Osamu Dazai

Osamu Dazai was a Japanese writer(1909-1948). He was Influenced by communist ideology as a young man, he became involved in illegal activities. After attempting suicide, he began writing in earnest. His representative works include “Run, Melos!,” “Setting Sun,” and “No Longer Human”. Before the World War II, he also developed theories on novels and movies. As we will see below, Dazai’s mentor throughout his life was that famous literary figure.

Life of Osamu Dazai

 Osamu Dazai (太宰 治:だざい おさむ) was born in Aomori Prefecture, the sixth son of a landowning family. His real name was Shuji Tsushima(津島修治). By the time he was studying at Aomori Junior High School, Dazai was strongly attracted to literature, and was particularly influenced by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. He went on to Hirosaki High School. At this time, the socialist movement was gaining momentum in Japan. Dazai was also influenced by socialist thought and literature. In socialism, factory owners and landowners were often viewed as enemies. Dazai began to agonize over the fact that he himself came from a family of landowners.

 Encounter with Masuji Ibuse

 In 1930, Dazai moved to Tokyo and entered the French Literature Department of Tokyo Imperial University. He studied under Masuji Ibuse, who had deeply influenced him since junior high school. His close relationship with Ibuse would continue throughout his own life.

 Dazai later wrote about his encounter with Masuji Ibuse’s works. When Dazai’s brother returned home from Tokyo, he brought back about 30 copies of a coterie magazine. Ibuse Masuji’s “Sanshouo” was included in one of them. Dazai happened to find and read Ibuse’s work. Dazai was “so excited that he could not sit still” and thought it was “the work of a genius”. After that, he felt joy whenever he read Ibuse’s works.

 When Dazai read Ibuse’s short stories “Yofuke to Ume no Hana (Night Fever and Plum Blossoms),” he was impressed as follows. “I still remember it clearly. I was so deeply moved by the collection of short stories that I took it with me and went out to the swampy banks of the fields in my hometown. I wandered around with a nod and recounted all the works in the book, one by one, starting from the beginning. Then, as if by a revelation, I was convinced, as if by a physical sensation, that it was assured” (”Postscript to Selected Works of Masuji Ibuse”). So he felt satisfied.

 Dazai became involved in an illegal leftist movement. When this was exposed to his family, he was expelled from the Dazai family. Dazai attempted suicide on Enoshima Island with a waitress from a bar, but only the waitress died.

 Later, Dazai began living together with a geiko, Koyama Hatsuyo. He was still involved in illegal activities. In 1932, however, he surrendered himself to the police station and subsequently withdrew from illegal activities. He began to visit Ibuse frequently. He sometimes worked with him on their own writings.

 Success as a Novelist

 Around this time, Dazai began to publish his works such as “Memories” in the coterie magazine “Kaihyo”. In 1935, he failed the employment examination for the Miyako Newspaper Company and attempted suicide in Kamakura. He survived. However, during treatment for another illness, he overused painkillers and became addicted. He received support from Ibuse for treatment of his addiction.

 In the same year, Dazai’s “Losing Ground”(逆行)was nominated for the first Akutagawa Award. This was a newly established literary award in memory of Ryunosuke Akutagawa. However, Dazai was not selected. Dazai had really wanted to win the Akutagawa Award, but he was unable to do so.

 He published “The Flowers of Buffoonery” (道化の華) , , gradually building up his literary reputation as a writer. Around this time, he divorced his first wife. In 1939, with Ibuse’s mediation, he married Michiko Ishihara. In 1940, he published “Run, Meros!” (走れメロス). This work has been included in Japanese language textbooks of Japanese schools and is familiar to Japanese people.

 In 1941, Dazai also produced adaptations of classics, such as “New Hamlet” inspired by Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and “Fairy Tales” .

 In creating “New Hamlet,” Dazai naturally read Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in Japanese translation, referring to the original text as well. In “New Hamlet,” Dazai wrote about Shakespeare and Hamlet as follows. “When I read Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” I naturally feel the genius of his skill. The fire pillars of passion are thick. The footsteps of the characters are strong. I was impressed. I thought it was quite something”. In contrast, Dazai himself described his “New Hamlet” as “nothing more than a faint chamber music”.

In his “New Hamlet,” Dazai attempted two things. One was to create a new type of Hamlet. The other was to depict modern evil through Claudius. According to Dazai, Claudius in his work is very different from the typical evil of the past. At first glance, he even appears to be a weak-minded good guy. In reality, however, he murdered his predecessor king and succeeded in his sordid love affair. Moreover, he has started a war to cover his embarrassment. Such are the evil people who have tormented us today.

 In “Fairy Tales”(御伽草子), Dazai dealed with traditional Japanese folktales, such as “Urashima Taro,” and “Kachikachi mountain.” The preface of the story reflected the wartime situation. In other words, an air raid warning was issued and the family went into an air-raid shelter. When the danger seemed to have passed, “a five-year-old girl begins to insist that they get out of the shelter. The only way to appease her is with picture books”. So the father reads to her Urashima and other fairy tales. Then Dazai starts his stories.

 On the Novel and the Movie

 In 1942, in the midst of the Second World War, Dazai disclosed his theory of the novel in a letter-style novel titled “Kaze no Tayori”(風の便り). According to Dazai, “You should abandon the vague ornamental notion of ‘artistic’ . Living is not art. Nature is not art. In the extreme, the novel is not art either”. Nevertheless, there are novelists who regard the novel as a kind of art. Because of this, today’s novels have become corrupted.
 The most important thing in writing a novel is that your novel accurately represents your impressions. Nothing else. It is not expressing artistry. What does it mean? Specifically, “When a windmill looks like a devil, do not hesitate to describe it as a devil”. Or, “if a windmill does not look like anything other than a windmill, it should be described as it is”.
 So, what kind of folly is committed when one tries to pursue artistry in a novel? In this case, “the windmill actually looks like a windmill itself, but he thinks it would not be ‘artistic’ if he does not describe it like the devil, so he try to make” it look like a devil. In such cases, the novelist only has a superficial understanding and cannot grasp anything. Therefore, there is nothing to see. It is a bad work.
 Therefore, the only thing that is required in the creation of a novel is “to make sure that the impression is accurate”. However, the “impression” must not be borrowed from others. Still, it is natural for a novice novelist to use someone else as a role model. However, to become a full-fledged novelist, one must have one’s own impression. Otherwise, “you will never be able to accurately describe anything”. So, what should we do? “Be subjective! Go forward with one strong subjectivity. Have simple eyes”.

 In 1944, Dazai published an article titled “Aversion to Art” in the magazine “Film Review”. Expanding on the above argument, he developed a similar view on movies. Dazai argued that “films should not be art. One cannot make good films because one is obsessed with the nonsense of an artistic atmosphere”. Dazai then quotes the above-quoted passages.
 Dazai praises highly a movie he recently saw and said, “It is not a film made on the model of old masterpieces. It is excessively serious in its pursuit of the reality it wants to express. Its excessive seriousness makes it fresh”. It succeeded because it neglected the “artistic” embellishment. “I say it again. Film should not be ‘art'”.

 Postwar Activities

 After the World War II, Dazai continued to produce novels. His representave works “Villon’s Wife,” “Setting Sun,” and “No Longer Human” were published one after another during the three years after the war. “Setting Sun”(斜陽) is the story of an aristocrat who falls with Japan’s defeat in the war. This book created popular term “Shayō-zoku,”(斜陽族) which refers to the aristocrats who actually fell due to the defeat in the war. “No More Human”(人間失格) tells the story of a protagonist who has difficulty in conforming to ordinary human life and finally becomes disqualified from human life because of an incident involving his wife. It is also based on Dazai’s life. These works attracted public attention. They were subsequently made into movies and TV dramas.

 Meanwhile, in 1947, Dazai wrote about the new postwar Japanese society. After the war, Japan became a formally democratic country. Under the new sense of values, many Japanese people began a movement for the substantive promotion of democracy. Dazai sensed this atmosphere of social change and wrote “A New Form of Individualism”. In it, he wrote, “It must be taken for granted that Japan will become what is called a socialist world. We must know that democracy, though it is called democracy, is a social democracy, and that it is different from the old ideology. In ethics, too, It seems necessary to consider the possibility that our way of life may lie in facing and affirming this reality, in which a new form of individualism is on the rise..

 In 1948, Dazai committed suicide in Tamagawa-josui with Tomie Yamazaki. In his will, he wrote to Mr. and Mrs. Tsurumaki, who had taken care of him, “For a long time, you have been kind to me in many ways. I will never forget it. My father also took care of me. You and your wife left your business and devoted yourselves to us”.

Osamu Dazai

Source: National Diet Library, “Portraits of Modern Japanese” (https://www.ndl.go.jp/portrait/)

Recommended or Selected References

千葉一幹『失格でもいいじゃないの : 太宰治の罪と愛』講談社, 2023

安藤宏『太宰治論』東京大学出版会, 2021

福田清人『太宰治』清水書院, 2016