Dazai Osamu is an author quite well-known amongst fans of Japanese literature. Born in 1909, he contributed greatly to the Japanese literary tradition with works such as No Longer Human (1948), The Setting Sun (1947) and a plethora of other novels and short stories, before taking his own life in 1948. He is mostly known for the darker and depressing themes he tackles in his work, which were mostly drawn by the horrendous events of World War II.
Being acquainted with the bleak and dreary side of Dazai’s writing, I was quite surprised when I started reading Blue Bamboo, a collection of seven tales inspired by Asian tradition and mythology. As Ralph McCarthy, the translator, informs us in the Introduction, all of the tales contained in this collection, apart from one, belong to Dazai’s “middle period”, one which is often neglected by both readers and scholars.
The first story, “On Love and Beauty”, caught my interest initially because of its structure. It begins by introducing us to the members of a family that consists of five brothers and sisters. Despite being completely different in their characters and interests, they have the tradition of making stories together. One of them comes up with the beginning and each one of the rest of them subsequently adds their own parts until the story is concluded. Dazai revisits this very interesting family in the last story of this collection, “Lanterns of Romance”, where we get the opportunity to become more acquainted with this curious family, as they embark on the journey of retelling a version of Brother Grimm’s “Rapunzel”.
“The Crysanthemum Spirit” and the title story, “Blue Bamboo”, are both stories based on old Chinese tales, but Dazai manages to add some elements of his own and make them quite distinctive. “Blue Bamboo” in particular, according to McCarthy’s notes, was even originally written in Chinese as Dazai meant for the Chinese people who were already familiar with the traditional tale to read and enjoy his own take on it.
Another retelling of a Japanese story this time was “The Mermaid and the Samurai”, which I did enjoy but it definitely was my least favourite. “Romanesque” is Dazai’s earliest story, written in 1934, and it is preceeded in the book by “Alt Heidelberg”, the only story which is not based on any myth or legend but which instead is a biographical account of the days Dazai spent whilst writing “Romanesque”.
Without meaning to sound biased, I absolutely adored this collection of short stories. I was already quite fond of Dazai’s writing from what I had read before, but seeing a literary face of his radically different from the significantly darker one presented in most of his later work, made me appreciate his literary aptitude and realize that apart from a deft storyteller and analyst of the human psyche, he is also a truly versatile author who is inspired by the tales of the past and doesn’t merely stick to writing a specific type of books.
Furthermore, I truly enjoyed the fairytale atmosphere and the humorous tone most of the stories contained. Myths and fairytales fascinate me no matter where they originate from and discovering old and new retellings of them is more than enough to make me excited. Regardless of whether or not you are familiar with Dazai’s work, I would highly suggest picking up this collection, as it is a real treasure.
I received a review copy from the publisher upon my request, but that does not affect my opinion of this book in the slightest.