Osamu Dazai Long Fiction Analysis - Essay

Shūji Tsushima

Osamu Dazai Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Osamu Dazai cannot be understood solely with reference to any single work, or even to the two postwar novels that tend to dominate discussions of his writing. Literary studies of Dazai in the United States have tended to treat his entire career instead of focusing so steadily on the postwar novels and stories. Dazai’s achievement is seen as a kind of mosaic made up of individual works, the rationale of each work being as much in its contribution to the whole as in its worth as a single creation. Except for Masao Miyoshi’s essay “Till Death Do Us Part,” critics have not accorded this type of treatment to the novels The Setting Sun and No Longer Human. Perhaps the novels will come to be seen as important and integral parts of the larger mosaic that is Dazai’s oeuvre.

The Setting Sun

The title The Setting Sun so vividly suggested the decline of the aristocracy in postwar Japan that the term Shayózoku, or “setting sun class,” became a catchword for the phenomenon. It is debatable how much real understanding Dazai had of the highly restrictive circles of the prewar aristocracy. Dazai’s own family was more on the order of nouveau riche and very provincial as well. These qualifications aside, however, in The Setting Sun, Dazai assuredly conveyed his private sense of bleakness.

The novel centers on a family of only three people—a genteel and rather pathetic mother, the outwardly gruff but tenderhearted son Naoji, and the increasingly realistic and tough-minded daughter Kazuko. The mother is depicted in the opening scene of the novel spooning soup into her daughter’s mouth. Shortly thereafter, she is described as loitering behind a shrub in the family garden. A moment later, she coyly announces to her daughter that she has been urinating while she was out of view. Passages such as these point to one of several basic problems in the novel. The author, through his narrator, Kazuko, suggests that the mother embodies natural aristocratic qualities that are inimitable. Possibly the idiosyncratic behavior of the mother is to be taken as a sly sort of satire on the “declining aristocracy” of the book’s title. Much more likely, however, is that the unconventionality of the mother’s conduct represents the genuine aristocracy, possibly recalling Marie Antoinette and her circle at Le petit Trianon in Versailles.

In either event, it is clear that both the son, Naoji, and the daughter, Kazuko, regard their mother as a symbol of certain aristocratic values that are on the wane in the face of an alien process of democratization being imposed upon Japan by the U.S. occupation in the aftermath of the surrender. Having lost their father and most of the family wealth, mother and children must fend for themselves as best they can. In fact, the novel might well be read as a treatise on the various fates lying in wait for the disenfranchised members of the aristocracy.

In poor health even at the beginning of the novel, the mother gradually declines and eventually dies a natural and peaceful death. Given her obvious inability to cope with the practical problems of surviving under the new conditions of postwar Japan—she is depicted as totally dependent upon a character called Uncle WadA&Mdash;her death seems to symbolize the passing of an era. It also signals the need of her two children to come to terms in some way with the new system of values.

Kazuko and her mother are portrayed as personally close to each other. Indeed, a good portion of thenarrative is given over to describing their life together—first, in the old Tokyo house that they were forced to give up and, finally, in the cottage at Izu where they can live simply and frugally. Kazuko cares deeply for her mother and tries to protect her. She fears the possible return of her brother, Naoji, who was listed as missing in action in the South Pacific early in the book. Reckless and, for a time, addicted to drugs, Naoji would almost certainly disrupt the semi-idyllic life that Kazuko would like to have with her mother.


(The entire section is 1677 words.)