Osamu Dazai’s The Setting Sun

I have been reading post-war Japanese literature of late, in the conviction that Japan’s shock transition from a self-governed empire into an economy neatly folded into the international world order might shed some light on what has happened in the West with the collapse of Christianity and the inculcation of a new, man-made and transnational morality. Nostalgia for a lost world is a common theme uniting these books, and apprehension of the future, but in no novel have those feelings been so powerfully portrayed as Osamu Dazai’s The Setting Sun, which chronicles the slow demise of a once-prosperous aristocratic family in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

The principal characters include our narrator, Kazuko, a divorced woman in her late 20s, as well as her sickly mother and her opium-addicted brother, Naoji, who in the first part of the novel is presumed killed in battle against the United States. The reader is early on beset by a sense of almost palpable loss, conveyed in the tone of the writing as well as the bare details of the plot. The father of the family, for example, has been dead for some time, but his wife, Kazuko’s mother, is still clearly in mourning. His loss has also crippled the family financially, and though the book opens in a luxurious home in Tokyo, we are soon informed that necessity requires that they sell the home, dismiss the servants and move to the countryside. Kazuko feels a sense of personal responsibility for the family’s decline:

During the ten years since Father’s death, Mother had been just as easy-going and gentle as while he was alive. Naoji and I had taken advantage of her to grow up without concerning ourselves about anything. Now Mother no longer had any money. She had spent it all on us, on Naoji and myself, without begrudging us a penny, and she was being forced to leave the house where she had passed so many years to enter on a life of misery in a cottage without a single servant.

We never quite learn what extravagances Kazuko begged from her mother – we may even wonder how reliable her reporting is – but we soon learn that Naoji has almost bankrupted the family by running up a massive bill at the family’s pharmacy, where he purchased opium on credit.

If the family’s financial circumstances are dire, the life prospects of the children seem more frightening still. Having been discharged from the military, Naoji returns only briefly to his mother and sister – long enough to borrow money or pawn their possessions to fund extravagant, drunken nights in Tokyo. Kazuko, though far less self-destructive, seems equally unsure of the future. Leaving her husband – an act of brazen defiance of the old morality that died with the Second World War – has hurt her prospects for having a family, and as she assesses her dwindling romantic prospects: a wealthy artist, much older than her, whom she does not love, and a married drunk who will not return her letters, she fixates on having a child. “I am what Nietzsche described as ‘a woman who wants to give birth to a child.’ I want a child. Happiness does not interest me. I do want money too, but just enough to be able to bring up my child.”

Taken only on its merits as a story, Dazai presents us with a compelling portrait of a family in decline, forfeiting wealth and prestige in pursuit of an elusive private happiness. But Dazai was writing about this family in much the same way Faulkner wrote about the Compsons: to tell the story of his society’s decline. A woman struggling to find a man responsible enough to become a father and help her to raise a child; a man throwing his life away to addiction and fleeting pleasure, rather than committing himself to the roles of responsibility adopted by his forefathers – these are now almost clichés in the modern West, the stuff of popular entertainment. The most tragic line in the novel, written by Kazuko to a lover who abandons her, could equally well apply to the younger generations raised in the post-Christian West: “Victims. Victims of a transitional period of morality. That is what we both certainly are.” We know what we once were, and what rules once governed us, but where our fifty-year experiment ends, where the balance of morality will fall, no one alive now knows, and we are condemned to uncertainty. Dazai himself declined to see the experiment to an end – he took his own life before he turned 40 – but he succeeded in making “people of the setting sun” an enduring self-description in Japan.