Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Osamu Dazai’s international fame is based largely on a short novel, Shay (1947; The Setting Sun, 1956). Translations also exist of a defensive fictional autobiography, Ningen shikkaku (1948; No Longer Human, 1958), and an equally personal travelogue, Tsugaru (1944; English translation, 1985; also as Return to Tsugaru: Travels of a Purple Tramp, 1985). Dazai published two plays as well as a number of essays, and like all Japanese authors, he experimented with the haiku. His total literary output is, with regard to genre, almost as versatile as it is prolific.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

During his life, Osamu Dazai was much more of a cult figure than an institutional model, and for this reason he did not receive the major awards available in his milieu. After his death, however, he was accorded widespread homage. A literary journal has instituted an annual Osamu Dazai prize, televised memorial services at Dazai’s graveside take place annually, and at least three memorial sites have been established throughout Japan.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Like many other modern Japanese prose writers, Osamu Dazai (dah-zi) worked in a variety of modes and forms, many of which do not correspond readily to the terminology of modern Western criticism. Although known in the West and indeed in Japan primarily as a novelist, Dazai wrote only two books that might be called novels even in a loose sense. He wrote a number of memoir-type works that describe certain stretches of his life but that also incorporate additional commentary in a manner that casts doubt on the autobiographical authenticity of the account. Some of these works, Omoide (1934; memories) and Tókyó hakkei (1941; eight views of Tokyo), for example, are fairly lengthy accounts; others, such as “Mangan” (wr. 1938; the vow), and “Kinshu no kokoro” (wr. 1943; what it’s like to abstain), are, on the other hand, brief and essentially anecdotal in nature.

In addition to his own experiences, a main source of material for Dazai resides in works of literature and history. Two of his best collections of tales are based on sources in classical Japanese literature. Otogi zóshi (1945)—the title refers to a group of miscellaneous stories from medieval times—involves a retelling of four tales, with extensive interpolations and commentary that mark the works as unmistakably by Dazai; Shinshaku shokoku banashi (1945) gave Dazai the opportunity to retell twelve tales by the popular sixteenth century novelist and poet Ihara Saikaku. Dazai also used a number of Western sources as inspiration for his writing. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1602) provided the plot for a dramatic farce, Shin Hamuretto, and Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Die Burgschaft” was retold as an adventuresome moral fable. Dazai even dissected and rewrote an obscure work by the German playwright Herbert Eulenberg. Most important, Dazai familiarized himself with the New Testament and made constant reference to favorite passages. In one case, he constructed a dramatic monologue in which Judas, after the Crucifixion, reveals a very worldly view of Christ. Titled Kakekomi uttae (1940; heed my plea), Dazai’s work would probably have appealed to the D. H. Lawrence of The Man Who Died (1929).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Cohn, Joel R. Studies in the Comic Spirit in Modern Japanese Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Examines humor in the works of Dazai, Masuji Ibuse, and Hisashi Inoue. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Keene, Donald. Landscapes and Portraits: Appreciations of Japanese Culture. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1971. Of particular relevance is the section on Osamu Dazai in chapter 4, “Three Modern Novelists,” which focuses on the difference between Western and Japanese responses to Dazai’s fiction, the strongly autobiographical elements in his works, and the style and major themes of his narrative. Supplemented by illustrations and a short reading list.

Kirkup, James. “Now Out of Japan Something New.” The Times, December 13, 1990. A brief biographical sketch, followed by comments on Dazai’s short stories and autobiographical essays; focuses on Dazai’s collection Crackling Mountains; discusses Dazai’s variations on the title story, one of the best-known folktales in Japan.

Motofùji, Frank T. “Dazai Osamu.” In Approaches to the Modern Japanese Short Story, edited by Thomas E. Swann and Kinya Tsuruta. Totsuka: Waseda University Press, 1982. Provides analyses of two short stories, “Villon’s Wife” and “A Sound of Hammering,” written in 1947, one year before the author’s suicide. The...

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