Dazai Osamu (1909-1948) was born about halfway between Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972) and Mishima Yukio (1925-1970) and Abe Kobo (1924-1993), and, in that generation following the Pacific War, when Japan was occupied by Americans, his celebrity came in between, too. Kawabata was an established writer while Mishima and Abe were building their early reputations (Mishima to establish his much younger), and Dazai was, for a time, the most distinguished writer in town--so an important 20th century Japanese novelist--making him Mishima's early competition. And Mishima saw him as representing all that he most despised in post-war Japanese fiction, hated to be compared to him.
Dazai became celebrated for two short novels, The Setting Sun and No Longer Human, both translated into English. I read both of them back when I was reading all the Japanese fiction I could get my hands on, but did not care for either, and have not read either again. The Setting Sun was published in 1947, and is set in those years shortly after the end of the war. It was a very popular novel, and the title came to represent Japanese of the upper classes who had fallen because of the war and American occupation. But Dazai was already well known for personal characteristics reflected in the major characters as well--nihilism, drunken dissipation, despair (a kind of model for our hippie generation)--so, although the central character is a young woman, Kazuko, the novel is read as strongly autobiographical. This is true for No Longer Human, too, which is perhaps even more autobiographical, and, as Donald Keene describes it, is "an attack on the habits and traditions of Japanese society, but above all ... a record of his alienation from society." (1063) I was not attracted to the narcissistic qualities in these two novels, or to the fact that Dazai, after having failed in two previous love suicides (in which the women succeeded) succeeded in a love suicide June 13, 1948 (he and the woman drowned in the Tamagawa Reservoir). I just didn't much like him or his characters--never used those novels in courses I taught.
But I did use one of his short stories, Villon's Wife, several times, because it was in the anthology I most frequently used in the survey course of Japanese Literature, Donald Keene's Modern Japanese Literature, and I actually came to like that story very much (sort of like Oe's The Catch, the exception that proves the rule). The husband in the story may be the closest self-portrait of all, and the most despicable, in his drunken dissipation, unfaithfulness, and unforgivable treatment of his wife, but the story is told by the wife, who, in her attempts to accommodate herself to all of this comes through as an attractive and courageous character--and you realize that even Dazai, in his more sober moments perhaps, must have appreciated her virtues. Anyway, that's the one I recommend--then, if you want to read either, or both, of the novels, you will be reading fiction that was very popular in Japan in the decade after the end of the war, and may, indeed, reflect some of the values in flux in that traumatic time, particularly for young Japanese who would have seen themselves as having lost everything.
I will be comparing Akutagawa to Edgar Allan Poe next month for their short lives and some of the qualities of their fiction, and it is easy to compare Dazai to Akutagawa (1892-1927), as well. Akutagawa was more of Tanizaki's generation, but died in his late 30s, as a suicide, as Dazai did. But, I am happy to say, I am very fond of Akutagawa--a highly disciplined literary artist.