~translated by Donald Keene
One of my sempai at my dōjō took a class in Japanese literature a few years ago and Osamu Dazai's The Setting Sun was the book that stuck with her the most. I know of Dazai from reading John Nathan's biography of Yukio Mishima since he is mentioned several times in that book, but I know very little about him and his work beyond that. The Setting Sun, first published in Japan in 1947, was one of his last novels to be finished before his death by suicide in 1948. Like much of his work, The Setting Sun incorporates autobiographical elements into the story. Dazai was a very popular author in Japan, particularly during the postwar period, and quite a few of his books have been translated into English. In fact, I believe The Setting Sun, translated by Donald Keene, was Dazai's first novel to be made available in English.
Kazuko is a young woman from a minor aristocratic family, although that means less now after the war. Married once but now divorced she lives with her mother. After her father's death the two move to a house in Izu, no longer able to afford living in Tokyo. With their money gone and little support available to them from surviving family members, the two women resort to selling off their clothing and belongings. Kazuko's troubles continue when her brother, thought to have died during the war, returns home. As glad as she is to see him alive, Naoji is a relapsed opium addict and a strain on the family's dwindling finances. Kazuko is steadily losing her sense of self and place in society. However, she knows she is the only person who can change her own fate and she is prepared to take those steps.
I liked Kazuko as a protagonist. I definitely didn't agree with all of the decisions that she made, and she occasionally annoyed me, but she was an authentic character. Her fondness of and frustration with her mother and brother is obvious, but she truly does care about her family. Kazuko both admires and reveres her mother, realizing that she will never be able to achieve the same level of distinction that comes so effortlessly to her mother. Naoji's relationship with her sister is understandably strained, but at the same time she still seems willing to do anything for him. This is certainly not to say that Kazuko is entirely unselfish--she is quite capable of acting in complete disregard for other people, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
The Setting Sun is a short novel, well under two hundred pages, but Dazai is still able to create quite an emotional impact. The book is written from Kazuko's perspective, but much of it is made up of journal entries and letters rather than being a straight narrative. Dazai also has a propensity to use flashback sequences which can be effective but also confusing if the reader isn't paying attention. There is also a significant amount of symbolism involved but it is not impenetrable. Overall, The Setting Sun is a rather melancholy and pessimistic story. Kazuko is having to deal with the literal and figurative death of both the Japanese aristocracy and her family while struggling to claim her life as her own in a society still in transition. I found The Setting Sun to be an engaging novel and will probably seek out more of Dazai's works to read.