Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Osamu Dazai: "The Setting Sun" (Book Review)

The Setting Sun by Osamu Dazai book cover 1956 edition
1956 translation
"The Setting Sun" - 8.5/10

There is absolutely nothing I could say that hasn't been said about the incredible, and tragic, author Osamu Dazai or his brilliant novel "The Setting Sun." I'm not Japanese, nor an expert in Japanese culture, literature, or history, so I'm not really in any place to discuss this book with any nuance. Instead, consider this a review for people who have never heard of him or this novel. Because, at the very least, more people should be reading his works.

Osamu Dazai led a short and tragic life, leaving behind several stunning novels and other works of fiction. I came across his name in several anime and manga whose characters make reference to reading him, so I figured it was a good place to start (since the only other Japanese author I've read is Haruki Murakami - whom I LOVE!).

"The Setting Sun" is set in post-war Japan as the aristocracy is on its last legs. The country is shifting in so many ways, an era is over. The story centers on Kazuko, the daughter of an aristocratic family facing ever increasing poverty. She and her mother are forced to move into a smaller house to sustain themselves. At the same time, her brother is off in the literary scene, fueled by drugs and alcohol.

Over time, Kazuko comes to embrace aspects of her "poverty" (I use that loosely, because they still live a much nicer existence than most people would have at that time). But she also begins to deal with her mother's failing health and her brother's drug problems. Through this, her understanding of herself and the world start to dramatically change.

Kazuko is a challenging, and not all-together likable figure. She is clearly of the aristocracy, she can be selfish and self-centered. She also makes interesting and complex decisions that seem both a grab at normalcy and also completely desperate. She is strange, overly dramatic, dark, but also strong and self-assured. Complex doesn't begin to do her justice. I think that we are meant to understand her, but not necessarily agree with or like her. She is a window into a fading world-view. She is a generation trapped between what was and what will be.

This being an Osamu Dazai novel, it is sad, melancholy, depressing, and ultimately tragic in many ways. The translation I read was from 1956 by Donald Keene. The introduction by the translator is pretty dated, but the actual text of the novel reads beautifully. I can't be sure how faithful it is, but the writing was gorgeous and direct. I'm not sure if there are other translations out there, but I was very pleased with this one.

Again, I'm not trying to even pretend that I have any business discussing this novel in any meaningful way. But as a lay person, I found it haunting and beautiful and melancholy and well written. It's the second of his novels I've read, "No Longer Human" being the other one. Both were incredible and rightfully deserve their place in the highest echelons of the literary cannon. If you haven't read his works, do yourself a favor and do so!


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