‘Blue Bamboo’ by Osamu Dazai (Review)

Back at the start of the year, during my January in Japan event, Patrick of my so-called research wrote a J-Lit Giants piece on Osamu Dazai.  Having only read The Setting Sun and a couple of short stories, I was naturally keen to try some more of the books Patrick talked about in his piece.  The opportunity to do this soon came about when Kurodahan Press sent me a review copy of a short story collection – which turned out to be a little different to what I’d read before…

*****
Blue Bamboo was originally released by Kodansha USA, but was recently reissued by Kurodahan Press.  Its a collection of short stories from Dazai’s middle period of writing, and this reissue gave the original translator, Ralph McCarthy, the opportunity to give his work a bit of a face-lift.  Its 200 pages comprise seven stories, and while Dazai’s longer work is steeped in depressing realism, these tales have a much lighter, other-worldly focus.

Two of the stories (‘The Chrysanthemum Spirit’ and ‘Blue Bamboo’) are loose adaptations of old Chinese folk tales.  In the first, a stubborn, cantankerous old man, with a passion for growing chrysanthemums, encounters an unusual brother and sister combination on his way home.  What follows is an amusing little story involving pretty flowers and the supernatural, not a sentence I find myself writing often!

In the title story, one which keeps you guessing as to whether it is to be a tragedy or a comedy, a poetic soul, with no aptitude for civil service entrance exams, is at his wits’ end.  Observing a flock of ravens outside a temple, he wishes to become one of the sacred birds – and has his wish granted. What follows is a tale exploring the ups and downs of getting what you want…

Another fairy-tale story is ‘The Mermaid and the Samurai‘, an adaptation of a famous Japanese short story from the seventeenth century.  Konnai Chudo, an exemplary samurai, kills a mermaid which is threatening to sink a boat he is travelling on.  However, when news of the event gets out, a courtier laughs at him, forcing Konnai to seek evidence of his feat – a quest which will end in tears for most involved…  It’s a story which emphasises the importance of trust and belief, underlining its pivotal place in Bushido, the way of the samurai:

“To a true samurai, trust is everything.  He who will not believe without seeing is a pitiful excuse for a man.  Without trust, how can one know what is real and what is not?  Indeed, one may see and yet not believe – is this not the same as never seeing?  Is not everything, then, no more than an immaterial dream? The recognition of any reality begins with trust.  And the source of all trust is love for one’s fellow man.  But you – you have not a speck of love in your miserable heart, nor of faith.”
p.55, ‘The Mermaid and the Samurai‘ (Kurodahan Press, 2012)

Then again, if someone told me they’d just taken out a mermaid, I’m not sure I’d believe them either 😉

‘Romanesque’ is an earlier piece, again verging on the surreal, as Dazai outlines the lives of three absurd characters (a wizard, a fighter and a liar) in order to… well, I’m not really sure.  This story is then mentioned in ‘Alt Heidelberg’, an autobiographical sketch of a youthful, drunken summer spent at a friend’s house trying to write a story.  It’s well written and humorous, and, in its more realistic tone, a welcome contrast to some of the other stories in the collection.

My favourites though are the two which bookend the collection.  The first story, ‘On Love and Beauty’, introduces us to a family of five unusual siblings, whose characters are sketched out for us by the writer.  They too tell stories, so Dazai is telling us a story within a story – one which works very well.  There’s a lot more to the idea than mere storytelling, and Dazai uses his meta-fictional idea nicely.  As the eldest son muses:

“The description of physical appearance is extremely important in a work of fiction.  By describing what a character looks like, you bring him alive and remind people of someone close to them, thereby lending intimacy to the tale and involving the audience, so that they cease to be mere passive observers.”
(pp.22/3, ‘On Love and Beauty’)

This is exactly what Dazai does, and the story works wonderfully precisely because the reader has a clear mental image of the family members.

The family are back for the last story, ‘Lanterns of Romance’, which takes up sixty of the two-hundred pages.  This time the five spend the first days of the new year spinning a longer story, to be written down, then performed.  It starts with a happily-ever-after fairytale, but goes on to become something both more realistic and grotesque.  Dazai also extends his portrait of the characters narrating the tale, adding new members to the family and fleshing out the personality of the mother.  While he uses a Hans Christian Andersen story to kick off the family’s effort, the style is all Dazai’s own 🙂

When I read The Setting Sun and Dazai’s other stories, the impression I was left with was one of wasted lives, squalor and depression.  This collection is much lighter, comical and humorous, but just as enjoyable.  Dazai shows a deft touch in his humour, and McCarthy has done a good job in bringing it across into English.  There are dozens of examples like the following:

“People in the neighborhood were wont to remark that it was just like a scholar to be so perverse as to name his only son Saburo, which is of course a name normally reserved for third sons.  The fact that no one could explain what it was that made that particular act so typical of scholarly perversity was, it was said, precisely what made it so.”
(p.134, ‘Romanesque’)

Obviously, I haven’t read McCarthy’s original translation, but I’m sure that whatever he did was for the better!

Entertaining stories, a good translation and a brief introduction with information about the background of the stories make this a book well worth reading.  I’d recommend it to anyone interested in J-Lit (or in tall tales!).  Give it a go – I doubt you’ll be disappointed 🙂

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16 thoughts on “‘Blue Bamboo’ by Osamu Dazai (Review)

  1. This books sounds great. I'm a novice to translated fiction so I appreciate the recommendation. I love a good piece of meta-fiction too 🙂

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  2. I've got a copy of Crackling Mountain and Other Stories to read next and then I think I'll turn to this, Romanesque sounds intriguing!.

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  3. I really enjoyed Blue Bamboo too–especially the opening and closing stories. I definitely read an older translation though–did McCarthy write an intro discussing his changes? I'd be curious to have a sense of how extensive they were…

    AND I just finished The Setting Sun this afternoon. It was harsh and overwhelming but Dazai's writing makes everything compelling…

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  4. One of my favourite writers. Yes, he can do slightly more light-hearted stuff as well. I have this theory that he was possibly bipolar. Hope I'll have time to join you on the Japanese Literature challenge in June…

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  5. This is a great title to keep in mind for reading Japanese short stories. When I first began this sub-genre, I was annoyed because I was so used to American stories with a beginning, middle and end. But I have since come to LOVE Japanese short stories, and the one you described about becoming a raven and exploring the idea of receiving what you want sounds fascinating. We often rue the very idea once it's ours.

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  6. Colleen – I don't think he went into specifics, just that he revisited it…

    I read 'The Setting Sun' a good while ago now, so I don't remember too much about it (other than that it was good!). I think that it's about time I started rereading some of the J-Lit I first tried a few years back.

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  7. Bellezza – Short stories definitely shouldn't have a beginning, middle and end (unless they're written by school kids…) – the whole point of short stories is to make you think about what isn't said 😉 I think Akutagawa is a good place to start for Japanese short stories, but Dazai is definitely one to try too 🙂

    Of course, the Oxford book is *the* place to start!

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  8. Happy to see so much interest in Dazai! Great review Tony, and I'm glad you enjoyed it. One of the reasons I recommended it when I wrote about Dazai in January is because it is a departure from what one not overly familiar with Dazai might expect.

    On a technical note, there is one more difference between the two versions of Blue Bamboo you mentioned. The older Kodansha volume contains the story “Cherry Leaves and the Whistler,” which is not included in the new Kurodahan book. Instead, the Kurodahan version has “Alt Heidelberg.”

    Unfortunately, a lot of his stuff is out of print and hard to find, even used. In case you are interested, I have the most complete list of his short stories translated into English on my blog.

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  9. ResearcherNo1 – Oh, I wasn't aware of that; interesting that they made that decision…

    I'd love to read more of his short stories, so I'll keep an eye out for available collections 🙂

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  10. I've read and enjoyed two of Dazei's books, No Longer Human and Schoolgirl, and this is another I've been meaning to get around to. Definitely one of my favourite Japanese writers.

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