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This article was written on 13 Feb 2011, and is filed under Essays.

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Osamu Dazai and Masuji Ibuse

Ibuse-san wa akunin desu. [Ibuse is an evil man.]

Osamu Dazai

Osamu Dazai is considered one of the greatest 20th century Japanese writers. I’ve read the two of his novels that New Directions published in English, The Setting Sun and No Longer Human, but got the sense that as with many other East Asian writers, way too much was being lost in translation. Like Mishima and Kawabata, Dazai committed suicide. Dazai’s death seemed to stem from much more evident instability than Kawabata or Mishima’s (though attempting to reinstate the Emperor by coup, as Mishima did, certainly qualifies as some sort of eccentricity), but he left a mysterious note shortly before his death proclaiming that fellow writer and mentor Masuji Ibuse was an evil man.

Ibuse is best known for writing Black Rain, a miserable tale of atomic bomb survivors who were wounded and poisoned and mostly abandoned by their country. (It was later adapted by Shohei Imamura, for whom the material was a perfect fit.) Ibuse was about ten years older than Dazai and far less troubled than him. His writing was far less confessional and performative. They met after Dazai fell in love with a book of stories by Ibuse and struck up correspondence with him. Dazai threatened to commit suicide if not granted an interview with Ibuse, and so they met and Ibuse became his literary and personal mentor. Dazai fell into drugs and womanizing and suicide attempts, while Ibuse helped him out however he could–or else he enabled Dazai, depending on one’s interpretation. And then Dazai died, drowning along with his mistress in a double suicide (or possibly a murder-suicide). And then there was the letter with the above phrase, apparently with no explanation. (I haven’t been able to find a translation of the entire letter.)

Ibuse was devastated. In his book on Ibuse, John Whittier Treat says that Ibuse came to write over thirty tormented works about Dazai after the latter’s death. One begins “I have no idea why Dazai died.” Evident guilt, evident need to make sense of what had happened. To be named in the note and then have the only person capable of explaining the accusation permanently disappear: for Ibuse it seems to have been hell. I’d like to know more about it. From what little I do know, it seems that Ibuse felt a double rejection: first when his pupil abandons the path of life that Ibuse was trying to lay for him; and second when his pupil turns on him and makes him out to be the bad influence. I can’t imagine that Dazai possibly calculated the effect that the rejection would have on Ibuse, but the circumstances made it brutal.

One Comment

  1. me.
    23 February 2011

    Have you read The Saga of Osamu Dazai by Phyllis Lyons?,as we know Dazai was a fragile character who fell out with much of the literary establishment of his time, including Kawabata. I’ve still not read John Whittier Treat’s book, (I really want to!), although I’d recommend Self Portraits by Dazai, translated by Ralph F. McCarthy who adds informative biographical notes on each of the pieces and stories.

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