Because I found that Donald Keene (my guide and the guide of many other readers of Japanese in English translation) had qualified the claim he made in the introduction of his translation of Shayo (the 1947 novel by Dazai Ozamu he translated as Setting Sun) that it was “an exact picture of what life is like in Japan” t in his 1964 essay on Dazai that is reprinted in Landscapes and Portraits, Keene wrote, “The atmosphere of Tokyo at the time is best suggested by [Dazai’s novella] ‘Villon’s Wife,’ though The Setting Sun seemed to its first readers the literary embodiment of the changing society,” I ran down Keene’s 1956 anthology Modern Japanese Literature to read “Villon’s wife” (‘Villon no Tsuma,” 1947). Like Setting Sun, it has a strong female survivor (and a weak, dissolute male, the standard “Osamu” character, here “Otani”) who drinks excessively, runs up debts, and has affairs with other women. Rape barely registers. She has other problems, including caring for their retarded son, but by the end is making money of her own, working for a bar owner from whom her husband has stolen. (The fifteenth-century Parisian vagabond poet in the story title is only a analogy or an imagined prototype, based on misinformation or misinterpretation of François Villon by Dazai.) Dazai has her saying that it is alright to be a monster, “along as we can stay alive” (it’s all wrong, but it’s alright?)
I found the Tanikzaki Junichrô stories (“The Firefly Hunt,” part of “The Mother of Captain Shigemoto”) in the collection interesting. As usual, I was unable to connect with Kawabata Yasunari’s (“The Mole”). All three could and frequently did write of or as women. Keene’s impression was that Tanikzaki was not much interested in men. I think that Dazai was not much interested in women as human beings, as much effort as he devoted to trying to figure them out. Mrs. Otani (and Kazuko in Setting Sun) may be his hopes that women could overcome the suffering to which he subjected them. (They can make their way in the world, as he has trouble doing; can submit to the demands of organized society (of which few are more organized and conformity-demanding than Japanese!), as he cannot; but can’t do what he does: create art. (Male:female::mind:body for Dazai, I think). She continues to indulge his vices without being destroyed: no mean accomplishment.
(From earlier, Keene also included the disturbing “Hell Screen” (Jigokuhen) by Akutagawa Ryûnosuke (1892-1927), which presses the thesis that the artist must personally experience what he represents to extremes that I consider Japanese. His representations of agonies and his suicide prefigured Dazai and the flamboyancies of Mishima Yukio, not least in his own 1970 suicide.)
Ivan Morris’s (1962) collection of modern (up to Mishima) Japanese stories includes one (“The moon on the water”) by Kawabata that I can appreciate, and a very funny one by Dazai about an unwelcome visitor drinking all his whiskey (“The Courtesy Call”), a Wildean early Tanizaki story (“Tattooer” who is eroticlly enslaved by a beautiful woman whose foot first drew his attention), a Buddhist tale of lust and detachment by Mishima (“The priest and his love”) and, my favorite, Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s (also Wildean) tale of a quest to see a painting, “Autumn mountain,” which may have been imagined rather than seen. (I had not realized that Tanizaki was born before Akutagawa.) Also a satire of uniformed Japanese authoritarians (the driver of the passive passengers in “The charcoal bus”) by Dazai’s master, Ibuse Masuji (though the story dates from 1952, four years after Dazai killed himself).
Morris was Keene’s colleague at Columbia, the other scholar who brought Japanese literature (Tales of Genij, The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon and modern work) to English-reading audiences in general and me in particular. Morris (1925-1976) seems to me more sociological, Keene (born in 1922 and still going strong) more of an aesthete and/or Morris valued comedy more than Keene.
I wonder about Morris’s statement “The confessional, diary type of writing, in which everything is seen through the eyes of one lone sensitive individual, continues to be far more popular in Japan than in the West (23), however. I thought “confession” was a genre pioneered in the west (Augustine, Cellini, Casanova, Rousseau…) Perhaps the Japanese were ahead of the development of American fiction (and now, even when writing about Others). The themes and, certainly, the preferred metaphors and images in these stories seems very Japanese to me. Ibusé’s is the only story I can imagine being written about some place other than Japan (or, in a few cases, China).
I was surprised to find what could be considered a political memoir from Dazai! I find it hard to comprehend the kind of young communist he could have been, and “Almanac of Pain” (Kuno no Nenkan) could serve as the title for his collected work. It’s hard to imagine how it can be a story either, lacking plot, and other characters (though Akutagawa argued against Tanizaki that ficiton need not have a plot, and Kawataba’s plots were often very wispy and unresolved as he rushed them into print). “Almanac of Pain” is not lacking aphorisms. Nor is it lacking humor (self-deprecating, of course).
I thought he was challenging (in advance) Keene’s claim for him as a social historian of defeated Japan: “I am a writer of the marketplace. What I speak bout remains within the purview of the history of the one little individual called ‘me'” The Saga of Dazai Osamu, 1985, p. 263).
A statement of the leitmotif of strong women and weak Dazai follows, as he notes the women in the family long outlive their husbands, and that sons-in-law had to keep marrying in (the previous three generations). This was also shown in the movies of Imamura Shôhei (1926-2006) set in postwar Japan such as “Insect Woman” “Pigs and Battleships,” and “Intentions of Murder.” recently made available in a Criterion edition titled “”Pigs, Pimps, & Prostitutes: Three Films by Shohei Imamura”