Victims of a transitional period: "The Setting Sun" by Osamu Dazai Book Review

Submitted by The Good Student on Sun, 03/27/2022 - 16:43

anime sunset

There is no actual sun set in this novel. The title is an inversion of  Japan as "the nation/people of the rising sun."

"The Setting Sun (斜陽, Shayō) is a Japanese novel by Osamu Dazai. It was published in 1947 and is set in Japan after World War II. Principal characters are Kazuko, her brother Naoji, and their elderly mother. The story shows a family in decline and crisis, like many other families during this period of transition between traditional Japan and the United States of America's Occupation of Japan. Many families needed to leave their lives behind and start anew. Throughout the story, mostly through the character Naoji, the author brings up a number of social and philosophical problems of that time period." -  Plot Synopsis from Wikipedia.

Like No Longer Human by the same author, this novel is in the public domain. I wonder if that means that the translations are in the public domain too. I was not as impressed by the SS as I was by No Longer Human.

An Aristocratic Family

There are multiple narrators and narrative devices (letters, diaries, suicide notes) so it feels a bit scattered. The story is about the fall of a family of aristocrats. After the war the Americans abolished the aristocracy except the Japanese royal family, stole all the land of the aristocrats and gave it to the peasants.

This aristocratic family sells their house in Tokyo and move to a small cottage in the countryside where they have been reduced to trying to play house in the countryside while pawning off everything that they owned one thing after the other. 

Kazuko as a protagonist comes off as a bit more despicable than Yozo in NLH. She is a divorced woman. I think it is the random way she deeply falls in love which annoyed me. It was a pathetic one-sided love. But I did like how she didn't fall out of it when she saw the pathetic, degraded face of the man she fell in love with. 

Naoji, Kazuko's brother, who also narrates a bit of the novel, is like an unsympathetic Yozo. I guess all these characters in different ways fail to be ordinary people, to remain respectable but in the end Kazuko at least has her child while Yozo and Naoji have nothing they value.

Kazuko and Naoji's mother is a "true aristocrat" in her bearing but she is dying and it is sad. This sums up her character. There is no father in this family because he died prior to the events of the novel.

Another reason which makes it less impactful is that the fall of the characters in SS felt like it was initiated by outside factors, innocent victims of fate. 

They are pitiable people, and I can feel sorry for them, at their degradation, at their hurt pride and loss of innocence but also at their feelings that they do not deserve pity because they have merely fallen down to the level of suffering and deprivation that most people whom they used to live off of, lived under. They have merely become ordinary, so why should they despair rather than live an ordinary life and become a "coarse woman," and yet when I blurt out those words that were at the tip of my tongue - it sounds and feels exceedingly cruel.

The Degradation of a Woman

When Kazuko said she was becoming a coarse woman because of farm work and then cried when she couldn't take it, it was hard not to feel sorry for her. It sort of also reminded me of a quote by Orwell about the degradation that poverty can have on a woman. Of course the poverty and degradation to a woman's body Orwell was referring to was from industrial labour rather than agricultural labour - and the woman was working class rather than aristocratic. Anyhow this is what Orwell saw while travelling on a train:

As we moved slowly through the outskirts of the town we passed row after row of little grey slum houses running at right angles to the embankment. At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her – her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that ‘It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us’, and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her – understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.

I don't think this would have been as effective if it was a man. 

Victims of a Transitional Period

At one point Kazuko calls her family and the artist she has fallen in love with, victims of a transitional period. And yet it is tempting to say that nothing has changed. The old Japanese aristocratic was replaced by a new one. Sure they may not hold their heads up when drinking soup in an elegant and erotic way like Kazuko's mother did but so what? I don't want to go full Ayn Rand but the lack of heroic characters who rise above the age and the world that they are in feels tiring.

Still at times this hopelessness was sometimes beautifully expressed, 

“I seem to recall having seen a picture of the Emperor in the newspaper.

I’d like to look at it again.”

I held that section of the newspaper above Mother’s face.

“He’s grown old.”

“No, it’s a poor photograph. In the photographs they printed the other day he seemed really young and cheerful. He probably is happier these days than ever.”

“Why?”

“The Emperor has been liberated too.”

Mother smiled sadly and said, “Even when I want to cry, the tears don’t come any more.”

I suddenly wondered whether Mother might not actually be happy now, whether the sensation of happiness might not be something like faintly glittering gold sunken at the bottom of the river of sorrow. The feeling of that strange pale light when once one has exceeded all the bounds of unhappiness—if that can be called a sensation of happiness, the Emperor, my mother, and even I myself may be said to be happy now. 

My Revolution

At the end Kazuko talks about how she's going to be a revolutionary by being a single mother and I am not going to laugh at that but it did come off as empty, empty bravado. Who is she even rebelling against? The old order? So her dead mother? Kinda reminds me that foolish phrase: "the personal is political." If there was a revolution going on in Japan, it was an American revolution. A revolution from above and Kazuko feels like an ant being crushed or a bent nail being hammered to the bottom of the new order.

Just like with NLH the author is talking about himself because his family's property was all stolen by the redistribution of farm land to the peasants. To this day I have heard that Japanese farms are small, backwards and unable to feed the nation because the government protects the small farm owners from competition. However since the character is not a self-insert like Yozo in NLH it doesn't feel as raw.

Kazuko goes on to say that the degenerate artist is also a revolutionary against the old ways and that even though he'll die he should continue his rebellion by drinking himself to death! At what point do they cease to be "victims of a transitional period" and becomes victims of their own vices or lack of will? 

History doesn't stay still, there are always "victims of a transitional period" because every period is transitional. Too many people even today blame the age that they are in. Now to be fair to Kazuko and Dazai all their family's land was confiscated and their country was destroyed, nuked twice, and in the hands of foreign revolutionaries so they might have a genuine grievance.

To put it another way, I feel like she bore the artist's child because she was in love with him but then made it sounds like it was just for a revolutionary gesture. I guess love can be a revolutionary gesture, she does after all compare herself to Jesus bringing in a sword in Matthew. Maybe the problem I have is that since the "transitional period" they were in has come to pass, it no longer feels like a revolutionary act, just an ugly one. Just as in war, in a revolution, ugly things will be done with a pure heart. But will the victims of war or revolution or "love" accept that? Has she not only created another victim? And yet I feel like her final resolution to bring this child to this world is correct.

A Woman's Voice

Dazai's Kazuko makes a perfect and perfectly annoying impression of a woman as a narrator. Apparently Dazai copied one of his mistress' diaries to write her narration, maybe that's why it sounds like a woman really wrote it. Oh and to make matters worse, it was one of her fans. A novelist with groupies. Lucky bast- no I mean what a bad man.

Dazai Practicing his Suicide Note Skills

Naoji's suicide note was probably the worst and pettiest section, I know he's supposed to be despicable so don't give me any of that. It's just unpleasant to read. It feels pathetic. I did like however how the fact that he was a soldier did not factor into it. I like irrelevant details like that. Not everything has to be meaningful. To sum up the suicide note, his inability to belong either to the aristocrats or the workers led him to consider suicide. He felt like a foreigner in his own country. And it wasn't just him I guess, all three of them.

There was one quote I liked from the suicide note. I guess it was aimed at people like me. It was about the Emperor: 

Any man who criticizes my suicide and passes judgment on me with an expression of superiority, declaring (without offering the least help) that I should have gone on living my full complement of days, is assuredly a prodigy among men quite capable of tranquilly urging the Emperor to open a fruit shop.

It's not like he doesn't have a point. If you can't offer actual material support then you can keep your "spiritual support," pep-talks and judgements to yourself.

In all this, the gentle mother who died and the degenerate-to-death artist emerge as the most at peace with themselves and with their imminent deaths too. I could sense a quiet resolve to live and die. A resolve reflected in Kazuko's nonsensical letter about being a revolutionary and which Naoji lacked probably after being deceived by literature.

Don't Step on Snek

There's symbolism about a snake being an omen of death but honestly it felt like a gimmick that didn't really lead to anything, a striking image that is memorable in itself - like the snakes being on every tree but that could be about anyone's death, not just an aristocrat's. Like, I could feel the suffering and disbelief of the characters at their mother's death but at the same time I didn't feel like that had much to do with her being an aristocrat, though dying of TB is certainly more like the fate of a poor industrial worker's death than an aristocrat's death.

Influences

Osamu Dazai wrote this novel as a Japanese version of The Cherry Orchard by some other guy called Anton Checkov. Must be the Checkov's Gun guy. As the "ov" suggests, it's a Russian writing a sad story about an aristocratic family losing all their status. Kazuko refers to Mr. Uehara, the alcoholic artist with kids, in her love to him first as "My Chekov," then "My Child," and finally "My Comedian." It'll make sense when you read it. Though I don't know how deep the references run cause I haven't read TCO.

Also she made fun of a 60 year old artist trying to marry her out of poverty by comparing her to the servant character in TCO who buys back (and essentially steals) all of the aristocratic family's property. Kazuko is 29.

Nothing to do with the Setting Sun but again from the wikipedia: "The Japanese film Sakura no Sono (2008) is about a drama group in a girls-only private high school putting on a production of The Cherry Orchard. It is based on a previous film and a manga of the same name." 

The Spirit of the Age

It's a short novel. I read it in a day while sick from an infection without doing much else. I rate it a 7 out of 10. It's just a sad story about people trying to sense the spirit of the age and attune themselves to it. Mostly failing, and not very gracefully at that, unlike the "angel" Yozo.

Funny? I mistyped "The Setting Sun" as "The Seething Sun" a few times when writing this article. It's either a Freudian slip or maybe I have spent too much time on the ARPANET clone.