Career nihilist Osamu Dazai had already attempted suicide four times when he published his most famous novel in 1947. “The Setting Sun” quickly became a byword for the decline of Japan’s aristocracy in the wake of World War II, but its portrait of a country adrift from its spiritual moorings would resonate with a far wider audience.

The book’s narrator, Kazuko, is the 29-year-old daughter of a once-rich family whose fortunes have taken a turn for the worse. Forced to leave their luxurious Tokyo home, she and her mother move to a villa on Izu Peninsula. But the fragile harmony of their diminished existence is upset by the return of Kazuko’s brother Naoji, a former opium addict who had been lost in action during the war. As their mother’s health deteriorates, Naoji squanders the family finances on drinking trips to Tokyo, while Kazuko attempts to secure her own survival by foisting her affections on one of his friends, an alcoholic novelist.

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