Dazai Osamu

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Osamu Dazai (太宰 治 Dazai Osamu, June 19, 1909 - June 13, 1948) was a Japanese author.


The year before last I was expelled from my family and, reduced to poverty overnight, was left to wander the streets, begging help for various quarters, barely managing to stay alive from one day to the next, and just when I'd begun to think I might be able to support myself with my writing, I came down with a serious illness. Thanks to the compassion of others, I was able to rent a small house in Funabashi, Chiba, next to the muddy sea, and spent the summer there alone, convalescing. Though battling an illness that each and every night left my robe literally drenched with sweat, I had no choice but to press ahead with my work. The cold half pint of milk I drank each morning was the only thing that gave me a certain peculiar sense of the joy in life; my mental anguish and exhaustion were such that the oleanders blooming in one corner of the garden appeared to me merely flicking tongues of flame...
Osamu Dazai, "Seascape with Figures in Gold" (1939)

Dazai was born Shuji Tsushima (津島修治), the eighth surviving child of a wealthy landowner in Tsugaru, a remote corner of Japan at the northern tip of Tohoku. An excellent student at school and an able writer even then, his life only started to change when his idol writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke committed suicide in 1927. Shuji started to neglect his studies, spending his allowance on clothes, booze and geisha and dabbling with Marxism, at the time heavily suppressed by the government. On December 10, 1929, the night before year-end exams that he had no hopes of passing, Shuji attempted to commit suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills, but he survived and managed to graduate next year.

Shuji enrolled in the French Literature Department of the University of Tokyo and promptly stopped studying again. In October, he ran away with geisha Hatsuyo Oyama and was formally expelled from the family. Nine days after the expulsion, Shuji attempted suicide with sleeping pills again with another woman, 19-year-old waitress Shimeko Tanabe. Shimeko died, but Shuji lived. Shocked by the events, Shuji's family intervened to drop a police investigation, his allowance was reinstated and in December Shuji and Hatsuyo were married.

This moderately happy state of affairs didn't last long, as Shuji was arrested for his involvement with the banned Communist Party of Japan and, upon learning this, his elder brother Bunji promptly cut off his allowance again. Shuji went into hiding, but Bunji managed to get word to him that charges would be dropped and the allowance reinstated yet again if he solemnly promised to graduate and swear off any involvement with the party, and Shuji took up the offer.

In what was probably a surprise to all parties concerned, Shuji kept his promise and managed to settle down a bit. The next few years were productive, Shuji wrote at a feverish pace and used the pen name "Osamu Dazai" for the first time in a short story called Train (1933), his first experiment with the first-person autobiographical style that later became his trademark. But in 1935, it started to become clear that Dazai could not graduate, and he failed an entrance exam at a Tokyo newspaper as well. He finished The Final Years, intended to be his farewell to the world, and tried to hang himself on March 19, 1935 — failing yet again.

Worse was yet to come, as less than three weeks after his third suicide attempt Dazai developed acute appendicitis and was hospitalized, during which time he become addicted to Pabinal, a morphine-based painkiller. After fighting the addiction for a year, in October 1936 he was taken to a mental institution, locked in a room and forced to quit cold turkey. The "treatment" lasted over a month, during which time Dazai's wife Hatsuyo committed adultery with his best friend Zenshiro Kodate. This eventually came to light and Dazai, mortified, divorced Hatsuyo and married Michiko Ishihara. Their first daughter, Sonoko, was born in June 1941.

Japan entered the Pacific War in December, but Dazai was excused from the draft because of his chronic chest problems. The censors became more reluctant to accept Dazai's offbeat work, but he managed to publish quite a bit anyway, remaining one of the very few authors who managed to turn out interesting material in those years. His house was firebombed twice, but Dazai's family escaped unscathed, with a son, Masaki, born in 1944. His third child, daughter Satoko (who later became famous writer Yuko Tsushima), was born in May 1947.

In July 1947 Dazai's best-known work, The Setting Sun (斜陽 Shayô) was published, propelling an already popular writer into a celebrity. Always a heavy drinker, he was turning into an actual alcoholic, he had already fathered a child out of wedlock with a fan, and his health was also rapidly deteriorating. At this time Dazai met Tomie Yamazaki, a beautician and war widow who had lost her husband after 10 days of married life. Dazai effectively abandoned his wife and children and moved in with Tomie, writing his quasi-autobiography Ningen Shikkaku (人間失格, No Longer Human) at the hot-spring resort Atami. On June 13, 1948, Dazai and Tomie finally succeeded, drowning themselves in the Tamagawa Canal.


Among his most important works are No Longer Human (人間失格) and The Setting Sun (斜陽), as well as Melos, Run! (走れメロス).

Dazai's works are characterized by a profound pessimism, not surprising from an author who, after several unsuccessful attempts, eventually killed himself days before he turned 39. In his novels the main characters similarly consider suicide as the only viable alternative to their hellish existence, yet (often) fail to kill themselves due to an equally savage apathy towards their own existence ie. the question of whether they live or not becomes comically trivial. However, there are exceptions -- the aforementioned "Melos, Run!" is a very positive story about the power of friendship with an unambiguously happy ending.

No Longer Human deals with a character hurtling headlong towards self-destruction, all the while despairing of the seeming impossibility of changing the course of his life. The novel is told in a brutally honest manner, devoid of all sentimentality. At the end the young protagonist becomes a semi-invalid isolated in a hut on the outskirts of Tokyo, in the care of an old woman who has "violated him in a curious manner" several times. This work is one of the seminal classics of Japanese literature.

A good fraction of his works are based on or inspired by his real experiences. Self Portrait is a collection of Dazai's short stories. Many of these short stories are based on his experiences. Eight Scenes from Tokyo talked about his relationship with his first wife. Female is about his first "double suicide". Other novels by Dazai include:

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