A journey to hell with Osamu Dazai, Japan’s ultimate bad boy novelist

by Damian Flanagan

Contributing Writer

Imagine that a writer today, in a thinly disguised self-portrait, revealed that he had slept with countless prostitutes, had casually hooked up with and abandoned numerous women, frittered away his family wealth on alcohol and drugs, attempted suicide on numerous occasions and persuaded, en route, one of his lovers to kill herself.

A Shameful Life, by Osamu Dazai, Translated by Mark Gibeau.
144 pages
STONE BRIDGE PRESS, Fiction.

Today, such a writer might be castigated, condemned and turned into an instant pariah: Perhaps his books would be taken from bookshops. Yet when Osamu Dazai’s short, electrifying novel, “Ningen Shikkaku” (released in a new translation as “A Shameful Life” by Mark Gibeau) was published in 1948, it triggered a huge “Dazai Boom.”

Its author, however, would not reap the rewards of his fame and bestseller status, and true to the nihilistic message of his book, committed suicide with his lover, Tomie Yamazaki, shortly after its publication.

Since then, the all-conquering march of this iconic novel cannot be overstated, ranking second only to Natsume Soseki’s 1914 novel “Kokoro” in its seemingly inexhaustible appeal. But whereas Soseki’s novel has been actively promoted by bureaucrats at the education ministry, including it in the school curriculum in the belief that it promotes traditional Japanese virtues, Dazai’s anti-establishment, anti-everything, proverbial fist in the face of tradition has gained millions of readers entirely on its own irreverent steam, indeed has become a vital rite-of-passage novel for generations of Japanese youth.

Dazai is the ultimate bad boy of Japanese literature and “Ningen Shikkaku” is his supreme masterpiece, a novel that still shocks today with its brutal honesty and unflinching, strangely thrilling pessimism. Nothing remotely like it had been seen in Japanese literature before.

To gain a sense of its impact, we should think perhaps of the words of Yukio Mishima when he had previously discovered other similarly morally liberating art works by Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde: “Evil had been unleashed … moralizing was nowhere to be seen.”

As it happens, Mishima loathed Dazai, undoubtedly because he owed him so much in influence. Once, he followed Dazai to a party, styling himself as Dazai’s assassin, and told him to his face, “I hate your literature.” Dazai coolly looked him up and down and replied, “And yet you are here.”

Mishima was not alone in his Dazai obsession: Dazai’s breathtakingly honest depiction of sexual relations would have been impossible before the collapse of the censorship laws at the end of World War II. The readership of Dazai in the postwar age felt not just shocked by what they encountered, but many were also profoundly liberated by his honesty, and held a sense of gratitude that never abated. Whatever hell you are going through in life, it is unlikely to be as deep a hell as that described by Dazai’s alter ego, Yozo Oba.

“Ningen Shikkaku” was first translated into English by Donald Keene in 1958 under the title “No Longer Human” and so this new translation seems overdue. Gibeau’s take is lucid and readable, and has already garnered a translation award from the University of Chicago. But the book also raises issues about which the reader should be aware.

First, the title. “A Shameful Life” seems a mistranslation, which Gibeau himself discusses in the afterword, musing that “A Failed Human” might be more literal. The new title seems to have been applied because Gibeau posits the novel in the tradition of the I-novel genre, claimed by some critics as a major strain in Japanese literature in the modern era.

The raw, overwhelming energy of “Ningen Shikkaku” comes however not as reading it as an I-novel, but as a modern, secular version of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Dazai’s Yozo, like Milton’s Satan, is a great antihero, not just thrilling in his daring to overthrow all the values of both God and humanity, but also challenging us to question whether we too wish to be part of such morally hypocritical and blinkered, obeisant humanity. Is there not a part of us that similarly wishes to drop out of paradise with the bad boy angel, sticking two fingers up to God and revelling in being in hell? Perhaps the proper English title for this book should be “Humanity Lost.”

A second issue is the acute irony that this most exhilaratingly politically incorrect and provocatively offensive of texts is here given something of a politically correct makeover. The afterword explains that its very existence is not intended as a criticism of Keene’s previous translation — it wishes to exist in a pluralistic, inclusive universe.

Gibeau also contextualizes the novel within the other works of Dazai (real name Shuji Tsushima) and argues that a particular interest lies in contemplating the relativized interconnection between Shuji Tsushima, the novelistic persona of Osamu Dazai and the novel’s protagonist Yozo. While this line of analysis is not without merit, most readers simply want to be taken to hell and back by a fallen angel.

“Ningen Shikkaku” was published in Japanese in the same year as, on the other side of the world, George Orwell was writing “1984.” It’s testament to this new translation that, rereading the book, I was powerfully reminded of the importance of uncensored literature in our lives, utterly oblivious to the pieties of our current age and speaking to us straight with a common humanity. This novel has no dealings with any “thought police” who would attempt to censor the shocking frankness of its depiction of tortured humanity.

Some see this novel as Dazai’s suicide note to the world: But far from being “shameful,” Dazai was actually raising the banners of a satanic, liberating, deeply human, literary revolution.