The Saga of Dazai Osamu

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

In her study of Dazai Osamu, Phyllis Lyons observes the Japanese practice with regard to names, the surname preceding the given name. For consistency’s sake, that style will be followed here.

Dazai Osamu is best known in the West as the author of two novels, Shay (1947; The Setting Sun, 1956) and Ningen shikkaku (1948; No Longer Human, 1958), and the short story “Viyon no tsuma” (“Villon’s Wife”), which was included in Donald Keene’s pioneering and widely read anthology Modern Japanese literature (1956). In contrast to such near contemporaries as Tanizaki Jun’ichir, Kawabata Yasunari, and Mishima Yukio, however, Dazai is not a familiar figure to Western readers.

In Japan, the situation is quite different. “To the Japanese,” Lyons writes, “Dazai Osamu is not just one of the most famous of all modern writers; he is a star,” the subject of intense scholarly study and, at the same time, the kind of lurid journalistic speculation that still attends the life and death of an Elvis Presley or a James Dean:Annually on the anniversary of his death, television crews go out to film the memorial services at his graveside as a human-interest feature for the evening news; they are still well attended, though it is over thirty years since he killed himself.

More important, several editions of Dazai’s complete works have been published since his death in 1948, and his books are still widely read in Japan.

There has been one previous book-length study of Dazai in English: James O’Brien’s Dazai Osamu (1975), a volume in the Twayne series; among other sources, notable are the chapters on Dazai in Masao Miyoshi’s Accomplices of Silence: The Modern Japanese Novel (1974), Makoto Ueda’s Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature (1976), and Donald Keene’s Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era (1984). Lyons’ study, however, provides by far the fullest account of Dazai’s life and literary career available in English.

The Saga of Dazai Osamu is divided into three sections. The long first section, “Dazai’s Life and the Osamu Saga,” is a critical biography. The remainder of the book offers a sampling of Dazai’s works: The second section, “Osamu Stories,” comprises five short stories, while the third section, Tsugaru, presents in its entirety a book-length account of a journey which Dazai made to his home region after a long absence.

Although Lyons’ professional field is Japanese language and literature, the emphasis in her study is primarily psychological and, to a lesser extent, sociological rather than literary. Explaining that “this is not a conventional ’life and works,’” she acknowledges that she “goes into Dazai’s philosophy of literature (such as it is) largely as that has bearing on the progressive telling of the tale of [his] life.” She adds, however, that since she hopes “to draw readers into a more intimate relationship with Dazai, they will find themselves guided through a number of the major stories.” At the same time, Lyons is much concerned with what she regards as the distinctively Japanese quality of Dazai’s writings; it is her intention to present his fiction in its cultural as well as its psychological context, showing “how Dazai, while a man like all other men of whatever society or culture, is at the same time specifically and revealingly Japanese.”

To a certain extent, Lyons’ approach was dictated by her subject, for Dazai’s life and writings were intertwined to a degree rare even in the twentieth century. Much of Dazai’s work is in the genre known in Japan as the shishsetsu, or “I-novel.” In this genre, which has affinities with the so-called confessional poetry of Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Sylvia Plath, the “I” of the story or novel is indistinguishable (or nearly so) from the author. A number of critics regard Dazai as having taken the I-novel to its limits; in their view (largely shared by Lyons), Dazai’s suicide was the logical—indeed, inevitable—culmination of his career: Having written exhaustively about his own life, he finally used up his material and had nothing left to do but die.

While such interpretations are open to debate (as Lyons herself demonstrates, in her finest pages of analysis, the relationship between truth and fiction, author and narrator in Dazai’s works is much more complex than might first appear to be the case), the basic facts of Dazai’s life have been well-documented, and...

(The entire section is 1892 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Choice. XXIII, September, 1985, p. 125.

World Literature Today. LIX, Autumn, 1985, p. 658.