‘Self Portraits’ by Osamu Dazai (Review)

After reading about one writer who liked to enjoy himself, today’s #JanuaryInJapan choice continues with that theme.  We’ll be spending some time in the company of a famous author, one with a bit of a reputation, and the more we hear about his life and exploits, the more he lives up to the legend.  You could take it all with a grain of salt, but there’s a reason why we should put faith in what we hear.  You see, much of it is coming straight from the writer, himself…

*****
Self Portraits: Tales from the life of Japan’s great decadent romantic is a book few of you will have heard of, and fewer still will have read.  It’s a wonderful collection of short stories by the Japanese writer Osamu Dazai, chosen and translated by Ralph F. McCarthy, providing insights into the rather turbulent life of a fascinating character.  Dazai is known for his drinking, womanising and suicide attempts, and here we have it all in his own words, in a series of pieces that provide insights into his private and work lives.

However, Self Portraits is far more than just a collection of stories.  McCarthy begins by contributing an introduction taking us from the birth of Shūji Tsushima in 1909 (Dazai is a pen name) to his untimely death in 1948, via several relationships, marital and otherwise.  The translator also pens a short introduction to each of the stories, placing them in the context of Dazai’s life and pointing out similarities and differences with real-life events.  Adding to the effect are the many photos included in the book, haunting portraits of a different kind, showing the striking Dazai through the years.

The eighteen stories are arranged chronologically, not by time of writing, but by the period of the writer’s life they cover.  We start with ‘My Elder Brothers’, a poignant family portrait culminating in the sad early death of his brother, Keiji.   The book culminates with another short piece, ‘Cherries’, a bitter tale of a bad husband and father, written shortly before Dazai’s suicide.

The stories in Self Portraits are a mix of short pieces and longer stories, with some mere sketches.  These include ‘No Kidding’, a jokey piece in which the protagonist preys on a newcomer from the sticks at Ueno Station, but one that ends with a dark twist.  Then there’s ‘Handsome Devils’, a later piece in which Dazai describes being taken by journalists to see Tokyo street life, and realising that the people he meets are no different to him.

My preference, unsurprisingly, is for some of the longer pieces, especially when they’re connected to his writing.  In ‘Eight Scenes from Tokyo’, Dazai takes himself off to the country, locking himself away to write:

In painting those scenes, I hoped to depict my ten years of life in the city.  I’m thirty-two this year.  According to the standard Japanese view of things, that puts me on the verge of middle age.  I consult my own flesh, my own passions, and find myself, alas, unable to deny it.  Mark this well: your youth is gone.  You’re a grave and solemn-faced man in his thirties.
‘Eight Scenes from Tokyo’, p.147 (Kodansha International, 1991)

Here he takes stock of a decade of life in Tokyo and his misspent youth.  From a distance, he examines years of drugs, women, suicide attempts and lies, and it’s not a pretty sight.

Another of my favourites was ‘One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji’.  This one covers a lengthy period spent away from Tokyo, featuring an extended stay in a mountain chalet and a climbing trip with Dazai’s mentor, Masuji Ibuse.  It’s a fun story of hiking and other adventures, including an embarrassing scene that Ibuse insists never happened, even if Dazai begged to disagree 😉

The stories in Self Portraits are all beautifully written (with thanks due here to McCarthy), and many show a surprisingly light, humorous touch.  ‘A Little Beauty’ has the writer gawking slightly lecherously at a beautiful young woman during a trip to the local public baths, admitting his uncouth nature, while ‘Canis familiaris’, with its pompous, Victorian start, shows a completely different side to Dazai:

I have confidence when it comes to dogs.  I’m confident that eventually I’ll be bitten by one.  I have no doubt that one day a dog will sink its teeth into my flesh.  I’m confident of it.  In fact, it amazes me that I’ve managed to get by unscathed until now.  Dogs, dear reader, are ferocious beasts.  Is it not said that they’ve been known to bring down horses and to do battle with, and even defeat, the mighty lion?  Small wonder, I say, nodding sadly to myself.  Just look at those teeth.  Long, sharp fangs like that are not to be scoffed at.
‘Canis familiaris’, p.108

A story that starts off with the writer feigning nonchalance when walking through streets full of stray dogs, ends with the self-professed dog hater wondering what to do with a pooch that’s become a little too attached to him.

What many will be here for, though, is the darker side of Dazai’s life, and he doesn’t disappoint.  In ‘Thinking of Zenzō’, the writer is invited to a meeting of writers and artists from his home prefecture and, despite his best intentions, ends up making a drunken fool of himself.  An earlier piece, ‘Female’, consists of a conversation between two friends about an imaginary outing with a woman, a fun game that turns dark:

“Stop right there.  You’re not just making this up.”
He was right.  The following afternoon, the woman and I attempted suicide.
‘Female’, p.52

It’s even darker when you realise this actually happened, and that only the writer survived…

The stories, the prefaces and the main introduction all help the reader to form a complete picture of Dazai, and what we learn is that the myth, painting him as mad, bad and dangerous to know, isn’t the whole picture.  He was an introverted man obsessed with his writing and constantly fighting the demons of addiction.  He was lazy, and slightly gullible, but also easily led by his friends, so it was lucky that he had so many people who were prepared to help him out.  Surprisingly, he was also a family man, yet never quite able to shake off his self-destructive tendencies, leading to his frantic final years.

All in all, Self Portraits is a superb work of literature and biography, and I only have one bad thing to say about it – it’s virtually unobtainable.  I was lucky enough to be gifted my copy, but the book’s been out of print for a while, and you’ll struggle to find an affordable copy online – yet another victim of the demise of Kodansha International.  Here’s hoping someone manages to reissue this at some point as it’s a book no self-respecting J-Lit aficionado should do without.  Self Portraits manages to combine an entertaining collection of autobiographical stories with intriguing insights into the writer’s life, and it’s a book I’m very glad to have on my shelves.

8 thoughts on “‘Self Portraits’ by Osamu Dazai (Review)

  1. It is soooo expensive to get, I only managed an e-book version. It provides a far more rounded picture of Dazai than Ningen Shikkaku, right? Brilliant addition for any fan of Japanese literature.

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  2. Great post Tony – I have a Kodansha copy of this which I’m hanging onto like grim death. In fact, I may well dig this out soon and actually read it, because I’ve just read Tsushima and that reading will I think inform how I react to this one! I love Kodansha books – as objects they’re lovely, quite apart from the contents – and I wish more of what they issued was still available.

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    1. Kaggsy – A lot of mine are actually flimsy paperbacks, but they still need rereleasing – luckily, I think this one will get another chance at some point!

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  3. Very interesting. I should read this soon. My public library has a copy, so that problem is solved.

    The collection of Akutagawa stories I am reading now does something similar, devoting the second half of the book to autobiographical writings, some direct, some not.

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    1. Tom – I quite like books that combine biographies and stories (although that’s not what this does!), like the Ichiyo Higuchi collection I read a while back.

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