Major Japanese cultural figures often become subjects of films when big birth or death anniversaries roll around. The hero (far more rarely, the heroine) is usually portrayed as a sainted genius, tragic or otherwise. Osamu Dazai, however, was one such figure who didn’t fit the saint template.
Born in 1909 into a large, wealthy family in Aomori Prefecture, Dazai had a sheltered upbringing, though his mother was sickly and his father was often absent. As an adolescent living away from home to attend school, and later as a student at Tokyo Imperial University, Dazai neglected his studies, while dabbling in Marxist politics and spending his allowance on drink and women, enraging his conservative family.
Troubled by feelings of worthlessness and despair, he twice attempted suicide in this period, the second time with a woman who died while he survived.
Shaken by this incident, Dazai threw himself into writing and, with the support of author Masaji Ibuse, began publishing short stories and novels, often with an autobiographical flavor. Though recognized as a brilliant talent, he struggled with chronic illness (tuberculosis saved him from the draft), drug addiction, alcoholism and suicidal depression.
In 1948, Dazai finally succeeded in killing himself, drowning with a lover in the rain-swollen Tamagawa Canal in Tokyo.
Dazai’s work, particularly his soul-baring postwar novels “Shayo” (“The Setting Sun”) and “Ningen Shikkaku” (“No Longer Human”), was widely and fervently read in his lifetime and after, especially by the young.
In his pessimism about the human condition, and his stripped-down confessional style, Dazai resembled his contemporary Albert Camus, though, unlike Camus, who was deeply engaged in politics and philosophy, he focused largely on the personal, reflecting his own turbulent life.
Dazai’s work has been made into TV dramas, films and even anime over the years. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth, three films based on his fiction are hitting the theaters: Masanori Tominaga’s “Pandora no Hako” (“Pandora’s Box”) and Kichitaro Negishi’s “Villon no Tsuma” (“Villon’s Wife”), both opening Oct. 10, and Genjiro Arata’s “Ningen Shikkaku” (“No Longer Human”), which is scheduled for a spring 2010 release.