“A Shameful Life: (Ningen Shikkaku)” by Osamu Dazai

Osamu Dazai in 1946 Osamu Dazai in 1946

Oba Yozo, the central character and anti-hero of Dazai Osamu’s Ningen Shikkaku, is as familiar to Japanese readers as Holden Caulfield is to English readers. The Catcher in the Rye still sells a million copies per year, in dozens of languages, while in Japanese only a few novels, notably Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro, routinely outsell Ningen Shikkaku. Catcher, however, pales beside Ningen as a literary achievement.

Dazai crafts Ningen as Yozo’s diary, discovered by an unnamed physician. The physician’s reflections on the diaries and Yozo form the prologue and the epilogue—in the prologue, the physician describes the only three pictures he’s ever seen of Yozo.

 

The last photo is the most disturbing … He [Yozo] sits in the corner of a filthy room (behind him the wall crumbles in three places), … His face is empty of all expression. It is as though he were already dead …
     Even the face of someone slipping into death holds some kind of expression, leaves some kind of mark. But this, maybe this is what it would be like if the head of a carthorse were sewn onto a human body. In any case, a vague sense of revulsion shivers up my spine.

 

A Shameful Life: (Ningen Shikkaku), Osamu Dazai, Mark Gibeau (trans) (Stone Bridge, November 2018)
A Shameful Life: (Ningen Shikkaku), Osamu Dazai, Mark Gibeau (trans) (Stone Bridge, November 2018)

We may think that Dazai raised a warning sign with this prologue—“here be dragons” —read on only if you’re prepared for such a ride. For those who are, this prologue compels reading on, similar to the first sentence of Toni Morrison’s Paradise: “They shoot the white girl first, but the rest they can take their time.”

Catcher famously opens with Holden’s dismissive,

 

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it.

 

Salinger too signaled with his first words—he too aimed at something rather different than a literary version of a Norman Rockwell painting.

Yozo’s first diary sentences speak for themselves.

 

I have lived a shameful life. I can’t understand how this thing called ‘human life’ is supposed to work.

 

And later in this first of three sections of Yozo’s diary,

 

It seems that I will end my days having never understood anything at all about the lives of human beings … This fear consumes me, sometimes making me twist and turn at night, groaning in agony, driving me to the brink of madness.

 

With his masterpiece, Dazai completed his last of a number of explorations of what in Japan is called the shishosetsu—“I-novel”—intensely personal and usually disturbed, and in first person. In his Translator’s Afterword, Gibeau explains.

 

The ‘I-novel’ emerged as the dominant force in Japanese letters in the early twentieth century, and only a very few Japanese writers of the time managed to resist its lure entirely, whether they were devoted practitioners of the form or not. The ‘I-novel’ was typically contrasted with the honkaku shosetsu—’authentic novel’, the ideal manifestation of which one Japanese critic located in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. A great deal of ink was expended by critics and authors at the time in debate over which of the two forms embodied the true essence of literary expression.

 

As Dazai voices both Yozo and the unnamed physician in the first person, Ningen becomes a “double I-novel”. Gibeau suggests,

 

… Dazai creates a work that, with a remarkable degree of mastery, manages to blend the form, feel and content of the confessional I-novel with the narrative structure and character development of more conventional fiction. Dazai draws on events from his own life but manipulates, alters and distills them as he pours them into the vessel that is his protagonist, Oba Yozo.

 

 

One year after Ningen was published, another masterpiece in the “I-novel” genre appeared, Mishima Yukio’s Confessions of a Mask. The parallels between Dazai and Mishima, 16 years Dazai’s junior and at the beginning of his career when he published Confessions, are intriguing.

Both men blurred life and art, taking pen names and creating personae accordingly (Dazai’s real name was Tsushima Shuji; Mishima’s Hiraoka Kimitake). Dazai the persona lived the life he wrote about—of dissolution, debauchery and alienation. The persona Mishima became increasingly obsessed with the bushido ethos (suspect as it is) and formed an infamous militaristic, er, boy’s club, the Tate No Kai—Shield Society—whose members dressed in odd uniforms (Mishima’s biographer Damian Flanagan says they “could easily be mistaken for a bell boy’s uniform”), professed veneration of the emperor and such things, and strutted about on the periphery of the Self Defense Forces’ drill grounds. His literary output, particularly his magnum opus, the tetralogy The Sea of Fertility, is infused with this obsession.

Both, furthermore, wrote about pretense, the creation of personae. In the first of the three journal entries that comprise the core of Ningen, Dazai has Yozo relating,

 

I took enormous pains to conceal my melancholy and nervousness, and devoted myself instead to cultivating an air of innocent good cheer. Thus, little by little, I was transformed into an eccentric clown. I would do anything so long as it made people laugh, it didn’t matter what.

 

Mishima’s Confessions is largely about the psychological masks the lead character, heavily autobiographical, wears and assumes that all others wear as well.

Finally, both finished their masterpieces shortly before their deaths—Dazai completed Ningen in May 1948 and succeeded in his fourth suicide attempt in June, jumping into Tokyo’s Tamagawa Aqueduct with his paramour, at least he surely drunk to the point of oblivion at the time—his life imitating his art. Mishima, not likely to ever be outdone in performance, created one of the most spectacular suicides in history on 25 November 1970. He laid the just-completed final chapter of The Sea of Fertility on his desk on that November morning, drove to the Self Defense Forces’ headquarters in Tokyo with four other Shield members, where he pretended to attempt a military coup (“pretended” because he was almost certainly sure he’d not succeed), exhorting the troops to reclaim a “purer” Japan. When he garnered no more than jeers and heckling, he committed seppuku in the bound-and-gagged commandant’s office.

 

Another parallel is interesting as well: Li Bai, 1250 years Dazai’s senior, one of China’s most famous and prolific poets, celebrated drink and was known for his consumption of it. Legend has it that he too died following a plunge into a river, the Yangtze in Li’s case, though the legend suggests that, in a drunken haze, he was trying to grasp the moon’s reflection in the water, and toppled into it, rather than making a concerted suicide attempt.

Both Li and Dazai were born into golden ages in their respective countries, Li at the height of Tang Dynasty China, Dazai as Japan’s Meiji era closed and the period known as the Taisho Democracy was about to begin. And both men observed the collapse of their civilizations—Li lived through the years of the An Lushan Rebellion, which reduced China’s population by (very roughly) 20 million, north of 30% of China’s entire population at the time and perhaps 5% of the population of the entire 8th-century world, while Dazai survived the devastation of Tokyo by US firebombing, which contributed to a reduction in Tokyo’s population by about 50%, to about three million, by war’s end. Li, having been exiled by one of the rebellion’s warlords, meandered (and drank) his way westward toward the exile destination, taking months. A pardon reached him before he reached his destination, so he turned around and meandered (and drank) his way eastward again, and produced some of his most revered works during this long odyssey.

During Dazai’s final few years in Tokyo, just after the end of the war, he became emblematic of what was called kasutori culture, kasutori being Japan’s postwar version of moonshine or bathtub gin—cheap, readily available and noxious. In his Embracing Defeat (1999), renowned Japan scholar John Dower illuminates.

 

The kasutori shochu that made the faint hearted bold and the strong hearted wild also apparently made prolific those with countercultural tendencies. It was, in any case, the drink of choice among those artists and writers who made a cult out of degeneracy and nihilism. It was a vile liquor – best downed, it was said, while holding one’s nose—and it gave its name to a chaotic subculture that proved a natural complement to the worlds of the panpan [prostitutes] and black marketeers…

 

Drink didn’t seem to deter Li or Dazai from literary achievement, though the two interacted with alcohol much differently. Burton Watson, scholar of the poetry of the era, refers to Li’s “fantasy and note of childlike wonder and playfulness”, words no one would dream of ascribing to Dazai, degenerate and nihilistic as his characters and the era. Nonetheless, Dazai completed some of his most revered work during his few post-war years, including Shayo, or The Setting Sun, as famous as Ningen, and Viyon no Tsuma, or Villon’s Wife, both published in 1947.

 

In the Translator’s Afterword, Gibeau also describes how Dazai’s final work “became something of an obsession”, compelling Gibeau to create a new translation of a work already translated by one of the towering figures of Japanese literary interpretation, Donald Keene, in the late 1950s. One interesting point that Gibeau touches in passing is his choice of English for the Japanese title 人間失格, ningen shikkaku. Keene chose “no longer human”, and a literal translation is “a disqualified human”. “No longer human” seems a clinical, diagnostic rendering, while “a shameful life” is inescapably a value judgement.

On its website, Stone Bridge, the publisher of Gibeau’s translation, link to a detailed comparison of Keene’s and Gibeau’s interpretations, by ganriki.org’s Serdar Yegulalp. Quoting from Yozo’s third diary section, Yegulalp uses the following sentences as one comparison:

 

神に問う。信頼は罪なりや。
無垢の信頼心は、罪なりや。

 

Gibeau has Yozo’s implorations as “I ask you, God. Is trust a crime?” and “Is innocent trust a crime?”, while Keene renders “God, I ask you. Is trustfulness a sin?” and “Is immaculate trustfulness a sin?” Either “sin” or “crime” is a plausible translation for the Japanese 罪, tsumi, (example: the Credo of the Catholic mass in Japanese uses tsumi for “sin” in “I confess one baptism for the remission of sins”), but Keene’s translation rings far more Christian, a religion with a relatively short and troubled history in Japan, while Yegulalp asserts that Gibeau’s version is not only more technically accurate, but also literarily more consonant, as just before Yozo’s cri du coeur he and his nemesis, Horiki, drunkenly muse on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, 罪と罰 (tsumi to batsu) in Japanese. (As with “sin” vs “sins”, the singular vs the plural for “god” is an interesting question; I wondered at the use of the (capitalized) singular in both translations, given that Japan’s religious tradition is polytheistic. But this question does not apparently exercise either Keene or Gibeau, or Yegulalp.)

Yegulalp also suggests,

 

The first question people are likely to ask is: If I’m new to No Longer Human, should I start with this version? My short answer is ‘Probably.’ Keene’s version is slightly more polished as a reading experience, but Gibeau’s version is a slightly more faithful translation—there’s more of a sense of how Dazai’s original sentences and compositions came together on the page, even when they are not necessarily reader-friendly.

 

Another famous translator of Japanese literature, blurbed on the back of A Shameful Life, says,

 

This new translation brings fresh skill and sensitivity to the task of interpreting one of modern Japanese literature’s most endearing classics. It gives us Dazai in all his quirky hilarity and pathos, and deepens our understanding of this complex and brilliant writer.

 

We may thank Gibeau and Stone Bridge Press for bringing this new perspective on Dazai to a new generation of English readers.


John Darwin Van Fleet lives in Shanghai. His book Tales of Old Tokyo, a romp through the city’s history from 1853 to 1964, was published in 2015, while Squabbling Siblings, Japan and China from Antiquity to 2022 will be published later this year.