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Book Review: The Setting Sun by Osamu Dazai

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After reading Osamu Dazai’s The Setting Sun, I don’t know who annoys me more: the whiny author’s self-indulgence, his whiny characters, or the reviewers who give five stars to this mediocrity. Of all the Japanese novels I’ve read thus far, this is by far the dullest and most clichéd. In fact, after reading, I just might have to rethink some of the things I said about Mishima’s otherwise excellent Spring Snow, where I spoke about the lead character being a pill and not particularly likable. But at least he had backbone. Compared to the flimsy characters in The Setting Sun, though, the depressives in Mishima’s books appear like happily dancing Smurfs. Okay, not really, but The Setting Sun, while not a terrible book, is definitely a mediocre one. The characters are whiny, vapid and have no insight. The prose is flat and void of any lyricism. Littered with clichés, the deepest you’re gonna get from this book is:

“A sensation of helplessness, as if it were utterly impossible to go on living. Painful waves beat relentlessly on my heart, as after a thunderstorm the white clouds scud across the sky. A terrible emotion — shall I call it apprehension — wrings my heart only to release it, makes my pulse falter, and chokes my breath. At times everything grows misty and dark before my eyes, and I feel that the strength of my whole body is oozing away through my fingertips.”

Note the bland description, the flatness of the prose and clichés. I feel like I’m reading an MFA graduate. This isn’t the worst writing I’ve read, but it’s actually one of the better passages in the book, believe it or not. But ranking this alongside Kawabata, Soseki or Mishima is laughable. And as for the author, he was in and out of mental institutions, was apparently obsessed with suicide and attempted it several times but failed. Ultimately, in 1948 he got his wish when he drowned in a river. Just reading his Wikipedia page, one can see his life was full of melodrama and despair, despite having grown up rich. He and his wife at one time even planed a double suicide, but when they both failed they decided to divorce instead. They could have just done that in the first place.

Shamed by being a part of the aristocracy, that’s a theme within The Setting Sun. The female narrator (Kazuko) and her brother Naoji both are determined to abandon their class. This isn’t necessarily a bad topic for a tale; if only the writing weren’t so dull. The novel reads as a long diary entry written by an uninteresting and unobservant person. The brother too is a cliché who ends up suiciding himself in the end, but not before writing a very long and dull suicide note to his sister that is full of all the suicidal clichés. He decides to off himself after their mother dies. He tells his sister that his big “secret” in life is having fallen in love with a painter’s wife, and also deciding just when he should kill himself. But at least he dies sober.

Here are just some culled snippets of the fun: “It’s no use. I’m going. I cannot think of the slightest reason why I should have to go on living… It’s useless. I am going to die. I have a poison that kills without pain… I have no room for hope. Good-bye… Good-bye… Once more, good-bye…”

I just wish he would already. When I reviewed Soseki’s excellent novel Kokoro, I had criticized the last section involving a mentor’s suicide letter who wants to die after he learns of the suicide of General Nogi. I argued that the final section was not as strong as some other parts of the book. Yet the difference is that Soseki’s characters are still capable of making interesting and philosophical observations, even when situations come across as a bit heavy-handed. And reasons behind the mentor’s suicide are believable within his own universe. There are no profound philosophical revelations in The Setting Sun, except for perhaps that revolution and love are the most pleasurable things in the world. Deep, huh?

As for the title? “We will live in perpetual struggle with the old morality, like the sun.” Of course this is a nod to the ongoing political changes happening in Japan during that time, but this change in power and politics has been handled better in far better novels by far better writers.

Whenever I read any book, I usually will mark off interesting passages and ideas of note, but in The Setting Sun, I marked none. In fact, after reading, my brain felt a little like flat soda. Translated by Donald Keene, I can’t flaw the translator on this translation because the ideas are very straightforward and conventional — so much that I don’t think there’s any translator that could have saved this book from its lack of lyricism and trite ideas. Contrary to the mediocre translation of Endo’s The Silence I encountered, I could tell that despite the moments of clichés (a flaw of the mediocre translation, not Endo), Endo’s structure, overall character development and situations harbored intriguing and philosophical concepts. There is none of that in The Setting Sun, for I think that Dazai is just not that good a writer.

A friend of mine who has much knowledge of Japanese literature told me that Mishima once went to one of Dazai’s readings and told him to his face that he basically sucked. Literary hyperbole or not, take his word…and my own. Pass on this book.

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About Jessica Schneider

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    Mishima did indeed go to one of Dazai’s readings and told him he sucked. Specifically, he told Dazai that he hated his work. Dazai retorted by telling the crowd that he must have loved his work or he wouldn’t be there. The remark stung Mishima. He would still occasionally mention it decades later.

    Dazai has a strange appeal that is markedly subjective. His work seems obtuse, but it gnaws in the conscience of unfulfilled people. Dazai’s remark to Mishima and Mishima’s reaction is, what I think, a microcosm for the toxic relationship the reader has with Dazai.