Otogizoshi: The Fairy Tale Book of Dazai Osamu (Translated)

BOOK: Otogizoshi: The Fairy Tale Book of Dazai Osamu (Translated)
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Joel Cohn

The air raids that devastated most of the large and medium-sized cities of Japan in the final year of World War II form a decidedly unconventional backdrop for Dazai Osamu’s retellings of four well-known Japanese folk tales. As Dazai’s prologue indicates, he composed these stories in the spring and early summer of 1945 as the increasingly frequent air raids, which had begun in November of 1944, were adding an element of more or less constant danger to the already difficult lives of the residents of Tokyo and other Japanese cities, many of whom had nothing more to rely on in the way of protection than hastily dug backyard trenches. After evacuating his wife and two young children
to his wife’s hometown of Kofu in late March, Dazai returned alone to his house on the western outskirts of Tokyo, only to see it damaged by bombs in early April. He then rejoined his family in Kofu, where he completed
The Fairy Tale Book
shortly before losing his home to an air raid for a second time. Despite the chaotic conditions that prevailed in the months preceding and following Japan’s surrender in mid-August, the book was published in October, making it one of the first works of literature to appear after the end of the war.

In the less than three years that remained before the drowned bodies of Dazai and a mistress were discovered, apparently in the aftermath of a double suicide, he burst forth from relative obscurity to become the first great literary sensation of postwar Japan. His best-known works from these years, especially the novels
The Setting Sun
No Longer Human
(1948), not only vividly captured the pervasive sense of misery and emptiness that gripped a ruined nation, they also secured him an enduring place in the Japanese literary pantheon and a seemingly unshakable reputation as Japan’s preeminent voice of gloom and suffering, rendered in an unflinchingly honest and unforgettably vivid style.

 To many, including some who have never actually read anything by him, Dazai is a virtual poster boy for the stereotype of the modern Japanese novelist as a tormented spirit, a suicide waiting to happen, and the mere mention of the titles of his best-known works is enough to evoke images of all-encompassing despair. But even at its grimmest, his writing is regularly illuminated with flashes of sardonic wit, and in much of it, especially the pieces from the middle years of his relatively brief career, the sense of angst is muted and his penchant for subtle comedy is deftly displayed.
The Fairy Tale Book
can be seen as a culmination of this brighter (or at least less miserable) strain in Dazai’s fiction. Even as it immediately confronts us with a tension-laden
tableau of a family huddling in an air raid shelter, the prologue offers a surprisingly droll depiction of the slightly feckless-sounding narrator’s attempts to deflect his wife’s complaints and placate a child too young to understand the peril they face. The stories themselves offer only occasional hints of having been composed at a time when the lives of the Japanese people were becoming
increasingly desperate

not that a more candid portrayal of
the looming threat of disaster would have been approved by the censors. 

Turning to traditional Japanese materials was an attractive option for writers during the war years, as they afforded a source of relatively safe subject matter and met the government-imposed mandate for writing that conformed to “national policy” as long as they were handled with proper respect. Dazai had already produced a number of pieces in this vein, but he was rarely one for playing along with authority figures of any kind. In
The Fairy Tale Book
the apparent mood of reverence for national tradition is periodically undercut as the storyteller notes the difficulty of confirming the accuracy of his sources while cowering in a bomb shelter, points out the failure of some of his characters to embody the time-honored spirit of the samurai, or undermines his purported stance of “deference for the sanctity of the Japanese historical record” with long-winded displays of playful pseudo-pedantry. Most revealingly of all, he explains that he was forced to abandon his plan to provide some momentary diversion for “those fighting courageously to help Nippon through her national crisis” by retelling the stirring tale of the demon-conquering hero Momotaro (a favorite figure during the war years) once he realized that “a completely invincible hero just isn’t good story material” and that “An author who has never been number one in Japan–or even number two or three–can hardly be expected to produce an adequate picture of Japan’s foremost young man.”

As some of these comments suggest, Dazai was also a writer with a compulsive urge to reflect, or even project, his real-life experiences and concerns in his work. In other words, he was very much a representative of the predilection for autobiographical or self-referential semi-fiction, known as
, which exerted a powerful hold on many Japanese authors and readers for much of the twentieth century. In these stories he often seems to be encouraging us to draw no dividing line between the author and the teller, occasionally even going so far as to refer to himself by his own name. But here the more directly autobiographical elements, which form the main or even the sole story line in so many other works by Dazai, are confined to the storyteller’s intermittent evocations of wartime conditions and his own personal situation in his introductory and concluding comments, along with his periodic interruptions and digressions, creating a kind of parallel narrative to the tales that he is recounting.

For Japanese readers this addition of a new angle to long-familiar stories is likely to provide a large part of the fun. But for many of them, the pleasure of reading Dazai is as much about getting a feeling of being in touch with the author as it is about being drawn into the world of a story, and in these tales Dazai’s distinctive voice is very much in evidence, reaching out and taking us into his confidence in a warm, intimate tone. Far more often than a conventional storyteller might, he persistently provides his own running commentary on the main events of the tales—sometimes trying to extract a meaning, sometimes wandering off on a tangent that relates more to his own preoccupations than it does to any events in the story. We may not know, or care, whether the “real Dazai” indeed lived through moments like those he describes here, or whether he actually believed everything the storyteller claims to believe, but as in the tales that were told to us as children, the voice and presence of the teller, by turns reassuring, fearsome, and clownish, and occasionally wise, is as much a part of the experience as the incidents and characters themselves.

This is not the only way in which Dazai transforms the traditional tales. He fleshes out the bare bones characterizations and situations of the children’s storybook versions (shown in the translation in bold type), giving each of the sketchily described stock figures of the originals a context and a distinctive personality. Most of these have little or no relation to the traditional story line, and some, such as the garrulous, wisecracking tortoise of “Urashima-san” and the disastrously gendered tanuki and rabbit of “Click-Clack Mountain,” are truly memorable. Many of them are endowed with a degree of psychological complexity and ambiguity that owes more to the techniques of modern fiction than to the simplistic good or evil characterizations of conventional folk tales; this is particularly apparent in the final story, “The Sparrow Who Lost Her Tongue,” where the strengths and flaws of the husband and wife are depicted with deep sensitivity and understanding.

Dazai’s retellings also introduce a number of themes that play little or no part in the originals. Some of these will be familiar to readers who know other works of his: the quandary of the outsider who is taken seriously by nobody and misunderstood by everybody, including himself; the family and male-female ties, including marriage, that become emotional dead ends rather than sources of comfort or fulfillment; and the suspicion that things are all too likely to go wrong when people are left to their devices,
or as the narrator puts it in the conclusion to “The Stolen Wen,” “although not a single instance of wrongdoing occurs in the story, people end up unhappy.” “The Sparrow Who Lost Her Tongue” offers one of the most succinct distillations of Dazai’s outlook to be found anywhere in his work: “The people of this world are all liars.... All they do is lie. And the worst part of it is that they don’t even realize they’re doing it.”

While readers familiar with the conventional versions of the tales may appreciate the note of freshness and increased depth created by Dazai’s
those who come to them with a preformed idea of what to anticipate (or dread) from this author are likely to find that the fantasy world settings and characters provide a degree of relief and distancing from real-world predicaments. But unlike what we see in some better-known Dazai works, the outcomes here are not inevitably tragic; the narrator’s conclusion, as he struggles to derive some kind of meaning from the seemingly nonsensical goings-on of “Wen,” that the tale is a “tragicomedy of character,” might well be applied to the collection as a whole. One also notes
the presence of some benign themes that are rarely expressed so explicitly in his other writing. One of these is the emphasis on acceptance and desirelessness seen in three of the four stories, most prominently in the princess’s ideal of “divine resignation” in “Urashima-san” and the “gift of oblivion” through which she confers her own state of grace on the hero, which the narrator cites as an example of “the profound compassion that permeates Japanese fairy tales.” The stoic acceptance of loneliness in “The Stolen Wen” and the moments of silent recognition and tacit acknowledgement of gratitude at the end of “The Sparrow Who Lost Her Tongue” also resonate powerfully with the plight of an author and readers struggling to make their way through an ongoing calamity, with an uncertain outcome that they can do nothing to affect.

Another striking theme is the recurring appearance of refuges and utopias—the mountain forest in “The Stolen Wen,” where the old man goes to seek relief from his grim home life and finds a crew of happy-go-lucky ogres carousing; the undersea palace in “Urashima-san,” where you are free to do whatever you want without criticism; and the birds’ lodge in the bamboo grove in “The Sparrow Who Lost Her Tongue,” where another frustrated husband finds the warm companionship that is missing at home. None of these fantasy spaces provides a permanent escape, but in each case the protagonist is able to return home transformed, having found a kind of peace and better able to accept the vicissitudes that real life continues to throw at us. This cautiously reassuring note is all the more powerful for being sounded amidst those days and months of peril and fear. Dazai’s ability to rise to the occasion in this way is a main reason why these
uniquely fractured, reassembled, and amplified fairy tales offer us something richly delectable and rare not only in his own writing but in all of modern Japanese literature—or even literature as a whole. We are lucky to have them. Enjoy!


“Ah! There they go.”

The father lays down his pen and climbs to his feet. A warning siren won’t budge him, but when the antiaircraft guns start roaring, he secures the padded air-raid hood over his five-year-old daughter’s shoulders, takes her in his arms, and carries her to the bomb shelter in the garden. The mother is already huddled inside this narrow trench, their two-year-old son strapped to her back.

“Sounds pretty close, eh?” the father says to her.

“Yes. It’s awfully cramped in here.”

“You think?” he says in an aggrieved tone. “But this is just the right size, really. Any deeper and you run the risk of being buried alive.”

“It could be a little wider, though, couldn’t it?”

“Mm. Maybe so, but the ground’s frozen right now. It’s not that easy to dig. I’ll get to it,” he promises vaguely, in hopes of ending the discussion so he can hear news of the air raid from a neighbor’s radio.

No sooner have the mother’s complaints subsided, however, than the five-year-old begins demanding they leave the trench. The only way to quiet this one is to open a picture book.
Click-Clack Mountain
The Sparrow Who Lost Her Tongue
The Stolen Wen
... The father reads these old tales to the children.

BOOK: Otogizoshi: The Fairy Tale Book of Dazai Osamu (Translated)
10.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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