasy and autobiography. The latter group belongs to a special Japanese genre, shishsetsu, or personal fiction. In stories about his own physical and psychological development, Dazai adheres closely to historical fact but arranges details to suit his aesthetic purpose. Among his recurring themes are the individual and the family, friendship, the search for identity, class barriers and distinctions, and the ambivalence of personality. “Omoide” (“Recollections”) embodies all these themes in a Proust-like, somewhat lugubrious reminiscence of childhood. Blending the tones of irony and confession, he describes such episodes as sexual initiation and the trading of books for bird eggs and such feelings as loneliness and longing for parental love. A later story, “Gangu” (“Toys”), concerns his return home after a long absence. Here, he uses a narrative artifice of taking the reader into his confidence while assuming that the action takes place at the moment he is speaking or thinking. He goes back to the early stages of infancy and introduces one of his common scatological motifs of making water. His fantasies seem more real than his actual surroundings. In “Anitachi” (“My Older Brothers”), he portrays his histrionic involvement with French satanism and the role of a dandy, which he defines as a handsome, accomplished man loved by more than one woman. This and other narratives of his behavior with women do not measure up to the level of rakishness associated with contemporary France or even with...

(The entire section is 2067 words.)