Wednesday 16 January 2013

J-Lit Giants: 5 - Osamu Dazai

Today's J-Lit Giants offering is another guest post, this time from Patrick.  Patrick is not a blogger, but he is on twitter (@ResearcherNo1), and he is a big J-Lit fan.  In his own words:
"I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but now live in Seoul.  I'm currently a salaryman and have a degree in philosophy.  My interests include: books, movies, music, food (cooking and eating), baseball (watching, not playing), and travel."
Now that you've met Patrick, let's find out more about his chosen J-Lit Giant :)

Suicide, rebellion, addiction, genius and Dazai 

Osamu Dazai once wrote a short story entitled “A Handsome Devil with a Cigarette.” I had always thought it was a great title for a film. I like Dazai a lot.”  Film-maker Wong Kar-Wai
Osamu Dazai, the pen name of Shuji Tsushima, is one of the most famous 20th century authors in Japan. With an eponymous literary prize and his stories still being made into movies and manga, Dazai’s work continues to remain popular. However, outside Japan he is not as well-known as other Japanese authors. 

Born into a large and wealthy family in 1909, Dazai’s interest in writing started early. However, before even turning twenty, he had discovered women and drugs, and attempted suicide for the first time. After moving to Tokyo and entering university, he continued to be drawn to women and drugs and was arrested on more than one occasion.  And so began a cycle of Dazai getting into trouble, his family bailing him out and subsequently disowning him. This continued throughout his life, with friends eventually replacing his family. During his career as a writer, he ran away with numerous women, became addicted to drugs and alcohol, was committed to an insane asylum and attempted suicide numerous times. This of course is a short and crude, but accurate, description of a far more complex life, a life written about with far more skill by Dazai himself in many stories, including "Eight Scenes from Tokyo".  He continued to write through World War II and survived the many bombings, only to succeed in committing suicide in 1948 at the age of 38.

A master storyteller, Dazai’s body of work is diverse, though he is best known for his semi-autobiographical fiction.  For these stories, he borrowed liberally from the details of his life.  This, along with his use of the first person narrative, blurred the line between author and characters to create a style similar to what we see in some of the works of John Fante and Charles Bukowski.  Especially in Japan, Dazai is also well known for his modern retellings of classics and folk tales.  Not satisfied with merely updating these stories, he departs significantly from the originals to create something unexpected and wildly inventive.

Dazai’s themes of hopelessness, alienation and nihilism captured the feelings of many in post-war Japan, while his rebellion against the establishment has always endeared him to younger readers. For me though, it is his sense of humor and the humanity in his characters (for better and worse) that continue to draw my interest.

Despite his life being cut short, Dazai left us a significant number of short stories as well as novels and essays. While his exact place in modern Japanese literature is still debated, his importance is undeniable. Osamu Dazai is a complex individual, and there is much to discover and enjoy in his writing. Having read almost everything of Dazai’s writing translated into English, I can definitely say that I agree with Wong Kar-Wai. I like Dazai a lot. In fact, he has become one of my favorites.

Though Dazai is usually known for his pessimistic semi-autobiographical fiction, his work is actually quite diverse, which I’ve tried to reflect in my recommendations. 

No Longer Human – Quintessential Dazai at his nihilistic best and considered by many his masterpiece. It is one of the all-time best-selling novels in Japan, along with Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro and Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. 

Self Portraits – A short story collection of his autobiographical fiction spanning the years 1933 – 1948. This work includes his first story using the name Osamu Dazai, “Train,” the previously noted “Eight Scenes from Tokyo” and “Handsome Devils and Cigarettes,” as mentioned by Wong Kar-Wai. 

Blue Bamboo – A collection of seven stories including Dazai’s modernized retellings of classics and folk tales. For these he draws from a wide range of material, including Japanese and Chinese classics and even Hans Christian Anderson. A departure from his autobiographical fiction, this book offers another facet of Dazai the author and showcases his talent as a master storyteller. 

* If anyone is interested, contact the author ( for an almost complete list of Dazai’s short stories translated into English (around 100). 

Thanks to Patrick for his views on Dazai, a writer I want to try more of.  The only one I've read so far is The Setting Sun, a great novel which didn't even make Patrick's top three!

As always, now it is over to you!  Have you read anything by this writer?  What would you recommend as a first Dazai book?  Please leave a comment if you want to give us the benefit of your experience :)