Unfortunately, I seem to like each Dazai Osamu (1909-1948) book less than the previous one. No Longer Human (Ningen Shikkaku, 1948) is more epigrammatic that The Setting Sun (Shayo, 1947), but perhaps I am too old for it (as I was once too young to read Proust) to be much moved for the plaint of a creature too delicate for the world. I can’t muster sociological interest in it as social history of the 30s either, since dissipitation is basically timeless (though the preferred means vary).
I read the epilogue differently from translator and longtime Columbia professor Donald Keene: as showing the notebook’s writer was successful at mimicking good nature, not that his widow is right and the writer wrong. (“In the way that most men fail to see their own cruelty, Yozo had not noticed his gentleness and capacity for love”-p. 9; really? a capacity for love? and gentleness? or solipsism mixed with diffidence?)
I am not so sure that Keene was right that the Japanese “are certainly much more like Americans than they are like their ancestors of one hundred years ago. As far as literature is concerned, the break with the Japanese past is almost complete” (p. 7), though this is more credible now than it was six decades ago.
Dazai seems very traditionally Japanese to me in many ways, a descendant of Sei Shônagon both in wit and to some degree in aesthetics (Dazai is still plenty delicate and fairly indirect, even about what she would have considered vulgar and even sordid matters, very regretful and very perishable). Would Keene have been moved to translate Dazai, if there was nothing of the Japanese tradition that Keene venerates in Dazai? Let alone, recall translating Dazai “as if I were writing a book of my own,” an experience he only otherwise had with Kenkô’s Essays in Idleness (On Familiar Terms, p. 189).
I like Keene’s characterization of Yozo as a man “who is orphaned from his fellows by their refusal to take him seriously” (p. 8, see p. 139), which in turn is a result of his desperate clowning. Of course, this resonates with my experience of people not believing I could possibly be serious when I am, and feeling I’m not like other people, incapable of “getting by.” And “unusual or extravagant things tempt me” (p. 23).
It is interesting that someone who felt himself different from an early age and for whom “it would be no exaggeration to say that my only playmates while I was growing up were girls” (48) became a diffident lady-killer rather than a homosexual.
Ōba cannot forget his abuse by a female servant when he was young. In high school, he played the buffoon. At university, he finds bad influence from Horiki and leads a life of debauchery (nonstop smoking, alcohol abuse, promiscuity), culminating in a double suicide (it cannot seriously be billed a “love suicide”) in which the married woman drowns and he survives.
After being expelled from the university, Ōba is “clan and sober” for a time in a relationship with an innocent young woman, but Horki shows up and leads Ōba back into temptation, now adding morphine to alcohol abuse and being incarcerated in a mental asylum, where he is numb rather than violent.
As for being zombified by Japan’s defeat, Dazai seems to me to have been as self-destructive and intellectually nihilistic while the Japanese Empire was rising as in the general anomie after Emperor Hirohito renounced divinity and the US occupied the archipelago. (Imamura’s “Pigs and Battleships” show some of this social breakdown and women who were better at surviving it than the men.)
The original publication sold more than six million copies in Japan, more than any Japanese novel other than Kokoro (1914) by Sōseki Natsume. A manga version was published in 2009, the centenary of Dasai’s birth, and also filmed.