Blue Bamboo: Tales by Dazai Osamu

BOOK: Blue Bamboo: Tales by Dazai Osamu

Blue Bamboo:
Tales by
Dazai Osamu

Translated and with
an introduction by

Ralph F. McCarthy

Kurodahan Press

Translator’s Introduction

Scholars and fans often divide the career of Dazai Osamu (1909–1948) into three periods—early, middle, and late. The early and late periods tend to get all the attention, but in my lonely opinion Dazai was at his best in the middle period, which corresponds roughly to the years of the Pacific War. All the stories in this collection, with the exception of the early “Romanesque,” were written during that time.

These translations were first published by Kodansha International in 1993, as
Blue Bamboo: Tales of Fantasy and Romance
, but soon went out of print. Rereading the stories nearly twenty years later, I found that I still loved them but that the translations needed a lot of work. I think I’ve improved them considerably, and I’m grateful to Kurodahan Press for the opportunity to present these somewhat spiffed-up versions.

A few notes on the individual stories:

On Love and Beauty

Ai to bi ni tsuite
) May 1939

Please don’t be deterred by the rather incomprehensible lecture on mathematics with which the youngest son opens the story-within-the-story—things sail along quite smoothly once he finally shuts up. I find myself wishing that Dazai had written dozens of stories featuring this quirky family and their favorite pastime, but in fact he left only one sequel—the last story in this collection, “Lanterns of Romance.”

The Chrysanthemum Spirit

) January 1941

Dazai’s title, literally translated, would be something like “A Tale of Honest Poverty.” The story is based loosely on a vignette from a voluminous collection of Chinese folklore and ghost stories entitled
Liao Chai Chih I
, compiled by P’u Sung-ling in the seventeenth century and partially translated by Herbert A. Giles as
Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio
. Dazai places the action in Edo (which is, of course, the old name for Tokyo) and invents the moral conflict reflected in the title he chose. I have deleted from the translation the opening paragraph, in which Dazai introduces the work. Here it is:

The following is based on a tale from the
Liao Chai Chih I
. The original consists of a mere 1,834 Chinese characters, which would fill only about four and a half sheets of the standard manuscript paper we use in Japan. An extraordinarily short little piece, but reading it triggers such a flood of images in the mind that one experiences as complete a sense of satisfaction as might be garnered from most stories of thirty pages or more, and what I’d like to do is to set down the various meanderings of the imagination that occurred to me as I read it. It might be argued that in doing so I’m straying from the proper path as a writer, but since I consider the
Liao Chai Chih I
to be more a sort of sourcebook of folklore than a classic of literature, I don’t think it would be such a terrible sin for a twentieth-century author to make use of his unruly daydreams and impressions to fashion a tale based essentially on one of these old stories and present it to the reader as an original work. There is a lot of talk these days about a “new order,” but my own personal new order would appear to be nothing more nor less than the exhumation of romanticism.

The Mermaid and the Samurai

Ningyo no umi
) October 1944

This is one of the twelve retellings of stories by Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693) that Dazai published during World War II. Dazai’s title literally means “The Sea of Mermaids.” While the story follows the basic outline of Saikaku’s “The Sea of Life-taking Mermaids” (which is a mere three or four pages in length), Dazai expands freely, adding characters and details and turning the whole thing into a near-parody of the melodramatic samurai plays and movies of his time. The following is from an introduction Dazai wrote to his collection of Saikaku tales:

I have entitled this collection
New Tales of the Provinces
but am tempted to give it the subtitle
My Saikaku
. Whatever it is, it is not a modern translation of Saikaku. Modern translations of classics are, generally speaking, pointless endeavors—certainly nothing that anyone who calls himself an author should undertake. About three years ago I published a short story called “A Tale of Honest Poverty,” which was based on a piece from the
Liao Chai Chih I
but greatly embellished with my own vagrant musings, and I have used the same method for the present collection.

Blue Bamboo

) April 1945

This, too, is a very loose retelling of a story in
Liao Chai Chih I
(included in Giles’s translation under the title “The Man Who Was Changed into a Crow”). Dazai preserves the basic situation and little else: the moral dilemma and its resolution are entirely of his own invention, and the countless references to Chinese classics—most of which would have been familiar to Japanese readers in 1945—are nowhere to be found in the original. Dazai appended an “author’s note,” in which he tells us: “This is an original work. I wrote it in the hope that it would be read by the people of China. It is to be translated into Chinese.”

“Blue Bamboo” was, in fact, published in that language (in the Japanese Imperial Government-sponsored journal
Greater East Asian Literature
) even before it was published in Japanese.

Alt Heidelberg

Aruto Haideruberuhi
) March 1940

This story is perhaps the odd man out here, in that it’s a blatantly autobiographical first-person narrative, but we think it makes a nice companion piece.


) November 1934

“Romanesque” was included in Dazai’s first collection of stories,
The Twilight Years
. He often described it as his “debut work” and always seemed to remain quite fond of it, although some readers may be inclined to agree with this comment from “On
The Twilight Years
,” an essay he wrote in 1938: “‘Romanesque,’ for example, is full of comical absurdities, but it’s a bit out of control, so I can’t really recommend it all that highly.”

Lanterns of Romance

Roman doro
) December 1940–June 1941

Dazai’s well-documented reverence of Hans Christian Andersen is indicated here by his letting our old friend, the youngest son, plagiarize extended passages from “The Snow Queen” almost verbatim.

At the beginning of “Lanterns of Romance,” Dazai reproduces (with only a few very minor changes) the first three or four pages of “On Love and Beauty,” and I have had to do some cutting and patching here—deleting even a bit more than merely the redundant material. To ease my conscience, and because it seems a fitting way to end this perhaps superfluous introduction, allow me to present the bulk of my additional deletion here. Dazai is referring to “On Love and Beauty” in this passage:

Being an unpopular writer, I didn’t manage to get the story published immediately in a magazine, and for a long time it remained in the bottom of my desk drawer. Since I also had three or four other unpublished works laid aside—hidden treasures, if you will—in early spring of the year before last I suddenly threw them all together for publication in a single volume. Even now I retain a certain fondness for that collection, meager as it is. All the works are naive, sentimental little offerings, but they nonetheless gave me great pleasure to write and were conceived without the least trace of ambition or ulterior design. So-called
tours de force
tend somehow to be awkward affairs that, upon rereading, can leave even the author with an unpleasant taste in his mouth, but this is a defect that short, carefree little pieces do not share. As usual, that collection of stories didn’t sell very well, but I wasn’t particularly disappointed. At times I even think it’s a good thing it didn’t sell. Though I feel affection for the stories, I don’t consider them to be of the highest quality in terms of content. They are all, in a sense, sloppy works that simply aren’t capable of standing up to a stern, objective reading. But an author’s affection doesn’t always correspond to his objective judgment, and I sometimes find myself stealthily spreading that treacly collection of stories out on my desk and rereading them. Of all the tales in the collection, the most frivolous, and the one that the author loves most dearly, is the very one I refer to above, the one inspired by those five brothers and sisters....

here were five brothers and sisters, and all of them loved romances.

The eldest son was twenty-eight and a Bachelor of Laws. He tended to come across as arrogant and standoffish, but this was only a forbidding mask to disguise his own vulnerability; he was in fact a fragile and very gentle person. Even as he complained, whenever the brothers and sisters went to the movies, that the samurai film they were watching was rubbish, or silly, he was always the first to burst into tears, overwhelmed by the main character’s inner conflict between duty and heart. Always. On emerging from the movie theater, however, he’d be wearing a petulant sort of scowl, and all the way home he’d refuse to utter a single word.

He often professed, without the least hesitation, that he’d never told a lie in his life. Doubtful as that may be, it is true that he had a certain virtuous, irreproachable side to his character. His marks in school had not been very good, and after graduation he hadn’t sought employment but had devoted himself instead to looking after the family. He was currently involved in research on Ibsen. Recently, upon rereading
A Doll’s House
, he had made a major discovery and worked himself into quite a lather: Nora was in love. She was in love with the doctor, Rank. That was his discovery. He called the brothers and sisters together, pointed out the relevant passage, and attempted to explain it to them in a commanding bellow, but all in vain. Far from sharing his excitement, the brothers and sisters merely cocked their heads, grinning and murmuring “H’mm,” or “I wonder.” They were not inclined to take their eldest brother very seriously, and at times even seemed to regard him as somewhat comical.

The elder daughter, who was twenty-five and still unwed, worked at the Railways Ministry. She boasted a rather good command of French. She was tall and very thin, with a long, narrow face, and her younger siblings sometimes referred to her as “The Horse.” Her hair was cut short, and she wore round glasses with black frames. Warm and gregarious by nature, she made friends easily and became thoroughly attached to them, only to be abandoned in due course. This was, in fact, her hobby; secretly she took pleasure in the heartache and melancholia such rejections afforded her. Once, however, when she fell hard for a young official in her department and was, as usual, cast aside, her devastation was quite real, and because the situation at work was as awkward as it was disheartening, she thought it best to plead lung problems. After lying in bed for a week with bandages wrapped around her neck, coughing like mad, she was finally taken to see a specialist, who studied her X-rays and congratulated her on having as healthy a set of lungs as he’d ever seen.

Her real love, in any case, was literature. She read a tremendous amount, and her tastes knew no historical or geographical bounds. She was also stealthily writing something of her own, a treasure that she kept hidden in the right-hand drawer of her bookcase. Placed neatly atop the manuscript was a note that read: “To be made public two years after my death.” The “two years” was amended occasionally to read “ten years” or “two months” or even, at times, “one hundred years.”

The second son was twenty-three. He was a snob. Though enrolled in medical school at the Imperial University, he rarely attended classes, being frail of constitution and frequently ill. He had a face that was almost startlingly lovely. And he was a miser. When the eldest son proudly brought home a ridiculous, worn-out old tennis racket that had supposedly been used by Montaigne and that he bragged of having purchased, after much haggling, for fifty yen, the second son, overwhelmed by the attempt to conceal his righteous indignation, came down with a bad fever that eventually did damage to his kidneys.

He had a tendency to look down on others. Whenever someone ventured an opinion on any topic he would respond with a scornful, uncanny laugh, a grating cackle like the call of some sort of goblin crow. His one and only idol was Goethe, although there was something suspicious about his admiration of the man: he seemed to respect the Master not so much for his pure, poetic spirit as for the lofty social status he enjoyed. But the fact remains that whenever the brothers and sisters held competitions in impromptu verse, the second son always came out on top. He was a natural poet. Precisely because he was such a snob, he had a well-defined, objective grasp of human passion, and if he’d put his mind to it he might even have become an acclaimed writer. A slightly lame sixteen-year-old maid who worked for the family was hopelessly in love with him.

The younger daughter was twenty. She was a narcissist. When a certain newspaper held a campaign to find Miss Japan, she was so tormented by the question of whether or not to nominate herself that she tossed and turned in bed for three consecutive nights, suppressing an urge to scream and tear at her hair. She found relief only when it came to her attention that she was too short to qualify for the competition anyway, and promptly erased the whole thing from her mind. Of all the brothers and sisters, she alone was extraordinarily petite, standing only four feet, seven inches tall. But by no means was she unattractive. She was, in fact, quite an eyeful. Late at night, she would sit in front of a mirror in the nude, practicing coy smiles, or spreading lotion on her shapely white legs, then softly kissing her fingertips and closing her eyes as if enraptured. Once, when a pimple the size of a pinprick appeared on the tip of her nose, she grew so depressed that she almost committed suicide.

There was a distinctive character to the younger daughter’s choice of reading material. She would go to used book stores to search out such works of the early Meiji era as
Chance Encounters with Beautiful Women
Inspirational Tales of Leadership
. These she would bring home and pore over, chuckling to herself as she read. She enjoyed contemporary foreign works in translation, and she also managed somehow to accumulate a great number of obscure little coterie magazines, which she would read from cover to cover, muttering “How amusing!” or “Clever, very clever!” But her real favorite—though she kept this to herself—was the great romantic Izumi Kyoka.

The youngest son was seventeen. He had just matriculated at Tokyo First Higher School, where he was enrolled in the science department. Upon entering higher school, his personality had undergone a sudden transformation. This was a source of great hilarity for the elder brothers and sisters, but the youngest son took his newfound sophistication quite seriously indeed. When a minor dispute of any sort arose in the household, he would inevitably stick his nose into the matter and, though no one was asking him to, pronounce his carefully considered judgment. The entire family was appalled by this and tended to give him a wide berth these days, but the elder daughter, who could not bear to see him sulking and pouting, had written a poem to console him in his lonely exile:

Ah, the sadness of

having become a grownup,

mature in every way,

and being the only one

who knows it.

His face resembled that of a bear cub, and the elder brothers and sisters in fact found him adorable and had always tended to pamper him. As a result of this treatment, he was a bit scatterbrained. He loved detective stories and from time to time, alone in his room, experimented with disguises. He’d recently bought a dual-language edition of Conan Doyle stories, purportedly for the purpose of studying English, but in fact he was reading only the Japanese translation. He quietly suffered the tragic conviction that of all the brothers and sisters, he alone worried about their mother sufficiently.

The father had died some five years before, but there was no threat to their standard of living. Which is to say that they were a family of some substance. Occasionally they were all overcome with a suffocating sense of boredom, and such was the case on this particular day. It was a dark and cloudy Sunday. Summer was on its way, but first the gloomy rainy season must be endured. They’d all gathered in the drawing room, where the mother was dispensing apple juice to her five children. The youngest son’s cup was considerably larger than everyone else’s.

It was customary in this household for the brothers and sisters to relieve bouts of boredom by taking turns spinning out a collective story. The mother too sometimes joined in.

“Any ideas?” The eldest son swept a pompous gaze over the assemblage. “I’d like today’s protagonist to be a bit eccentric, perhaps.”

“Let’s make him an elderly man.” The younger daughter struck a hopelessly affected pose—elbow on table, chin on palm, forefinger raised to rest against cheek. “I gave this a lot of thought last night”—it had, in fact, just occurred to her at that moment—“and I realized that elderly men comprise the most romantic category of human beings. An old woman won’t do at all. It has to be a man. An elderly man can be merely sitting on a veranda, and that’s all it takes, it’s already romantic. Ahh...”

“An old man, eh?” The eldest son pretended to think it over for a moment. “All right, so be it. Let’s make it a nice story, though, full of sweetness and light. ‘The Return of Gulliver’ last time was a bit too dark. I mean... I’ve been rereading Brand recently, and I have to admit it makes my shoulders stiff. It’s just too harrowing.” A rare confession.

“I’ll go first!” The youngest son nominated himself in a shrill voice without bothering to pause and arrange his thoughts. He gulped down his apple juice. And then, slowly and deliberately, he began setting forth his ideas.

“I, uh...I... Allow me to explain how I see it.” The others smiled ruefully at his attempt to sound mature, and the second son produced his famous jeering cackle, but the youngest forged ahead.

“I think this elderly gentleman must be a great mathematician. Yes, I’m sure of it. A great and renowned mathematician. A Doctor of Mathematics, naturally, and a world-class scholar. Mathematics is changing drastically these days, as I’m sure you’re all well aware. It’s going through a transitional period. This has been underway for the past ten years or so—since about 1920, to be more precise, or just after the end of the World War.”

It was painfully obvious that he was parroting, word for word, a lecture he’d attended at school the day before.

“If one looks back on the history of mathematics, one can see how the science has evolved in concert with the times. The first stage in this process came with the discovery of differential and integral calculus. That spawned what in broad terms we might call modern mathematics, as opposed to the traditional Greek variety. New territory had been opened, and directly afterward we had a period of, not refinement, strictly speaking, but expansion. That was the mathematics of the eighteenth century. As we move into the nineteenth century we find, sure enough, another rash of new ideas, and this too was a time of sudden change. To choose one representative figure, we might mention Gauss, for example. That’s G, a, u, double-s. But if we define a transitional period as a time during which continual, rapid change takes place, then the present is, indeed, a transitional period to end all transitional periods.”

This was of no use whatsoever—least of all as a story. The youngest son was nonetheless positively triumphant, convinced that he was beginning to hit his stride.

“Things have become extremely complicated. We are now awash in a deluge of theorems, and mathematics as we know it has reached a dead end. It has been reduced to a science of mere rote memorization. And the one man who at this crucial juncture has dared to stand up and proclaim freedom for mathematics is none other than our elderly professor. He’s a great man. Had he become a detective, he undoubtedly would have solved even the most difficult and bizarre case after nothing more than a quick stroll through the scene of the crime. That’s how brilliant he is. At any rate, as Cantor himself has put it,”—here we go again—“freedom is the very essence of mathematics. This is certainly true.

“Our word for ‘freedom’—
—was coined as a translation of the German
. But it’s said that the Japanese word was originally used in a strictly political sense and may not be an exact equivalent.
is a simple concept that means ‘not enslaved,’ ‘not subject to restraint.’ Examples of things that are not
are to be found in any number of familiar places... so many, in fact, that it’s difficult to choose a single illustration. But take our telephone number, for example, which, as you all know, is four eight two three. How do we write it? With a comma between the first and second integers. Four comma eight two three. Now, if we were to write it with a slash, as they do in Paris—four eight slash two three—one could see the logic, but this custom of separating each group of three digits with a comma is nothing less than a form of slavery. Our elderly professor is making every effort to smash such corrupt conventions. He is a great man. Poincaré tells us that the only thing worthy of our love is truth, and I heartily agree. To grasp the truth in a concise and direct manner is the highest of human endeavors. There is nothing superior to it.”

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