Osamu Dazai: A Shameful Life

At the age of 16, I was gifted one of Japan’s most successful novels, Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human by a family member. Its unabashed angst, explored in beautiful prose, allowed me to embody my adolescent frustrations with utter intensity. It introduced a disparate conceptualisation of human morality, not a lifestyle I would adopt, but one I could appreciate nonetheless. Now, at the age of 21, Stone Bridge Press’ new translation, retitled A Shameful Life, brings with it a new opportunity to relive an influential text from my life. I was able to explore the same feelings, albeit with a newfound frustration.

In a series of diary entries, Dazai uses his protagonist, Ōba Yōzō, to explore the life of a confused child, and the awkward bloom of adulthood. His negative, and ultimately self destructive notions of humanity set Yōzō down a path of toxicity, built around one thought cultivated since childhood; I am disqualified from the human race. Not that he particularly minds, as his alienation from humanity allows him to see the inherent selfishness and artificial qualities they possess. In an ironic twist, as Yōzō steps out into a world filled with beings he doesn’t understand, his rash disregard for his life leaves him just as inauthentic.

As opposed to The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, whose age prevents him from using his angst to destroy, Yōzō’s dread remains with him throughout his entire life, and turns from ideological apprehension into acts of self-destruction. The combination of mental illness, and the narcissistic defence mechanisms it can evoke furthered the toxic qualities of our protagonist, whose troubles are transmitted to those he associates with.

Now in my third year of university, I have a better understanding of the existential exhaustion young adulthood involves, and thus a better understanding of Yōzō’s “early adult” diary entries. The polarity of various generational beliefs, expectations of the future and a clashing between reality and what’s left of childhood naivety can leave a person, now ripe with responsibilities, completely overwhelmed. As the piece continues, it becomes apparent that Dazai has mapped out his piece perfectly, incorporating the challenges of different life periods into his skewed perception of living. In doing so, he can link what may be overlooked difficulties of daily life within his disparaging perspective, furthering his case about the fallacy of living.

In spite of hyperbole, what makes the text so confronting is its ability to not only identify feelings of apprehension and frustration, but characterise them in ways we can easily conceptualise. Even if the character is spinning a narrative in his mind about his human-ness, the emotions that he manifests are all too relatable, and his angsty generalisations we can’t help but follow.

However, there is a difference between exploring the feelings of angst and acting out with angst, and sometimes Dazai’s character becomes too pitiful to be completely sympathetic with. While acknowledging the perceptual skewing of mental illness, the way in which others are treated shows a profound rejection of the anti-human ideals Yōzō seems concerned with. His mistreatment of women in particular almost romanticises the objectification of them, and read to me as petty, just as it was misogynistic. What authors conceptualise as a “tortured” character, and the internal journey they must undergo, often teeters on being inconsiderate, and in most instances that line was crossed. It becomes hard to gauge whether Yōzō is cognitively competent, as his introspective descriptions rely on a high amount of emotional intelligence, but is absent from all of his social interactions.

Aspects of this text could also be read as an internal struggle within Japanese ideology just as much as a struggle within Yōzō. Post World War Two, Japan saw a rapid economic and technological advancement. So too did its social structures change, incorporating, or to some, being infiltrated by western ideals. A clashing of cultures ensued, in which many citizens found themselves alienated by the future of their nation. These notions are frequently explored in Japanese literature, particularly in the works of Yukio Mishima. As someone never exposed to war, I can only compare such feelings to the effects of our current technological expansion, in which, as a 21 year old, I can feel out of touch by the speed of its advancement. An example of a conceptual struggle physicalising itself, this may have been at play within Yōzō also, but, once again, didn’t validate his destructive behaviour. 

Dazai’s egoism sometimes blunts the expressions of alienation he attempts to convey. But his disturbing, self-analytical writing is harrowing, and truly touches on the anxiety which lines the casing of ourselves. I can read A Shameful life and feel validated in the destructive, self-inflating thoughts I find myself dabbling with in difficult times, though Yōzō’s behaviour in response to these feelings felt more self-fulfilling than productive. However, your perception of Yōzō should not deter you from reading this piece; its exceptional prose and explorative dedication to our inner alienation creates a high compelling, and highly confronting read.

This product was provided to the reviewer in the form of a review copy. Irrespective of this fact, the article remains completely unbiased, and contains the reviewer’s thoughts only.

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