The Power of the Japanese I-Novel: Yukio Mishima and Osamu Dazai

I_Novel_Dazai_MishimaAnyone who has written anything knows that writing is an intensely personal act. One of the reasons certain books are so powerful is that they are honest; such stories aren’t escapist but confrontational, and we’re better off for experiencing that confrontation.

It’s little surprise, then, that Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask, is so powerful, given just how comprehensively it explores the psyche of a young Japanese man, Kochan, who, from a young age, knows he’s different. At the very least he’s homosexual, but there are moments throughout where we see a sadistic side to the protagonist’s desires. Those moments, though, only serve to make the character more sympathetic – Kochan is totally alone, unable to establish an honest, meaningful relationship with anyone. That isolation is communicated in stunning prose that makes this my absolute favorite confessional novel, bar none.

Confessions of a Mask is a great novel, but it’s not unique, and researching the cultural background of this work led me to discovering another great Japanese writer altogether.

Two traditions in early 20th century Japanese literature were the Buraiha, or Decadent, School and the I-Novel. Both names are pretty self-explanatory, but it’s worth emphasizing how much courage it took writers to produce works under either, let alone both, schools. Aside from the obvious fact that morality was far more rigid in mainstream culture roughly one hundred years ago, in Japanese society it was outright illegal to be gay (similar to the case in England, where the man who arguably did more to end WWII, Alan Turing, was arrested for his homosexuality…but that’s another story). Mishima himself was gay, but writing a novel like Confessions of a Mask takes an enormous amount of bravery. It’s fiction, yes, but clearly based on Mishima’s own experiences. That’s what makes the I-Novel so powerful – it gave expression to the individuality of a work’s author. The Decadent School was likewise liberating. Yes, one could argue about what’s good taste, etc., but regardless, I firmly believe that art growing into a space where humanity can honestly express itself, in all its good and terrible aspects, is a positive development in society. This was especially helpful in the immediate post-war period in Japan, where an entire generation was left aimless and collectively shell-shocked by the utter defeat they had suffered, never mind the obliteration of two of their cities by nuclear bombs, killing roughly 100,000 people and scarring generations up to today, literally and figuratively.

This was the period which saw the rise of Osamu Dazai, a writer widely renowned in Japan but little known in the U.S. Two of his books published in English – possibly the only two – are The Setting Sun and No Longer Human. I have to be honest – I respect that Dazai is so admired in Japan and think reading his books offer great insight into a complex, tortured man and the time in which he was writing (people began referring to those most deeply hurt by Japan’s defeat as “The Setting Sun generation” after that book’s publication). But I felt both were a bit uneven. The Setting Sun has great moments, but the ideas it expresses – especially through the pessimistic, heavily Nietzsche-influenced brother of the main character – often feel unfinished. Some sentences are insightful, others read like something a teenager who’d just started reading philosophy might think or write. Of course, that’s part of the point, as these stories reflect the uncertainty of the time. Still, Confessions of a Mask is more precise in its psychological study of humanity and  far more original in what it has to say.

The other Dazai novel translated into English, No Longer Human, has the same pros and cons. It deals with isolation in a way similar to Confessions of a Mask, but ultimately doesn’t pack nearly as much of a punch because, to give just two reasons, 1. Oba’s, the narrator, feeling of isolation is never fully explained – Mishima doesn’t just explain his narrator’s isolation, he demonstrates it beautifully. And 2. There are times when Oba is frankly unlikable. Maybe I’m supposed to feel sorry for the character, but honestly, without a better understanding of why Oba felt the way he did, I could only see him as a nihilistic misanthrope who was narcissistically consumed by his despair, which he cared about more than any other human being, including those who show him the most care.

I may be being too harsh, particularly because this book was even more influenced by Dazai’s personal life than The Setting Sun. Dazai was a deeply troubled person with a tragically short life, and while I may not enjoy reading it as much as Mishima’s work, I can firmly say that it is an utterly honest book, and that counts for a hell of a lot.

So go read Confessions of a Mask. Now.

And then read The Setting Sun and No Longer Human…if you want.

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2 Comments

  1. I think you are being too harsh on Dazai. Suicidalality does things to a person, whether you see it as a psychological problem or not (because he and his characters were Japanese, I hesitate to talk about it in terms of (or ONLY in terms of) individual psychology. But either way, the things you’re bothered about (especially not having a ‘reason’ for such melancholy) is the root of the problem with a lot of suicidal thoughts- they don’t go away just because you don’t have a reason for wanting to end your own life.

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    1. Hi, Erica. Thanks for your comment. I think you make a good point and I agree that just because a person can’t point to a “reason” behind their suicidal thoughts doesn’t mean the depression is any less real or worthy or attention. I’d never want to suggest that. I think my harshness has more to do with the writing/plot structure than the content, per se. The formless malaise that can consume a person is certainly a worthy subject of literature; I simply think I got – I don’t want to say bored – but fatigued after a while of Dazai making the same points. I liked the book at the beginning, and there were moments I enjoyed quite a bit, but the more it went on, the more I felt like he’d made his point and should either move on, find new ways of expressing what the narrator was feeling, etc.

      In any case, I’m very glad I familiarized myself with Dazai’s writing. Thanks again for your comment and if you disagree with any of what I’ve just said I’m happy to continue thinking about the issue, as I’d hate to treat any book unfairly, especially one that deals with a topic so resonant with people around the world (not to mention the author himself, obviously).

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