Donald Keene’s excellent introduction to Dazai’s book offers some insight into the nature of the enfant terrible author, who drowned himself at the age of 39, his books scandalising his society and marking the moment of a shift in the cultural paradigm as Japan began to embrace what might retrospectively be termed ‘modernity’.
Like many a ground-breaking text, The Setting Sun is somewhat schematic. Kazuko, the daughter of impoverished aristocrats, joins her elderly mother as they relocate to a poor house in the countryside. Her brother Naoji returns from war in the South Pacific to renew his dissipated life, recklessly spending any money the family has left. Most of the novel is narrated from Kazuko’s perspective. She is a fascinating character, in so far as she appears to embrace her change in circumstances and the debasement of her nobility. This permits her to enter into a near-fantasy world where she offers herself to her brother’s even more dissolute and cynical friend as his lover, in spite of the fact their relationship has been tangential, to say the least.
Dazai captures a world not so far removed from that of Sebastian Flyte, where the removal of the security of wealth contributes to an existential crisis of morality. Kazuko is a great reader of French and other European literature. At one point she reads Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘Introduction to Economics’. The economics leaves her cold but, she writes, “as I read this book I felt a strange excitement… the sheer courage the writer demonstrated in tearing apart without any hesitation all manner of conventional ideas”. Dazai places Kazuko on the brink of existentialism: these characters could easily have come out of a novel by Camus.
The term ‘globabalisation’ has been bandied around a great deal since the emergence of the internet. It’s sometimes easy to forget that literature has been playing the same role, perhaps with more profundity, since the invention of the printing presses and before. Dazai’s novel is testament to the way in which the changes in Japanese society were not caused by the events of World War 2 and its aftermath. The war merely consolidated developments which had already been unleashed, with the whole structure of society, moral, hierarchical and financial, already in flux.