Both in Japan and abroad, Osamu Dazai is most widely known as the author of two novels, The Setting Sun and No Longer Human, both of which were written shortly after World War II, during the final three years of the author’s life. As a result of these works, Dazai was assuredly the most acclaimed writer in Japan in the years following the war. With the exception of a single short story titled “Biyon no tsuma” (1947; “Villon’s Wife,” 1956), these two novels have had far wider circulation in English translation than any other of the approximately twenty miscellaneous tales and stories by Dazai that have also been rendered into English. Dazai is best known to readers of English as a novelist, and this, in fact, is generally true of the other European languages into which his works have been translated.
In the decades since his death, Dazai has been thoroughly studied by Japanese critics. An enormous number of books have been published, from ponderous tomes on the author’s familiarity with Christianity and Communism to enthralling accounts (mainly by fellow writers) of Dazai’s various struggles with drugs, drinking, women, and publishers. For a number of years in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, a periodical called Dazai Osamu Studies was issued, one indication of the huge outpouring of scholarly and personal articles on this particular author.
Over the years, wild acclaim has been replaced by a sober assessment of Dazai’s achievement. A number of critics regard Dazai as among the greatest Japanese writers of the twentieth century; others, however, express doubts about the permanence of his accomplishment. Much of this disagreement seems to stem from varying interpretations as to what the author was really doing. Some see him as a moralist, others as a very talented raconteur. Most scholars insist that the autobiographical aspects of Dazai’s writings are crucial, while a few try to play down this dimension of Dazai. Of one thing there can be no doubt. Dazai remains widely read in Japan, especially among younger readers. His novels and collections of his stories line the shelves of the bookstores of Tokyo and other cities and towns, along with the works of Yasunari Kawabata, Jun’ichiró Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima, Shúsaku Endó, and other writers who have over the years become better known outside Japan than has Dazai.